When the team from Chicago-based Farr Associates interviewed in 2005 for the commission for the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, they were given a tour of the site: a red-brick powerhouse filled to the brim with boilers, coal chutes, and the flotsam and jetsam of Chicago’s industrial past. The building originally supplied heat and electricity to the vast Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus on the city’s West Side; Sears vacated the property in the early 1990s.

The current owner, the Homan Arthington Foundation, was determined to include the powerhouse in its ambitious revitalization of the adjacent historic neighborhood of North Lawndale. A partnership with Chicago Public Schools’ Renaissance 2010 project—charged with creating 100 new charter schools—and the Henry Ford Learning Institute clarified the program for the renovation: The powerhouse would be a green charter high school.

Completed in 1905, the Nimmons & Fellows–designed powerhouse incorporated neoclassical cornices and decorative medallions in its facade. The great hall, which occupies the entire northern half of the 90,000-square-foot building, was filled with generators until the 1950s, when Sears moved to the power grid and the space was turned over to air conditioning equipment. Nimmons & Fellows finished the hall’s interior in glazed Tiffany brick, with large windows and a lengthy ribbon of skylight. The building’s south side held the boilers.

For 50 years, daily freight trains pulled up along the south side of the building and dropped coal into a basement pit. From there, it was carried by a system of conveyors up three stories before being portioned into 100-ton capacity hoppers located over the boilers. The boilers generated superheated steam, which was used to produce electricity and to heat the other campus buildings, which housed Sears’ corporate and mail-order operations.

In the 1970s, a shift was made to gas- and oil-fueled boilers. But the new equipment—when not a direct replacement—was placed in and around the old, creating a historic record of power generation in the 20th century. The Sears complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Nonetheless, many of the buildings on the campus were demolished.

The powerhouse was officially mothballed in 2002, though some equipment was still called upon to provide hot water until the renovation began in 2006.

In 2005, when Farr Associates took on the project, firm principal Jonathan Boyer says, “We had experience with schools, sustainability, and historic preservation, so the idea was to use this [expertise] to create an environment that could be used as a didactic teaching tool.” The goal was to create a LEED Platinum high school replete with modern technologies, while restoring the original structure and some of the machinery to preserve a sense of the building’s past. The budget was tight: $40 million in total, amassed by a unique mix of historic and new market tax credits and private fundraising.

But before the renovation could begin, an extensive interior demolition process was necessary. To see how much could be preserved, the architects climbed what Boyer describes as a series of “Piranesi-like catwalks,” examining beams and bearing walls for structural stability. Despite their best efforts, surprises emerged throughout the construction process. Upon removing the coal bins, for instance, they discovered that beams deemed more than sufficient to support infill floors had in fact been eroded by sulfur. And toxic materials necessitated extensive remediation.

When the building opened three years later, in time for the 2009 school year, all signs of the epic design and demolition process had been erased. Today, students enter into the restored great hall, which still retains its glazed brick and much of the original floor tile. Anything too damaged to be retained was replaced with in-kind materials. The space is now used for assemblies and as a cafeteria; a mezzanine houses a teachers lounge.

From the hall, doorways cut through the original thick brick dividing wall and into the classroom wing, once home to the plant’s massive boilers. What was once a 75-foot-high space laced with catwalks and open metalwork stairs has been subdivided into three floors to accommodate lab spaces and classrooms. These rooms still show signs of the building’s original purpose—one has a preserved section of conveyor, and others, the trapezoidal bases of the coal hoppers. “Every space has a different morphology and different historic elements,” Boyer notes. “That uniqueness is what gets you interested in the space.”

The biggest structural move in the project was one that no one foresaw. The fire department decided mid-build that the slope of the access road was too steep for fire engines to navigate (cutting off code-required access), so the architects devised a massive system of steel catwalks and stairs on the building’s south side, hung off of the original structural frame and accessible from every classroom. The system doubles as a shading device.

Other green measures include a field of 84 350-foot-deep geothermal wells, a rainwater retention garden, and a green roof. The architects submitted enough credits to achieve LEED Platinum, and the final rating will be handed down in the coming months.

To some locals, “the reason the school is exciting is because of everything else that’s already here,” says Kristin Dean, president of the Homan Square Community Center Foundation. She refers to the adjacent Homan Square development, begun by developer Charles Shaw in 1988 as part of a three-pronged approach to the revitalization North Lawndale—provide safe, affordable housing; provide jobs; and provide community services. Homan Square offers 300-plus housing units and a community center that opened in 2001. “It’s truly mixed income housing,” says Dean. “People who have Section 8 vouchers and a partner in a law firm live in the same block.”

The Shaw Technology and Learning Center project rallied more than just the neighbors: There were more than 600 applicants for the school’s 120 9th-grade slots; eventually there will be 460 students in grades 9–12. Substitute teacher Charlotte Fletcher, who is also a 12-year resident of Homan Square, has nothing but praise. “It’s just absolutely beautiful,” says Fletcher of the school. “It’s almost like the students’ minds are free when you walk in there. They’ve got everything they need to work with to be creative and successful in their lives.”

Project Credits

Project Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center
Client Homan Arthington Foundation
Architect Farr Associates, Chicago—Jonathan Boyer (design principal); Rose Grayson (project manager); Amy Calvanese (interior design)
Contractor Pepper Construction Co.
M/E/P Engineer IBC Engineering
Structural Engineer CE Anderson and Associates
Landscape Architect Conservation Design Forum
Historic Preservation MacRostie Historic Advisors; Kellermeyer, Godfryt, Hart
Commercial Kitchen Consultant Edge Associates
Commissioning Agent dbHMS
Size 90,000 square feet
Cost $40 million

Materials and Sources

Acoustics Pyrok Acoustement pyrokinc.com
Ceilings Certainteed certainteed.com
Carpet InterfaceFlor interfaceflor.com
Flooring Dal-Tile (ceramic tile, quarry tile) daltile.com; Stonepeak Ceramics (porcelain tile) stonepeakceramics.com; Armstrong (linoleum flooring) armstrong.com; Johnsonite (rubber baseboard) johnsonite.com
Furniture Haworth haworth.com
Glass PPG (Solarban) ppg.com; Oldcastle Glass oldcastleglass.com
Gypsum USG usg.com
Insulation Johns Manville (blown-in and batt insulation) johnsmanville.com
Lighting Finelite finelite.com
Masonry Boston Valley Terra Cotta terraclad.com
Metal David Architectural Metals davidarchitecturalmetals.com
Millwork Custom millwork with Forbo Marmoleum forbo.com
Paints and finishes PPG Pittsburgh Paints pittsburghpaints.com
Pavers Egra Stone
Plumbing and water systems Sloan Valve sloanvalve.com
Roofing Firestone Building Products (Ultraply TPO) firestonebpco.com; Pac-Clad Petersen Aluminum (flashing) pac-cladmetalroofing.com
Signage ASI Signage Innovations asisignage.com
Site and Landscape Products Provided by Christy Webber Landscapes christywebber.com
Wallcoverings Forbo (pinup surfaces) forbo.com
Walls Hufcor (moveable walls) hufcor.com
Windows Traco (aluminum windows) traco.com; Hunter Douglas Contract (window coverings) hunterdouglascontract.com