The restored and renovated Sears Roebuck, and Co. powerhouse is now known as the Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, a LEED-platinum-hopeful charter high school in the Homan Square development in North Lawndale.
When the Sears powerhouse was mothballed in 2002, stationary engineer Tom Reidy, of Local 399, was the last to leave. “When I walked out,” Reidy says, “it was the same as it was when I got there that morning.”
Now, the great hall that once housed chillers, hydraulic pumps, and turbine generators has been transformed into the center’s entrance, assembly room, and cafeteria. Windows were restored and outfitted with double glazing, the skylight was upgraded with Kalwall panels, and the existing mezzanine was extended to accommodate a teachers lounge.
On the south side of the building, a massive system of catwalks was put in place to allow for a code-required third point of access to the fire department. Doubling as a shading device, the structure hangs off the original building frame. Doors from each classroom open onto the walkways to provide egress.
The basement level is used largely for faculty office space and special-education classes. Instead of erecting walls to create individual offices, the architects located faculty carrels around the massive poured-concrete arches that once served as a counterbalance to the generators and now bring a cloisterlike quality to the below-grade space.
The once-daunting maze of narrow hallways and conduits in the basement has been transformed into a brightly painted and welcoming space.
Working with the vocabulary of piping already in place, the architects chose to run wiring to teachers’ carrels and tutoring rooms through a series of cable trays that are suspended from the ceiling.
To preserve the building’s history, some of the historic elements were left in place (like the now-painted coal hopper). “We wanted the building to be an educational tool,” Homan Square Community Center Foundation president Kristin Dean says, “and to tell a story about energy production; how we used to produce energy 100 years ago, and how we produce it now.” The brick-clad coal chute was restored, and windows were installed so that students can look into the space from their new learning environment.
Massive ductwork that used to contain and direct the flows of super-heated steam was removed to make way for two new floor slabs, dividing the once 75-foot-high space into three classroom levels.
In the newly finished hallway a lattice beam was left exposed amid the new drywall and metal decking. Dusty and rusting spaces have been transformed by brightly painted walls and high-traffic carpet tile.
Machinery in the boiler side of the building (seen here) was removed to make way for a central staircase.
A central stair was added to provide circulation for students moving between floors. It is located in front of the restored coal chute and hung off original lattice beams. Where possible, the original structural elements were maintained, both to reinforce the building’s history and also to reduce new construction and renovation costs.
The top of the vast triple-height boiler room was originally capped with a glass skylight to allow daylight for the engineers working on the conglomeration of equipment below.
Now, the glass has been replaced with translucent panels, and an inserted slab creates a third floor of classrooms with a wide enough hallway to serve as an informal student gathering space.