Swift School Celebrates 75 Years
By: Karen Donnelly
Edgewater is known for the architectural landmarks within its boundaries - the Edgewater Beach Hotel and the numerous mansions that once rimmed the lakeshore, for example. Unfortunately, many of those landmarks have undergone façade changes, neglect or demolition.
But one building has remained pretty much the same since it was dedicated 75 years ago - Swift Elementary School. “The school now stands much as it was originally planned,” said its principal, Dr. Seymour Miller.
With Swift celebrating its diamond jubilee this summer, Dr. Miller recently compiled a history of the august institution.
The school was named for George Bell Swift, who became the 30th mayor of Chicago in 1893 after the untimely death of Mayor Carter Harrison. After serving out Harrison’s term, Swift was elected to the mayor’s office in 1895.
Swift also served as president of the Chicago Board of Education, an office he held at the time of his death in 1912. At that time, plans were being let for the school that would eventually be named for him.
As the school was being built, neighborhood residents decided that it should have a swimming pool, an amenity not included in the original plans. Those neighbors finally reached an agreement with board officials wherein the Board of Education would pay for maintenance of the pool, but the community would have to finance its construction. Residents raised $80,000, and the pool was installed.
“That’s a lot of money even now, and was considered even more back then,” Dr. Miller observed, “but nowadays you couldn’t replace that pool for a million dollars.” An Olympic swimmer, a Miss Nordstrom, was one of the school’s first swimming instructors.
Swift opened in February of 1914 and, since that time, only five people have served there as principals. Swift’s first principal was Harriet A. Eckhardt who, according to EHS member Frances Posner, “intensely tested pupil abilities and divided classes according to learning aptitudes.” She was succeeded by Hattie Listenfelt, Eileen Cunningham and Jean Kenning. Dr. Miller has been principal since 1972.
The Directory of the Public Schools of the City of Chicago, 1914-1915, lists Swift as having 503 pupils, 12 teachers, 24 rooms, a swimming pool, an assembly hall, a gymnasium and “equipment for manual training and cooking.” Per EHS member John Kraeger, the scale that was located outside the boiler room was used for weighing coal.
Frances Posner fondly recalls Swift’s Thorndale garden of flowering apple trees and the tall blue pine in the center ring of the winding walkways, which was planted by child and parent subscriptions. Also, thanks to child subscriptions, the graduates of Swift lost at war were commemorated with the planting of four trees next to inlaid bronze plaques along the sidewalk on Winthrop near the garden. Although the trees are long gone, three of the markers still remain.
The school has already started its diamond anniversary festivities. On April 21, they held a “modern” tree-planting ceremony that included the burying of a time capsule on the front lawn. Board of Education President Frank Gardner was on hand and Sen. Art Berman read a Senate resolution for the occasion.
June 2 was slated for an “open school” celebration from 3:30 to 9 p.m., with a buffet dinner starting at 5:30 p.m.
During the open house, Swift alumni were able to meet with former classmates in their old classrooms. Former teachers, staff and community residents were welcome. The remaining living past principals, Cunningham and Kenning, were also invited.
It’s “elementary,” of course, but the Edgewater Historical Society would like to formally extend our congratulations to Swift School on its diamond jubilee - a landmark building, a landmark year.