Peirce Celebrates 75th Anniversary
By: Kathy Gemperle
Helen C. Peirce School at Bryn Mawr near Glenwood opened its doors in the fall of 1915. This year it celebrates 75 years of dedication to public education. An Open House is planned for November 16 at the school, and a special dinner will be held at the McCormick Hotel Center across from McCormick Place on November 17.
The history of the school is filled with fascinating facts that lend insight to what it was like to live and learn in Edgewater as time passed and things changed.
It all started on January 26, 1912, when the Board of Education Committee on Buildings and Grounds approved the building of a new school at 1423 W. Bryn Mawr. It was Edgewater’s third public grade school, needed because of the burgeoning number of housing units being built in the area. Keeping with a 1902 policy of the Board of Education, the site acquired for the school was large enough to include a playground so that children would not have to play in the streets. When the doors opened on September 6, 1915, 510 students were welcomed by 12 teachers and Principal Mrs. Inger Scholdager.
The school was dedicated to Mrs. Helen Peirce, the founding President of the Lake View Women’s Club. Mrs. Peirce’s death in 1911 had occasioned a petition by the club to name a school in her honor because she had worked tirelessly to improve the lives and education of many during her years in Chicago.
In 1893, Peirce had become involved in the creation of the first kindergarten, the Prescott School Free Kindergarten. It was located at the Clay Holes near Greenview and Altgeld, an area that many poor families called home. Her participation in the Kindergarten Movement and her desire to improve the educational and cultural experiences for all people made Helen Peirce an outstanding citizen of our city and a worthy person to honor in the naming of a school.
Helen Peirce was born in India of English parents in 1840. Her father, a decommissioned British officer, moved the family to Canada and planned to relocate to Chicago. And so Helen came to Chicago as a youngster, with her family, to live near an aunt, although her father died en route. Sadly, a short time later, her mother and aunt also died in Chicago. Helen then was doubly adopted - by the Reese family who raised her and by her new country, America.
The school named for Helen Peirce has, through the years, met the needs of many who have come to a new country. Some of Peirce’s early graduates remember children of Swedish, German and Polish descent who came to Peirce speaking little or no English. Today the student body boasts 20 different countries of origin and there are 14 bilingual programs to help children with the English language. For all of these young immigrants, Helen C. Peirce is truly a great role model. School and namesake had been unwittingly but perfectly matched.
The Lake View Women’s Club took the dedication of the school to Helen C. Peirce very seriously and planned a special dedication ceremony on November 15, 1915. They collected some 114 paintings, including two portraits of Mrs. Peirce, to hang in the school hallways and classrooms. Some of the pictures were done by students of the School of the Art Institute who copied famous masterworks held at the museum. Mr. Luther Peirce contributed $5000 toward the development of this special collection.
Mr. Peirce suddenly became ill in October 1915 and passed away leaving a bequest of $30,000 for the beautification of the school and grounds. At the direction of the executors of the estate, the funds were turned over to the Board of Education to be used for the school. The Lake View Women’s Club lost access to the funds but refused to abandon the project of bringing artwork to the school. They continued to develop the art collection for many years.
The Board of Education decided to spend the funds for Peirce on the development of a special kindergarten room with a little stage, a sun room or solarium and a private playground with a wading pool. Between 1915 and 1925, when all the funds were expended, a beautiful playground designed by Jens Jensen, a famous Chicago landscape architect, was installed west of the school building.
Everett Stetson remembers that a large area of the playground was divided with walkways, many shrubs were planted and there were stone benches. The special kindergarten wading pool was located in the northwest section. According to Polly Halliday, the wading pool was surrounded by flagstones. But this beautifully designed space sadly did not survive intact to the next decade.
The school continued to grow and prosper with the energies of the teachers and principal. Many apartment buildings in Edgewater were built between 1910 and 1929. As more housing was built, more people moved into the area. In 1927, Mrs. Mary McMahon took over as principal, replacing the retiring Mrs. Scholdager. Her assistant principal was Mattie Ryan, who was to continue at Peirce until 1965. During the years under Mrs. McMahon, a junior high was created.
Evalyn L. McClanahan Halliday (‘28) remembers her days at Peirce fondly. She recalls many activities and classes that helped develop a “feeling of accomplishment.” An arrangement of manual training classes and wood shop for boys and cooking and sewing for girls was very exciting for the young people. After one semester of these classes, the boys and girls could switch. Several women have mentioned how much fun the carpentry was for them, but no one could remember the boys taking cooking!
As for sewing, Evalyn (Polly) remembers the difficult time she had sewing her graduation dress in class because she had chosen a slippery material. It was lavender and Polly says she remembers it well because of the frustration it caused her. Nevertheless, the dress turned out just fine!
1928 was a campaign year and Everett Stetson remembers a special event at the school. All the students were sent out to stand on the sidewalk along Bryn Mawr to watch the motorcade of candidate Al Smith drive by and, of course, the children were instructed to wave.
The 1930s brought continued growth in the school population. In 1935, Mrs. McMahon retired and the new principal, Miss Mildred Fahy, faced a school with 24 classrooms, 26 teachers and 1082 students. (That’s 45 students per classroom, for those who think “overcrowding” is purely a late 20th century invention!) Portable classrooms had to be placed on what is now the teacher’s parking area. As early as 1904, the Board of Education had made a policy decision that portable classrooms were to be used wherever necessary to relieve overcrowding and were to be preferred over rental space.
In 1936, the school children planted a maple tree to honor Mrs. McMahon. By 1937, it was apparent that the recreational needs of this crowded school were not being met. A lobbying effort began with a “Recreation Rally” on December 3, 1937. By December 7, Mayor Kelly had promised $30,000 to provide both play equipment and a field house for after-school recreation.
The dedication of the field house and playground took place a mere 10 months later, on October 14, 1938, with much fanfare. Mayor Kelly, Alderman Keenan and Principal Mildred Fahy were photographed at the event and the photo later appeared in Mayor Kelly’s reelection literature. By current standards, the speed with which this project was completed, from rally to installation, is astounding.
With the playground in place, more activities were available for Peirce and neighborhood children. Mr. Fred Gohl came to Peirce and established a skating program which became renowned both city and country-wide. In the early 1950s, student Donna MacKenzie won championships in both indoor and outdoor events in the State, National and North American Meets.
Philip O. Krumm, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1973 to 1977, got his start in speed-skating on the Peirce playground, which was frozen every winter. The amateurs who skated there with him eventually formed six or seven skating clubs which have since produced almost all the American Olympic speed skaters. Mr. Krumm helped form and was the first president of the U.S. International Speedskating Association.
The students and parents at Peirce extended themselves to augment the programs at school and help families in need. It was an active community and no request for assistance was ignored. Funds were raised to expand the library as well.
In an outpouring of support for the school, a gathering of parents voted to form the Peirce School PTA in 1935. This group’s primary goal was to provide for any need of the children and school that the Board of Education could not meet. Children were taken to performances at the Goodman Theater and involved in special reading groups.
In 1943, the student population dropped to 803 due, in part, to the population drop during the Depression, relocation caused by the war build-up and relocation for military training. During WWII, students and parents alike helped by sewing clothing for the needy and taking classes in first aid. In the postwar era, school enrollment dropped even further to 703.
In 1945, Principal Fahy married Mr. John Shea. In 1952, Mrs. Mildred Fahy Shea died after an illness and a chime clock for the school office was purchased in her memory. Miss Mattie Ryan continued as assistant principal and we can imagine the responsibilities she shared, as the new principal, Rachel Smiley, came in to take the helm.
During the postwar building boom of the 1950s, Edgewater lost some population to the suburbs, but immigrants from Korea, Mexico and Greece found their way to Edgewater and made it home. As usual, Peirce took care of its youngsters from other countries as well as the homegrown brood. Principal Smiley introduced a reading cycle in the middle grades, some French classes and special classes for non-English speaking students.
In 1956, Miss Smiley married David Lamoreaux. That same year the Peirce PTA instituted a Book Fair to bring more and better quality literature into the homes of its students. PTA membership reached 845 with many active people giving many hours to improving the school.
In 1960, Mr. John Burke came to Peirce as principal. Mattie Ryan continued as assistant principal until 1965, when she retired and Robert Gallagher assumed her position. The ’60s proved to be a period of growth for Peirce School and its very active PTA. Portable classrooms were needed again - and in these years they were called “Willis wagons” after Superintendent Benjamin Willis. Mr. Burke reorganized the departmental program and developed an intensive kindergarten program to create a successful early educational experience.
During this decade, Chicago and Edgewater became home to many Cuban people in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution. Once again, another new immigrant group was able to benefit from the many programs at Peirce. Principal Burke worked on outreach to the non-English speaking parents with information about school procedures, requirements and where to find adult English classes.
The PTA advanced many special projects and events. Phyllis Hartoch (PTA President 1961-1963) remembers the fun of Family Night. Among the features of the event were the famous Peirce Fudge and an original recipe for Sloppy Joes. There were booths of homemade food, taffy apples, white elephants and penny candy. There were movies to see and the Scouts ran games.
The yearly Book Fair was a popular special event that brought the students and parents in contact with some terrific books which could be ordered and delivered to the children’s classrooms.
The Peirce PTA was tremendously well organized and coordinated, according to Phyllis. Membership was high and responsive to the needs of the school. Hardbound books were purchased for the library, for example, and a new electric bell system was installed. For Phyllis, that brought to mind a recollection from the ’30s when her husband Milt’s brother had a very important role in the school: Mr. Hartoch played the piano at the top of the third floor stairwell as the children marched into the school in the morning. It was indeed a different time.
Budget consolidation by the Board of Education took its toll in the 1970s. One of the biggest changes was the elimination of hands-on classes for grade school children. By 1978, there were no more home economics or manual training classes at Peirce. The focus changed to “back to the basics.” Many people in the community, however, continued to be involved at the school as the neighborhood continued to grow in population.
The 1980s were a decade of transition. In 1981, Mr. Burke retired. Mrs. Dorothy Stevens replaced him and served as principal from 1982 until 1984, at which time Mr. Harvey Courtney assumed the position. In 1985, the current principal, Mrs. Janice Rosales, took over the leadership of Peirce School. Throughout the ’80s, parents, teachers, principals and students worked hard to make the school programs successful. In 1989, the school participated in an all-out effort to help more children obtain library cards.
As we look back over the years in celebration of Peirce’s 75th year anniversary, we see a school community which has placed a strong value on working together for the common good, on looking to the arts and self-expression as vehicles for learning, on developing both a team spirit and individual excellence and has demonstrated a strong concern about recreation as the place and opportunity for the recreation of the person.
We wish the graduates, their parents and the staff of Peirce School congratulations on a job well done and many happy memories of their days at Peirce.