Nicholas Senn High School - The Early Years

Vol. XXIV No. 3 - FALL 2013

By: LeRoy Blommaert

This year Senn High School celebrates 100 years in Edgewater. The story of the school begins long before the students arrive.

The City of Chicago purchased lot 41 in the Kransz 3rd addition to Edgewater on January 28, 1911, for use as a school. This purchase was just one day after the subdivision had been recorded. Unlike the other Kransz subdivisions – and unlike almost all others in Edgewater as well – the subdivision had one lot that was much larger than the others; it was in fact immense – a full city block and greater in area than the other 40 lots to the north combined. This fact leads to the conclusion that the subdivision was planned with the intended sale of land to the City of Chicago for a school. It is also born out by Chicago Board of Education records.

A March 23, 1910, report from the Committee on Building and Grounds indicated that the Business Manager sought to buy approximately 10 acres of land bounded on the east by Southport (today’s Glenwood), on the west by Perry (today’s Greenview), on the north by Fransz (perhaps Kransz?, today’s Thorndale), and on the south by Francis (today’s Ardmore) for the proposed Senn High School, but was unable to reach an agreement with the owners on the amount of compensation.

The committee recommended that the land be acquired through the law of eminent domain. This action was not required, however, as the land was purchased; however, the threat of it might well have caused the Kransz family to subdivide this land sooner than they otherwise might have done.

The decision to create a high school in the Edgewater area was reached even before a specific site was sought. Its genesis was the severe overcrowding of Lake View High School, then as now at Ashland and Irving Park. It was the only public high school for Edgewater as well as Rogers Park students. In September 1908, a branch of Lake View High School was opened in the new Hayt Grammar School using a few the unused rooms. It was recommended in June 1908 for incoming freshmen students and was designed to be temporary–which it was. In March 1910, it was recommended by the Committee on Buildings and Grounds that the Rose Hill Grammar School, vacant since the opening of Stephen K. Hayt Grammar School in 1906, be fitted for use as a branch of Lake View High School.

The recommendation included upgrading the school building and adding a rear addition consisting of two large rooms. Presumably, the new branch opened in September 1910. This arrangement was also viewed as temporary as the decision for the building of a new school was made as early as March 1909, when the new school was officially named for Nicholas Senn, a prominent Chicago surgeon who died January 2, 1908.

The permit for the school building was issued in November 1911. The architect was A.F. Husssander, who was the chief architect for the Chicago Board of Education; the contractor was Frank Paschen; the dimensions for the building were 359x250 feet; and the estimated cost was $500,000.

The design of the building was developed several months earlier however. The Chicago Tribune reported on March 9, 1911, that the school would have 50 classrooms, each seating 40 students for a capacity of 2,000, an auditorium that could accommodate the entire student body, and a swimming pool. The same article included an accurate sketch of the front of the school.

The official opening day was February 3, 1913. That’s when the students left the Rosehill school with their teachers to enter the new school, which they could see as it was being constructed since there were only a few houses between the two school buildings. According to a November 24, 1929, Chicago Tribune article by Virginia Schmitz, “Teachers and students, two by two, headed by Kent Chatlain, the tallest boy, and with a bushel basket full of still life material from the art department bringing up the rear, marched across the prairie to their new home. Mr. Buck, who had decided to take over the school, was there at the door to greet them.” They received a chilly reception – not from Mr. Buck – but from the building itself: It was not finished. Windows were missing and the heating plant was not fully operational. For at least a week students were let out early.

When completed the school did not look like it does today. It did not have its two side wings. They were added later. Planning for the new wings began in 1931; however, because of funding problems they did not open until September 1934. It was only when the wings were completed that Senn was able to end double shifts and remove the portable classrooms that had been placed on the campus.

The original school was designed for 2,000 students with 40 students to a class. The surge in population in Edgewater and Rogers Park was so great that the school building very quickly outgrew its original capacity. Portables were brought on campus in 1919, and in 1922 the school went on double shift. In 1924 the enrollment reached 3,860; in 1929 it again climbed to 4,352. (1930 Senn Green Book)

The landscaped front campus we know and enjoy today also did not exist when the school first opened. For most of its life it was used for athletic practice. The landscaping was done much later.