A Look Inside Downtown Chicago’s Newest School

GEMS World Academy

Downtown’s Chicago’s newest elementary school is rapidly approaching completion.  GEMS World Academy Chicago (350 East South Water Street) looks fairly complete on the outside, and if it wasn’t for the construction hoist bolted to the southeast corner of the building, you might suspect from a distance that it is complete on the inside as well.

GEMS World Academy

Left to right: Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture; Margaret Cahow, Marketing Manager, GEMS Education – Americas; Ryan Hannon, Director of Admissions, GEMS World Academy Chicago; Lynne Sorkin, Associate Director, bKL Architecture; Peter Brown, Director of School Operations, GEMS World Academy Chicago; Geoff Jones, Founding Head of School, GEMS World Academy Chicago

This GEMS is the local outpost of GEMS Eduction, an international  company with a handful of schools in strategic cities from Britain to Kenya.  It is headquartered in Dubai, and has its current Chicago location in Lincoln Park.

GEMS’ arrival in this corner of Chicago was not without controversy.  When we started covering the possibility of a new school building two years ago, people assumed this was going to be the public school the city promised to plant here in 1979. And in 1993. And in 2002.  But Chicago Public Schools is in contraction mode, and this is a private school.

DNAInfo Chicago reports that patents will pay between $32,000 and $37,000 per year to shape their little boys and girls into little GEMS.  This makes it the most expensive private school in the city.  The clientele is well-heeled locals, jet-setters, and diplomats; which helps explain its location.  Recently published studies show Lakeshore East is routinely among the city’s highest income areas.  L.S.E. is also within walking distance of almost every foreign consulate in the city.

GEMS World Academy

Left to right: Lynne Sorkin, Associate Director, bKL Architecture; Peter Brown, Director of School Operations, GEMS World Academy Chicago; Thomas Kerwin, Principal, bKL Architecture

But this blog is about urban development, not education, so when GEMS invited us over for a  tour of the construction site, we were strapped into our hard hats faster than you could say, “Sign this dismemberment waiver.”

The GEMS building, like many buildings in Chicago’s New East Side, is positioned on the edge of what can be described as an artificial cliff in downtown Chicago.  The “ground” floor for outward-facing buildings like Aqua, 340 on the Park, and others is actually five to six stories above the actual ground.  Inward-facing buildings—those that face Lakeshore East Park—have their ground floors actually on the ground, and bridge the gap elegantly (Aqua and The Lancaster), awkwardly (The Shoreham and The Tides), or not at all (Blue Cross Blue Shield tower, 400 East Randolph).

The GEMS Chicago building incorporates this artificial elevation into its shape.  The building can be viewed as a two-stage design, with one smaller block sitting on top of a larger block.  The divide between the two is the neighborhood’s conventional “ground” floor, in this case North Upper Columbus Drive.   The smaller block on top is set back from the block below.  That’s not just an aesthetic choice, but a legal requirement, as set out in the city’s zoning code.

GEMS World Academy

View from the future dining hall

The result is some extra “roof” space that’s actually at “ground” level.  Friends-of-the-blog, bKL Architecture, took advantage of that curiosity by turning the extra square footage into an outdoor patio.  It runs the length of the south side of the building, overlooking the park, and is wedded to the cafeteria inside by floor-to-ceiling windows and doors. It can be used by the students during lunch, or after hours for activities, such as parent events.

When I suggested that it might serve well for the sort of wine-and-cheese fund-raisers so common in schools these days, I was very politely reminded by a GEMS official that this is not the kind of school that has or needs fundraisers.  Point taken. As I’ve grown older and my social status has changed over the decades, I’ve learned that the business definition of “class” isn’t what you can milk out of your clients, but the value you include in your product from the start.  It’s a lesson not yet learned by all of the so-called “luxury” apartment buildings in Chicago that nickel-and-dime their residents for every little fee then wonder why the most desirable of their residents move out and end up at buildings too classy to need the word “luxury” in their marketing.

GEMS World Academy

Future dining hall

Back on topic, the terrace is a nice touch, especially for those of us who remember sneaking out of school at lunch for a little fresh air and simulated freedom.  And it’s actually at the same height as the Three Forks Steakhouse’s outdoor patio on the other side of the park. So while executives from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois are snacking on an afternoon cheese and charcuterie plate, the children across the park will enjoy the same view, and probably food that’s not that much different.

The 170-seat cafeteria level is at the middle of the buildings, so classrooms extend both upward and downward, reducing the amount of travel time required for students to make the journey.  On the levels immediately above the dining hall there is a gymnasium, a science room, a music room, an art room, and a library.

GEMS World Academy

Future main reception area

The stairwells are extra wide to handle the floods of students during class changes, and are decorated so that they don’t look like utilitarian fire code afterthoughts.  Since this is the city, elevators are also available.  And if a teacher needs to move an large group of students as a single unit, that can be accomplished because  one of the elevators is super-sized so it can hold an entire class.

Hallways are also given extra attention here. Some have nooks built into them, complete with desks, benches, and computers, so that they can become impromptu teaching spaces for break-out sessions.  When the alcoves aren’t being used for teaching, their screens will be linked to similar screens in other GEMS schools on the other side of the planet, so the children in one school can see the children in another school changing classes and wave at each other and make faces, as children are wont to do.  It’s the sort of innovation that makes adults all giddy, but may be of limited practical use since the Chicago GEMS school is the only one in this hemisphere.  That means all the other GEMS schools could be closed for the night when our students are in session.  But just maybe an early group of students arriving in Chicago will see a late group of students in Dubai heading home.

Lower level classrooms are for the younger students, and the grades progress with the levels of the building.  “We have all of the homeroom classes on the same floor.  So, the second floor has all of the kindergarten classrooms, the next floor up has all of the first grade classrooms and so on,” says Peter Brown, Director of School Operations. “It’s very nice to have that opportunity so that entire floor’s students and faculty can work together and congeal as a grade level.”

GEMS World Academy

Future kindergarten classroom

The kindergartens will have 18 students each, and there will be 22 students in the other rooms.  All of the classrooms are on the south side of the structure, giving them views over the park, and the potential for lots of natural sunlight, even in winter.  The north side of the building is largely given over to infrastructure and other things that need less light.  So how do you keep young Maddyysin and little Jaiden from staring out the window at the park all day?  Good old fashioned window shades.

The only difference between the kindergarten classrooms and the older students’ classrooms is that the tykes have bathrooms in their classrooms, which makes sense considering that messiness is a universal trait of the very young.

The classrooms will naturally be kitted out with the latest technology, including a pair of 7o-inch Mondopad touchscreen panels that are the next thing better than a SmartBoard, which is the current iteration of the blackboard, and the reason you can’t punish a child by making them clap erasers anymore.  The classrooms will also be equipped with Xbox Ones.  Not for gaming, but for video conferencing and telekenetics.  Because, let’s face it, a state-of-the-art video game system is better, faster, and more robust than a state-of-the-art business videoconferencing system.  Sorry, Cisco salesmen.  You can stop cold-calling me now.

GEMS World AcademyWhen the kids aren’t learning or eating, they do get a chance to play.  Like other urban Chicago schools, GEMS will have a rooftop playground.  The kids will have the opportunity to use the public park across the street, as other private schools do with other public parks in the city.

Getting students in and out of the school has changed from the early incarnations of the GEMS plan.  The original scheme was to have parents pick-up and drop-off their children on East Lower Wacker Drive, and there was much talk about this finally being the change agent needed to clean up this stubbornly gritty section of downtown.  Even this past winter’s polar vortices couldn’t convince the piles of homeless to seek shelter better than the Swissôtel’s exhaust vents.

The new plan is to actually route the parents between the two GEMS buildings. Mr. Brown characterizes it as a safety issue, “One of the areas where children are most likely injured when it relates to school is when they’re crossing the street. They get hit by vehicles.”

Architect Tom Kerwin notes, “It keeps all of the traffic off of the public way, and off of Upper Wacker.”  In addition, the school is connected to Chicago’s pedway system, allowing children who live in Aqua, The Tides, Columbus Plaza, and other forward-looking buildings to go to school in the dead of winter without ever having to go outside.

GEMS World AcademyOverall, it’s obvious that a lot of thought was put into the school.   Yet, in spite of all the whiz-bang technology, it still has to function as a school at its heart.   Separating classroom and circulation sections of the building is a good adaptation to the fact that a quarter of the facade faces a multi-level highway.  The part that faces the park tries hard to fit in with both that natural element and the ring of skyscrapers of which it has become a part.  The addition of multi-colored exterior panels is a visual clue that this structure is geared toward children.  

But unlike a public school which can be constructed with an if-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality, this school is a commercial enterprise, and therefore has to show off.  “This is [GEMS] first building in America, and it’s part of the marketing.  So they paid top dollar for a premium site, and they really want the building to be  part of the marketing,” Mr. Kerwin says.

This building will be measured by a different yardstick than a public school would.  And because of that we won’t have to wait 50 or 60 years to find out if it’s a success.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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