West Town’s Motley School Going Residential, Possibly as a Landmark

The John Lothrop Motley Public School (Courtesy of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development)

The John Lothrop Motley Public School (Courtesy of the Chicago Department of Planning and Development)

Although the numbers show Chicago as a whole continuing to lose population, certain Chicago neighborhoods are flourishing.  Particularly those downtown and downtown-adjacent.  This is causing more and more of the city’s older buildings to be converted from offices, churches, and even schools into new residential housing.

One of the schools soon to be turned into housing is the old Motley School at 739 North Ada Street in West Town.  But before it goes from chalkboards to curtains, it’s up for landmark status at a meeting today of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

The John Lothrop Motley Public School was built in 1884 and designed by the Chicago Board of Education’s in-house architect John J. Flanders.  It gained its current size through an addition designed by Normand Smith Patton in 1898.

It was built at a time when Chicago was being flooded with new residents.  Farm families were moving to the city in droves from the west.  And from the east came wave after wave of immigrants, all seeking better lives in the city of big shoulders.  At the same time, modern social reforms were starting to take hold, which meant children were more often seen in schools than working rag-and-bone jobs on the street or toiling in factories.   Tiny fingers are good at tiny stitches.

The Motley school embodies the best social thinking of its era.  Tall windows to let in plenty of light and fresh air, and interesting architecture to help inspire creative little minds — the sorts of things we’re only rediscovering today after a generation of cinderblock cells.

But the Motley school outlived its usefulness and Chicago Public Schools closed it in 2013.  Not as it begins a new chapter in its life, it may enter old age with a badge of honor: A city landmark designation.

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development outlined why in the report it will present today:

  • The Motley School exemplifies the importance of Chicago’s public schools to the City’s social and cultural history.
  • Public education has historically been one of the most important responsibilities of Chicago government, and public school buildings often are visual and social anchors in the City’s neighborhoods. Opened in 1885, the Motley School was one such institution in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood for almost 130 years.
  • Motley’s design and expansion during the late nineteenth century reflects Chicago’s historic position as a major center of immigration. The school served the West Town community, which was one of Chicago’s largest foreign-born and first-generation populations.
  • Social reform in public education is also reflected in Motley’s rapid expansion. National laws aimed at reducing child labor and city laws requiring school attendance made education more attainable and increased attendance in Chicago’s public school system.
  • The Motley School is a handsome example of a school building, a building type of significance to the history of Chicago and its neighborhoods.
  • The building was finely executed with Renaissance Revival and Italianate style details in traditional materials, including red pressed-brick, limestone, and pressed metal, and exemplifies the fine craftsmanship that defines historic Chicago school architecture.
  • In its emphasis on large windows and high ceilings, which provided large, airy, well-lighted classrooms, the building reflects late-nineteenth century school design ideals.
  • The Motley School was designed by important late-nineteenth century Chicago architect John J. Flanders (1847-1914), architect of the Chicago Board of Education from 1884 to 1888 and from 1890 to 1893. A proponent of modern school design, Flanders designed over 50 schools in Chicago and developed several new Chicago school design prototypes, many of which like the Motley School remain intact.
  • Flanders’s architectural career was influenced by apprenticeships with several of Chicago’s significant early architectural firms. His work besides school buildings included, with his partner William Zimmerman, mansions for some of Chicago’s business elite.
  • The terra cotta details and asymmetrical form of Flanders’s 1884 prototype design are early design experiments, which Flanders developed and employed in his later school and residential designs.
  • The Motley School exhibits a high level of architectural integrity. No major additions or alterations have been made to the building since the historic 1898 additions were completed, leaving historic features, finishes, overall form, footprint, and location of entrances and arrangement of fenestration intact. While some window openings have been filled, original fenestration openings remain distinguishable from surrounding masonry. The building retains its original pressed metal cornice.
  • The interior of the building also retains a high level of character-defining features and finishes. It retains its general floor plan, circulation pattern, classroom layout, and original stairs.
  • Both the interior and exterior of the building retain sufficient integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association to convey its significance as a late- nineteenth century school building in Chicago’s Near West Side during a period of progressive education reform, increasing immigration, and social change.

Location: 739 North Ada Street, West Town

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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