For a moment at least, Ed Zwick is no longer 38, a man at the top of his game, the creator and coexecutive producer of the television drama thirtysomething. He is Eddie Zwick, a kid in the late 50s and early 60s at grammar school in Winnetka. “My first memory of Crow Island is of the physical plant. It was an extraordinary setting–the woods, the hills surrounding the playground, and the field out past some of the classrooms. It was a magical world of open space, a spectacular place to be a kid. I played chess there. I read books and acted in my first play, Huckleberry Finn. No, I’m wrong–it was Tom Sawyer.”
Crow Island School is a one-story, redwood and brick structure on Willow Road. After it opened in September 1940, many viewed it as the most novel public school in the nation. It broke the mold. The classrooms weren’t rectangular but L-shaped, each with a separate bathroom, an exit to a private courtyard, and a wall of windows that let the outside in. Everything from blackboards to light switches was sized down to fit a child. Crow Island added luster to the names of two of its architects–Eliel and Eero Saarinen–and made the reputation of its other designers, a partnership that became the Chicago firm of Perkins and Will.
Two generations of youngsters have graduated from Crow Island. One weekend in late October scores of alumni, along with families of present students, gathered in Winnetka to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the school. Saturday brought an alumni picnic and a dinner dance. On Sunday a ceremony marked the school’s entry onto the National Register of Historic Places. Homage was paid to Crow Island’s architects, and occasionally someone paid respect to the memory of Carleton Washburne.
Washburne was the schools superintendent in Winnetka when Crow Island was conceived and built. An independent-minded promoter, he had concocted his own rather hodgepodge version of progressive education in Winnetka over the previous 20 years, and in Crow Island he sought to actualize his ideas in bricks and mortar. “This is to be our dream school,” he said. “For years we have been thinking about it. We want it to be the most functional and beautiful school in the world. We want it to crystallize in architecture the best educational practices we can evolve.”
Crow Island and its surroundings bespeak Washburne’s idiosyncratic vision. Yet if the school has succeeded, it owes less to the building and the curriculum than to the spirit with which Washburne endowed a seemingly conservative Winnetka. “I was eager to go to school every day, and happy to return the next day,” says Ed Zwick. “I don’t know exactly what it was, but the love I had of school came from Crow Island.”
In Winnetka spacious houses sit back along quiet tree-lined streets, on which Volvos and BMWs cruise about. The residents are prosperous; according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the per capita income stood at $42,554 three years ago, making Winnetka the third-wealthiest Chicago suburb. Everyone appears well mannered and civilized, or so it seemed until recently.
Laurie Dann’s shooting spree of 1988, followed by the murder this past spring of a young couple in their home, etched the name of Winnetka onto the national consciousness. Washburne would have doubtless been crushed. His whole career was aimed at making the Winnetka schools–and himself–seem altogether farsighted.
Washburne was only 29 years old in 1919, when he arrived from California to become Winnetka’s schools superintendent. He was an ambitious young man with already defined views on education.
Born on December 2, 1889, in Chicago, Carleton was the son of Marion and George Washburne. George, an obstetrician, left his family behind in 1898 to join the gold rush to the Klondike. He returned to Chicago in rough financial shape, and moved his family to Elkhart, Indiana, and subsequently to Elgin. “He wasn’t with his father very much,” says Carleton’s daughter, Margaret Plagge. “His father wasn’t influential on his thinking.” Carleton’s mother was another matter.
Marion Washburne lectured on philosophy, public affairs, and religion, and came to know both John Dewey, the University of Chicago professor who founded its laboratory school, and Francis Parker, a raspy-voiced educator who was principal of Cook County Normal School in Englewood and lent his name and ethos to the north-side school that reflected his beliefs. Parker was convinced that learning comes best through activity rather than memorization, and that children, even young ones, should be encouraged to think for themselves, with the teacher as guide, not taskmaster. Parker also thought that parents should be intimately involved in their offspring’s schooling.
Carleton Washburne’s own academic career was checkered. He attended Francis Parker and John Marshall High School and graduated from secondary school in Elgin. For two years he studied premed at the University of Chicago, then enrolled at a local medical college for a year. Finally, he transferred to Stanford University, where he changed his major to psychology. “I decided I did not want to spend my life working with sick people,” he would later write of his decision to abandon the career of his father and maternal grandfather.
Washburne graduated from Stanford in 1912 and had a hard time finding work until he saw a sign in a window advertising for teachers. He did duty as head of a two-room rural school in Los Angeles County and as a special-education teacher in Tulare, California. Washburne soon became disillusioned with the prevalent instructional practice, in which a teacher led a whole class at a uniform pace. Then the Tulare schools superintendent presented Washburne with a monograph by an educator named Frederic Burk. “It was balm to my soul,” Washburne later wrote. “Here was a man who saw what I saw, who was on fire about the stupidity of ignoring the differences among children, and who, with vastly more knowledge and experience than I, was pointing out a road by which schools could be fitted to children.”
Burk was principal of the San Francisco Normal School, an elementary facility attached to a teacher-training college. “The class system does permit violence to all types of pupils,” Burk wrote in “A Remedy for Lock-Step Schooling,” the monograph Washburne found so inspiring. “It does injury to the rapid and quick-thinking pupils, because these must shackle their stride to the mythical average.” The slow students were even worse off, he argued. “Necessarily, they are carried off their feet by the momentum of the mass. They struggle along, with greater or less pretense, but eventually they are discovered and put back into the next lower class.”
Burk propounded the notion that children learn best when they proceed at their own rate, not in tandem with their peers. He developed materials through which students could teach themselves, digesting small bites of a subject and then passing tests to confirm their mastery; those falling behind would catch up by using supplementary practice materials.
In 1914 Burk hired Washburne, who had corresponded with him and was then director of an Oakland city playground. At the Normal School Washburne toiled on a project that examined phenomena common to preadolescents (and later served as the basis of his PhD thesis at Berkeley). He also administered intelligence tests on the side. Washburne was born again. “For the first time I saw education as a science, a technique, an art, and a philosophy, all in one.”
Meanwhile, change was afoot halfway across the country. In 1918 Winnetka was a small suburb (population 5,285) where the percentage of unskilled laborers narrowly beat the percentage of business tycoons, according to a study from the period. The poorer families sent their children to the public schools, while the wealthier patronized private schools, including Francis Parker. But the reform-minded board of education, chaired by the owner of an ornamental-iron factory, Edwin Fetcher, wanted to improve the public schools. Board member Edward Yeomans, a pump manufacturer, wrote to his colleague Laird Bell, an attorney, on the subject of “raising education a notch or two.” He stated, “It seems to me that Winnetka is the most likely place in the Midwest for such a thing to happen, but it will only happen if we resist the temptation to conformity and conservatism and ‘safety first’ in general and get a school and school spirit which will meet the appraisal of a person like Dewey.”
The board concluded that E.N. Rhodes, the sitting superintendent, was unequal to the task and went searching for a replacement. Board member Gertrude Lieber had read Burk’s monograph and was intrigued enough to show the book to Yeomans, who wrote Burk. Burk walked into Washburne’s office. “How would you like to have charge of the public schools in a small town near Chicago where they want to try out some of our ideas?” he asked. Washburne leapt to his feet, crying, “It’s exactly what I want!”
There was concern in Winnetka about Washburne’s youth, the radical educational views he espoused, and the circumstances of his marriage. When Washburne met Heluiz Bigelow Chandler in San Francisco in 1912, she was an art student from Philadelphia. The couple wed ten days after becoming acquainted, agreeing beforehand on certain stipulations. “They never called what they agreed to a contract, but in a sense it was,” says Margaret Plagge. “They had discussed all aspects of their life, and their basic philosophy was that if they fell out of love, they wouldn’t stay together. They were daring people, but they knew that lots of marriages failed, and they wanted to be prepared.” A journalist friend of Washburne’s subsequently wrote about the couple’s notions, which shocked readers. “It wasn’t a free-love matter,” says Plagge. “Actually, my parents were extremely loyal and faithful to each other. But that’s how it came out.” In any event, the Winnetka school board took Washburne more as a freethinker than as a hedonist and hired him.
Washburne started as superintendent in May 1919. During the 24 years that he presided over a junior high and three elementary schools, Washburne forged what he hoped would be a model for the nation. Essentially what he did was to blend into one system the two educational strains of his formative years–the activity-based progressivism of John Dewey and Francis Parker and the self-instruction procedures of Burk.
Washburne began with certain subjects that he classified as the “common essentials”–arithmetic, reading, writing, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, history, and geography. A young Winnetkan would master these basics using the techniques of self-instruction.
In arithmetic, for instance, the teacher would present a unit on subtraction. Students would do exercises in a workbook prepared by the Winnetka public schools. After completing an exercise, they would take a pretest on their knowledge. If they passed, they’d proceed; if not, the workbook would furnish an explanation and then more subtraction exercises. A second failure brought even more exercises until, hopefully, everyone passed. All the while the teacher would be available to buck up those who were falling behind.
Some subjects required different methods. In spelling, tests were used to determine how good a speller a student was, followed by study, dictation, and more tests.
But whatever the subject, Washburne felt the common essentials had to be quantified. The Department of Educational Research (DER) was established to conduct the diagnostic tests and do research. The superintendent dispensed with grades (at least into the mid-1930s), moving instead to what were called “goal cards,” which summarized how a child had done on diagnostic tests attached to the overall objectives for a subject. The more marks you earned, the better.
Everything was counted up. One piece of research had 15 teachers sitting around trying to divine, by sifting through newspapers and magazines, how many references they all had in common. They came up with 81,434 different people and places, of which 61,000 had surfaced six or more times. As a result, their history texts were tailored to better reflect everyday life. A committee of librarians decided which books were most appropriate for children of a given age by determining the number of different words occurring per 1,000 words and the number of simple sentences found per 75 sentences.
Reading was the one area that lacked a self-instruction workbook or even an anthology. A child was expected to complete between 20 and 30 books a year from a list of approved titles. Everything else had its self-instruction text. “I remember the brown arithmetic books,” sighs retired teacher Marion Stern, a 75-year-old veteran of Crow Island. “They were the most didactic things you ever saw.” In 1925 the Winnetka Educational Press, a subsidiary of the Winnetka schools, began publishing self-instruction editions for sale to other school systems.
The texts offered the hope that students could achieve 100 percent proficiency in the basic subjects, obviating the need for anyone to repeat a grade. In Washburne-era Winnetka few kids ever flunked, and the faculty never tracked kids into fast or slow groups. But tracking would have been unlikely. “In my 12 years in Winnetka I can’t remember but one kid who was below the IQ norm,” says Stern.
Yet though Washburne was subjecting the children of Winnetka to this basic-skills regimen, he was also setting them free. “Initiative, originality and creativeness are highly desirable in many fields,” wrote Washburne, referring to science, art, and some aspects of social studies. Under the direction of a former Parker teacher named Frances Presler, half the school day came to be devoted to “group and creative activities.” Through third grade, science dealt exclusively with nature experiences–field trips, growing plants, caring for pets, and simple experiments. Classes built mock pueblos and hogans out of orange crates and other materials. There were group discussions and creative writing, plus frequent assemblies, bazaars, and pageants. A singing program started with simple folk songs in the lower grades and concluded with junior-high students executing Bach chorales.
In 1926 S. Rae Logan became principal of the junior high where children from Crow Island went, the Skokie School, and with Washburne’s blessing spawned the Skokie “miniature community.” The much-touted community was a collection of student-run cooperatives. The Biology Bureau of Bees sold honey and encouraged nature study. The Livestock Corporation hatched chickens, raised rabbits, and manufactured cages. Kids who needed money for a phone call could seek a loan from the credit union, which cost 15 cents to join. Those fearful of breaking dishes in the lunchroom could seek coverage from an insurance firm. There was even a dishwashers’ union.
If Washburne prevailed with his education strategy, which became known as the Winnetka Plan, it was in large part because he so artfully enlisted the instructors in his cause. He courted prospective teachers with great deliberation, interviewing them four or five times and then observing at the school where they taught. He looked for intellectuals–it was better if you were a reader of the Atlantic Monthly or the New Republic. “He favored persons who had warm, vivid personalities, and was anxious to avoid those who fitted what he considered the old-maid stereotype,” wrote John Tewksbury in his 1962 thesis on the Washburne era. He went against the grain by hiring married females, but he conformed to community standards by paying married men $1,000 more a year.
Washburne stood six feet two. “He was not fat but what I’d call thick,” recalls Marion Stern. “His complexion was ruddy, and he had light brown eyes that sparkled.” He spoke with a slight lisp and an endless amount of enthusiasm, punctuated by a hearty laugh. “You couldn’t help but be charmed by him, even if you didn’t want to be,” Stern says. “He was an ebullient man. When he walked in a room, you knew somebody had entered. Many teachers had a kind of love affair with him–not a physical one but an emotional one.”
Regular teacher meetings took on a character all their own. “We were like a family,” Charlotte Carlson, a longtime elementary school teacher, said at a symposium in 1955. “We would sit in the Kate Dwyer Room at Skokie School–all cozy and comfortable in the middle of a winter day, with a fire in the fireplace–and we’d talk about anything.” Carlson described Washburne as being “just like a father.” In general, teachers were encouraged to approach the superintendent with any idea they wanted to try out. “If you had a project in science, he’d say, “Go get the materials. Give it a shot,”‘ says Cecilia Powers, now 83, who was hired by Washburne in 1930 and stayed on 34 years.
Attention was lavished on teachers in many other ways. Washburne and his wife, the author of children’s books as well as the biography of an Eskimo woman she had met, made the faculty part of their social life. Whenever they had guest speakers at their home, teachers were on hand. There were faculty parties twice a year, says veteran teacher Julia Ostergaard, and a post-Labor Day picnic on the beach that Washburne, who led the singing, hosted.
Washburne loved to travel abroad, and he encouraged his faculty to do likewise and to spend sabbatical years teaching in Switzerland, Beirut, and Japan. He firmly believed in postgraduate education, and in 1932 established the Graduate Teachers College of Winnetka along with Flora Cooke, the principal of Francis Parker, and Perry Dunlap Smith, the headmaster of the North Shore Country Day School. The college took no more than 18 students at a time and conferred a master’s degree after a maximum two years’ study.
Not surprisingly, teachers exhibited intense loyalty to Winnetka and to Washburne. “In a sense I married the system,” one single, aging teacher remarked in 1988 to Bill Meuer, who was preparing a doctoral dissertation on Washburne. “A lot of people felt that way, as if they’d been captured,” says Meuer, now principal of the Winnetka junior high, which is named after Washburne. In 1939 Washburne helped enact a measure that allowed the teachers to appeal to the school board to recall the superintendent if a majority didn’t like what he was doing. But he knew none of them would–the faculty wouldn’t cross him, at least in public.
A number of teachers harbored private reservations about the system Washburne had wrought. Tewksbury wrote in his thesis: “Some complained of the inefficiency of repeating similar explanations four or five times or more to different children as they successively came upon a difficult section of work. Some said too much of their class time was devoted to keeping records in the pupils’ goal books and correcting individual tests. It was felt that the concept of individual mastery was unrealistic. . . . An important criticism expressed by certain teachers and a few parents was that the program focused too much on the memorization-drill-automatic response type of learning.”
Julie Ostergaard, who is now 91, was Washburne’s friend. Yet she always disagreed with his insistence on splitting the academic day in two, especially in the lower grades. “I never believed that was the best way for children to learn. Subjects can be combined and intertwined.” In fact, she says, she ignored the superintendent’s split-day dictates. “He breezed through the classrooms too fast to really know what was going on.”
Troubled outsiders, however, could afford to be outspoken. “Some progressive educators in the 1920s such as [William] Kilpatrick criticized Washburne’s work because he was mainly concerned with the basics,” wrote Corinne Schumacher, now principal of the King Experimental Laboratory School in Evanston, in a critical 1972 thesis. “They accused him of relegating creative and group activities to a secondary position and using it as ‘dessert’ for those who were progressing at a reasonably good rate in the fundamentals. Washburne’s program did not combine those areas to form an integrated day as the more orthodox progressives would see as suitable.”
But the superintendent was steadfast. “The advocates of activities and integration opposed the principle of readiness,” he wrote. “They blithely assumed that one activity was suitable to an entire class and that all children in the class were ready for whatever learning was called for by the project. They ignored any inherent system within subjects, and, in theory at least, largely ignored the need for repetitive practice or drill.”
Though by the late 20s Washburne did tilt the curriculum toward more group work, wrote Tewksbury, he never abandoned his faith in the common essentials. “Washburne believed there was a certain amount of basic information,” says Marion Stern, “and without having that at your command you weren’t truly educated. The goals cards were based on that. I still kind of think Washburne was right, at least for elementary school. The curriculum was tight rather than loose, but the kids came out with a tremendous education, and not at the expense of socialization or creative experience.”
Stern, who left Winnetka in 1950, looks back with immense fondness on her tenure in the suburb. “I never found a place like it,” she says. “Being there raised your spirits about what you were doing.”
Washburne prided himself on being one who embraced the new and different. In 1920 he was at dinner at the home of Edward Yeomans, by then the board of education president, when another guest, Theodore Hinton, got to talking about his childhood in Japan and the bamboo framework his father had built in the family garden for his kids to play on. “But this is an ideal piece of school playground equipment,” exclaimed Washburne. Afterward a group repaired to Hinton’s house to discuss how such a framework could be made practical for school playgrounds. Hinton later patented the contraption as the Jungle Gym.
In the mid-20s Washburne and Rose Alschuler, the wife of a prominent architect, set out to establish a nursery school. At the time nursery schools were uncommon in the United States, though they had gained popularity in England and France as a way to serve impoverished women. Alschuler had set up the first public nursery school in Chicago. “But in suburban Winnetka,” Washburne wrote, “few mothers really had to work for wages full-time while their children were very young. Mrs. Alschuler and I found it was not easy to help people see the educational value of the nursery school.” Alschuler and Washburne sold the community the nursery school on the premise that it would instill in toddlers proper habits of cleanliness, eating, and exercise. Ultimately Alschuler and her husband paid for a $30,000 addition to the junior high that would house the nursery.
Katharine Dummer Fisher, a mother of six and former PTA president, found a friendly audience when she approached Washburne with the idea of delaying formal learning until the middle of second grade. Washburne liked Fisher’s reasoning–he felt maturity and more pure experience would enable a child so delayed to leapfrog ahead in the later grades. (Not surprisingly, a later study by the DER supported Washburne’s theory.) Instructional delays became common in Winnetka. Cursive writing was postponed until fifth grade, grammar until sixth. Homework was unknown in elementary school. “Carleton felt children should get a chance to read and play games with their parents at home,” says Ostergaard. “Homework interfered with home life–that was his view.”
Washburne barreled ahead with any number of other innovations. A team of psychiatric counselors and a full-time psychologist tended to the fragile ids and egos of Winnetka children beginning in 1928. Washburne even slipped a sex-education course into the seventh-grade curriculum, the first sex-ed class in the nation outside of college. He headed off objections by never announcing that he was instituting the course to the community and by making it an elective. Complaining parents were few.
Certainly the most influential people in Winnetka, a number of whom were on the school board, did not complain; they backed Washburne wholeheartedly. “These were prominent freethinkers, if you will,” says Marion Stern. “They did things quietly, not with the hoopla you see today. And yet they exercised a subtle power. They were the last of the Edwardians. Some things were considered to be terribly important–manners and caring and internationalism. Like any group of parents, they wanted their children to reflect their own ideals–and Washburne made them feel they could do that.”
Schumacher took a harsher view. “Washburne was not ‘rocking the Winnetka boat’ or ‘setting Winnetka on its fashionable ear,’ but rather was giving the upper classes what they wanted,” she wrote in her thesis. “Efficiency and measurement were indeed palatable to the influentials. A goal card system which did not allow upper class children to be hampered or harmed by the slow moving child they thought was certainly an admirable one. This brand of progressivism was appropriate for elite taste.”
The unenlightened who criticized Washburne were ignored. “He felt he was right,” wrote Tewksbury. “He felt the weight of scientific evidence was on his side, that professional educators knew more about school problems than parents, and that any ‘sensible’ person should be able to see these things.” Washburne held opinions on everything remotely educational. In A Living Philosophy of Education, a nearly 600-page opus published in 1940, Washburne discoursed on how he thought audiovisual material should be presented (first still pictures, then movies), the gender of principals (both men and women were fine, since “each sex has characteristic advantages”), and on indications of maladjustment in children (watch out for dishonesty, excessive teasing and daydreaming, and “an overconcern with sex”).
Instead of listening sympathetically to angry parents or arguing with them, Washburne blinded his critics with verbiage and charm. One parent told Tewksbury, “His gift for words is so extensive and his tact and plausibility so extraordinary that after our recent meeting I felt much as I did after once hearing William Jennings Bryan talk for two hours: dazed but in great doubt as to what had happened.”
“Parents either loved him or hated him,” says Julia Ostergaard. “In a social situtation he was the kind of person who, without even meaning to, took over. And he made enemies. A lot of parents thought he talked down to them–he could be domineering.”
The Depression brought on troubles that no simple Washburne filibuster could quiet. Early in 1933 a slate of four anti-Washburne candidates, conservatives arrayed under the banner of the Independent Party, announced for seats on the school board. The rebels were taking on a pro-Washburne slate headed by Clarence Randall, a vice president of Inland Steel.
The Independent Party members had many beefs. They griped that individualized instruction showed no measurable advantage and that it cost too much, that student discipline was poor, and that teachers were too geared toward research. Spokesman R.J. Brockett tied Washburne to “left-wing or radical” progressives.
After trips to Russia in 1927 and 1931, Washburne had warmed to Soviet education. “There is no question,” he wrote, “but that in Russia not only in the field of mental hygiene but in that of education in general, there is a clearer vision as to the aims of education and a more thorough-going effort toward the achievement of those aims than in any part of the world.” He did add that Russian schools evidenced “too much indoctrination” and “far too little scope for the development of free thinking individuals.” Yet some branded him a pinko.
He was not helped by a report that he’d donned the white hat and loincloth popularized by Mahatma Gandhi when he visited him in India during his 1931 world tour. Out of respect for Gandhi Washburne did wear one of the white hats when he was given an audience, says Margaret Plagge, but he had on a pair of conventional summer shorts. “It got into the papers that he was wearing a loincloth,” she says, “and the board got very excited.”
The school board campaign got feverish. Fifty letters were sent to the editor of the Winnetka Talk, the local paper. The atmosphere soon grew mean. Rumors circulated about his marriage. In a public letter the father of three defended his home life as “entirely regular and unusually happy.” There were also rumors about his religious beliefs. He had grown up in an undefined Christian home, according to his daughter. As an adult he had flirted with Buddhism and finally became a Quaker. Washburne’s patriotism was also questioned; it was hinted that he was a pacifist. “It was a very painful time for my father,” says Plagge. “He was a man of peace, and the controversy was distressing to him. It was probably the most difficult period of his professional life.”
The Randall slate mounted an all-out offensive, circulating a flier that bore endorsements of Washburne from the U.S. commissioner of education, the Chicago schools superintendent, and the president of Northwestern University. On election day the slate trounced the Independent Party with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Afterward Washburne grew more cautious. Randall, who served as board president until 1935, told Tewksbury that he felt “that Washburne and the staff should be restrained from making changes in the educational program that would cause controversy in the village.” Washburne did more writing. His ambition, Schumacher reported, was to turn the Winnetka Plan into “a memorial, one which was firmly placed, meticulously cared for, and prepared for immortality in educational history.”
In the late 1930s the federal government wanted to build a new post office and coveted the land occupied by the Horace Mann School, built in 1899 in downtown Winnetka. The village agreed to sell. After considering two sites for its replacement, the board finally purchased five acres of land three-quarters of a mile west of the old school. The site was essentially a marsh, except for a piece of high ground on which crows would gather that was dubbed “crow island.”
The search for an architect, conducted in 1937, drew representatives from 35 firms to Washburne’s Skokie School office. One visitor was architect Lawrence Perkins.
Certainly Perkins’s lineage gave him a leg up. His father was Dwight H. Perkins, best known today as the architect of the newly restored Cafe Brauer in Lincoln Park. Between 1905 and 1910, however, he had served as architect for the Chicago Public Schools, lending his talents to the construction of 40 schools, among them the old Lane Tech at Division and Sedgwick and the one-story Spalding School for the Handicapped at Washington and Ashland. His creations were characterized by bathrooms on each floor instead of in clusters in the basement, lobbies suffused with light, and auditoriums open to the public as well as to the school community. The jewel among his schools remains the Carl Schurz High School on North Milwaukee, with its green tile roof and decorative masonry. His wife, Louise Fitch Perkins, was a leading children’s author who pumped out book after book.
But their son had major deficits. He was only 30. He and his partners, Phil Will and E. Todd Wheeler, had founded the firm of Perkins, Wheeler and Will just three years before. The partners divided duties. “Phil was the design person,” says Perkins, “Wheeler did the engineering, and my job was to bring in the work.” There wasn’t much work at first–primarily residential commissions in Oak Park and on the North Shore, plus two churches. Essentially, says Perkins, “we weren’t doing anything. The Depression was on. It was a very, very thin living. We tried, but didn’t always succeed, to pay ourselves $1,500 a year.”
One of Perkins’s jobs, however, had been designing a Winnetka house for Robert C. McNamara, an executive with the Scott Foresman publishing firm and a friend of various school board members. “Remember, Winnetka was run by a tightly held group,” says Perkins. “They were all pals. You didn’t run for office in Winnetka–you accepted the job.” More important, his father was the architect of the Hubbard Woods and Skokie schools.
Connections may have allowed Perkins to see Washburne, but they didn’t win him the commission. After Perkins laid out his credentials, Washburne interrupted to say “our dream school” was what he had in mind. “We can’t trust this to a group of youngsters who have only built one house and one small church!”
“Don’t you recognize,” replied Perkins, “that a young firm, knowing that its whole future is at stake, will give more time and thought to this school than any old established firm can give?” Perkins promised to study the Winnetka schools, to read everything Washburne had written, and to consult with teachers and principals.
“Larry,” said Washburne, “what you say is true. But we want the best, and experience and past performance are necessary guarantees. If we could combine your zeal with the experience of a really great architect, that would be ideal.” Who are you thinking about? Perkins asked.
“A man like Eliel Saarinen,” said Washburne. He was referring to the Finnish-born architect whose first American work was the Cranbrook private school outside Detroit, a complex of brick buildings set gently into the land that gained a warm feel from pillars, archways, chimneys, and towers as well as arts-and-crafts interiors.
“I took a deep breath,” says Perkins, “commended my soul to God, and said, ‘I think I can get him.'”
Perkins left feeling that Washburne had merely been humoring him. “At least I could tell my partners I’d been working.” He forgot about his promise to snag Saarinen until Robert Hammond, the president of the Winnetka school board, called three days later and said he was going to be in the Detroit area and would like to see Saarinen.
“At that point the elevator in my stomach went down 30 floors without a cable,” says Perkins. He telephoned Saarinen, a correct, emotionally distant man then in his mid-50s who said condescendingly, “I do not do Gothic or colonial.” Perkins said Washburne craved a Saarinen-like original. “Very well. I will see Mr. Hammond,” said Saarinen.
Hammond and Saarinen evidently had a satisfactory meeting. “Hammond came back from Cranbrook lapping his chin to keep the drool from slipping into his necktie,” says Perkins. When Washburne and the rest of the board subsequently visited Cranbrook, they too were terribly impressed. Board member Ted Buenger, an investment banker, was particularly taken with the girls’ school. “Larry,” he told Perkins, “the dining hall affects me the same way a fully complete orgasm does.”
At lunch Washburne gave Saarinen an overly enthusiastic sales pitch, saying he wanted him to help design a school to define his ideas of education. “Is that something that would interest you?” Washburne asked. “It is my business,” said Saarinen. It also became the business of Saarinen’s son Eero, who was enlisted in the project partway through.
“Actually, neither of them gave a good goddamn about educational engineering,” says Perkins. “What made their pencils itch was the refinement of cosmetics.”
The outward appearance of the Crow Island School became the province of the Saarinens. Perkins, Wheeler, and Will addressed the fit between architecture and education. The two sides split the commission fifty-fifty, though Eero Saarinen would later call Perkins “the hound dog who worked on this the hardest.”
“But the person without whom there would be no Crow Island was Washburne, Washburne, and Washburne, in that order,” says Perkins. “We were just a reasonable vehicle for him to work through.”
Perkins began hanging out in the Winnetka schools. He would sit with a drawing board and sketch characters from his mother’s books, all the while talking with the children and asking questions. After three or four months of absorbing the atmosphere, Perkins tested what he’d learned against the wisdom of Winnetka educators. “I’d like to look you in the eye and say Crow Island was the work of my artistry,” says Perkins. “Forget it. This was a reasonably coordinated example of the group mind if there ever was one.”
Of course Washburne was pretty good at shaping the group mind. He wanted each class to be an independent unit, and on that he prevailed. “One general principle weathered the strains of discussion and argument,” wrote Perkins in 1942. “It was that children of primary-school ages are not ready for participation in groups larger than a class unit. They simply cannot comprehend and be loyal to a social setup of that complexity. Therefore, the class unit should be as complete a home as possible. It should have its own front door and its own yard. . . . It should be close to the ground. Flowers and shrubs should have the same relation to group assets, such as playrooms, auditorium, library, shops, and the rest, that homes do to their community facilities: independent, but accessible!”
Perkins concluded that the conventional rectangular classroom made no sense in Winnetka. “What was needed was more space–and less committed space,” says Perkins. He and colleague John Boyce moved toward making the Crow Island classroom L-shaped, with the main section devoted to academics and the remainder to projects. There would be a wall of windows that filled each classroom with light and brought the outdoors in. Rather than having the children sit at rigid desks (“where teaching was feeding and regurgitation,” wrote Perkins), the furniture would be movable. The rooms would also fit the children, not the adults.
The teachers and other school staff reacted to the architectural plans and the small wooden model Perkins took around. “We would all come together once or twice a week and go over the plans,” Cecilia Powers said at the 1955 symposium. “Cabinets were wide enough to hold construction paper. I remember all the conversation over the location of the classroom door from the corridor. Some wanted the door located in the front of the classroom. Others objected because anyone leaving or entering the classroom could distract the entire class. After several meetings the door was placed in the center of the room to maximize the instructional period and cut down any commotion.”
Marion Carlswell, the Horace Mann principal, suggested that each classroom have its own bathroom. Ben Helke, the custodian at Horace Mann who would assume that post at Crow Island, pressed for recessed lockers in the hallways, flat-topped skylights, and front steps with heating coils underneath to melt the snow in winter. Physical-education teacher Jean Duffy had a hand in designing the gym and playground; art teacher Myrtle Craddock ensured that there were sufficient faucets and sinks in the art room. Activities director Frances Presler insisted that a room be devoted to enabling students to role-play life on the Illinois frontier.
The kids themselves even had an impact. At the Hubbard Woods School the doors to the hall were half wood and half glass, which the youngsters disliked because they allowed people to look in. The glass was eliminated. Children also asked for a separate assembly hall, unconnected to a classroom or gym.
Who requested that each classroom open onto its own small courtyard has been lost to history.
Eliel Saarinen wanted yellow brick for the walls, but the Perkins team demanded–and got–common rose- colored brick instead. The accents were redwood. Saarinen prevailed on the ornamentation, such as the cornice that mimicks one at Cranbrook. Eero’s wife, sculptor Lily Swann Saarinen, gave the classrooms bright print curtains and designed glazed ceramic tiles that represent 23 animals for the exterior. Perkins and Eero (who, with Charles Eames, would give the world the Eames chair) designed plywood furniture “suitable for the profile of the juvenile butt,” in Perkins’s words.
The construction of Crow Island commenced in 1939 and took a year to finish. The marshy site for the school had been raised five feet using dirt dug shortly before the school was started when the Skokie lagoons were created and when the Chicago & Northwestern train tracks were lowered. There was no basement under the classrooms, which rested on concrete posts. The federal Works Progress Administration helped build the furniture. The cost of the entire project, excluding $40,000 for the land, totaled $287,000–fully $53,000 under budget.
In September 1940, 295 youngsters entered the new 14-classroom, 50,000-square-foot school. The wartime demand for plywood airplane parts had held up delivery of the furniture, so old pieces from Horace Mann were substituted. Julia Ostergaard remembers that continuing construction made the first year rough for the staff.
The hub of Crow Island contained an assembly hall, gym, and offices on the first floor, and a teachers’ lounge, library, science workshop, and music and craft rooms in the basement. It seems remarkable today, but Crow Island was the first school to concentrate its community functions in one hub.
The auditorium’s 400 plywood seats were graduated in size, smaller benches in front and larger ones in the rear. Frances Presler’s “pioneer room” was lodged in the basement, a replica of a cabin in downstate Illinois circa 1850; each kid spent one day in third grade in the pioneer room acting as a member of a frontier family, carding wool, making candles, and cooking food.
Three wings of classes, each housing one age group, thrust off the center section. Inside the rooms ponderosa pine paneling enabled teachers to stick up student work. The height of the blackboards, door handles, and light switches suited the children; the ceiling was only 9 feet instead of the traditional 12, and the window sills were 36 inches high. The work area had a workbench, a sink, and a gas jet. There were ample closet storage and bins big enough to store bulky construction paper.
Outside, the Saarinens had wanted nothing about the landscaping to detract from the building. They vetoed vines and asked the landscape contractors–Robert Everly, parks director in neighboring Glencoe, and John McFadzean, athletic director for Glencoe’s schools–to plant low-lying shrubs and trees: sumacs, honeysuckles, and various sorts of viburnum. There was also an open-air stage and off in one corner, a Jungle Gym.
Crow Island’s most distinctive exterior feature was its chimney clock. “[Eliel] Saarinen had gone to architectural college in Stockholm,” says Perkins. “He told us that in later life the alumni could never remember what the big college building looked like. What they did remember was the terra-cotta frog that sat in a little niche.” The oddity Saarinen bequeathed to Crow Island was a clock at the top of the chimney that was a little off center. “Half of Winnetka resented the clock as an insult to their intelligence,” Perkins says, “but the other half rather liked it.”
When Crow Island School opened, says Perkins, there was more to carp about than the clock. The school looked stark without foliage surrounding it. Dwight Perkins, who died in 1941 and so lived long enough to see his son’s handiwork, didn’t like it at all. “Dad wanted his buildings to stand up aggressively,” says Perkins. “Spreading it out in a low-key fashion didn’t suit him.”
But there were factors in Crow Island’s favor. Washburne had a gift for publicity, says Perkins. In addition, Perkins hired Ken Hedrich, an architectural photographer with the Hedrich-Blessing firm, to take pictures. “My entire career in architecture is based on those pictures,” says Perkins. “He made me wait for eight months, from the fall of ’40 until the following June, so that the sun came around to the north side of the building. He just wouldn’t take a half-assed picture for me. With Hedrich’s shots, Washburne and Saarinen’s names, and some plugs by Hal Burnett–this publicist who worked with us–we were made.”
Leading figures hailed the building as a wonderful fit between architecture and education. Joseph Hudnut, dean of the Harvard architecture school, gushed, “A sure and deep understanding of youth and of the teacher’s way of working formed these theaters for becoming and unfolding which, unmarred by grown-up affectations or by recollections of outmoded disciplines, have captured so much of that friendly dignity, that serious joy in living and creating, which are among the beautiful attributes of childhood; and the building, informed by that devotion, flings its bright radiance like a gem into the lives that are shaping there.” (Yet he called the pioneer room “a curious anachronism. . . . There could be no worse method of teaching history.”)
But how did the surroundings affect the more than 3,000 people who actually attended Crow Island, people now spread to at least 47 states and nine foreign countries?
Perkins isn’t sure. “You have to understand what you are starting with. First, you have kids from families whose parents follow up on every aspect of their development. Winnetka provides a superb base of citizenship. Or take the teachers. For the last 50 years you haven’t been able to teach at Crow Island unless you have pretty showy credentials. So you have had good kids and good teachers.”
The teachers certainly felt well served by the building. “The feeling of being alive was reflected there,” says Marion Stern. “It was light and cheery, and there was always a lot of materials.” Bill Meuer, who taught at Crow Island for nine years, thinks the quality of the staff made more of a difference than anything. Still, he says, “the building cut down on intrusions. You didn’t have to worry about filling up a bulletin board–you just tacked things on the walls. You could be more dynamic.”
“The building structure counts for something,” says Perkins. “Yes, it’s a factor. But then I have to say that to justify my right to breathe. It’s like asking whether in an opera the stage set enhances what’s occurring. The set helps some. I believe that. But nobody can prove it. How many saints has your church produced? Donald Rumsfeld would have gotten a good job somewhere, with or without Crow Island.”
Rumsfeld–who was U.S. defense secretary, ambassador to NATO, and White House chief of staff, and is now chairman of the General Instrument Corporation, a New York-based electronics firm–attended Crow Island for three years in the early 1940s. “I loved going there. I went early and stayed late.” Since his father was in the Navy, he also attended other schools in North Carolina, Washington, and Oregon. “I never found that architecture made a lot of difference,” he says. “One of the best schools my own children ever attended, in Brussels, Belgium, was in an old house with 40 code violations.” He thinks Crow Island’s architecture had no effect on him, while the quality of the teachers and students mattered a great deal.
Other alumni recall the building and its setting lovingly. “I remember the sense of space in that building,” says Marianne Goldberg, a writer-choreographer in New York. “Everything was your size, so when you reached up, you actually got to something. You had the classroom area and the work area. I don’t remember the curriculum at all, to be honest.” Victor Bernstein, a Chicago psychologist, remembers the story hours. “We sat by the windows, where there were these incredible views to the woods outside. Those woods were a gas.”
Washburne’s progressive curriculum also draws mixed reviews. “Under the Dewey-like plan they didn’t teach you much,” Rumsfeld says. In fifth grade his father was transferred to New Jersey, and he began class in “a little backward school.” Because he hadn’t learned cursive writing yet, school officials wanted to place him in a lower grade.
Suzanne Donohue transferred to Crow Island in third grade from the Evanston schools, where she had learned cursive. “All the kids gathered around my desk to look at my writing. ‘What’s she doing?’ they wanted to know. ‘What is it?’ They were just fascinated. It was a good icebreaker for me, but I wanted to be accepted, so I changed my writing.” To this day the 48-year-old Winnetka retail manager prints.
Robert Perkins–a lawyer, theatrical producer, onetime candidate for 43rd Ward alderman, and no relation to Lawrence–recalls working to gain marks on the goal cards. “The goal cards fired you up to read more books and write more essays. To fill up the page–that’s what you worked for.”
The alumni seem to remember the activities best. “While there might be animals in the back of the room,” says Perkins, “the teacher’d be making applesauce.” A visit to the pioneer room seemed to cap everyone’s third grade. “For me it was the highlight of all of grade school,” says Marty Miller, a Lincoln Park housewife. “You were transported back to pioneer days by the cooking and the dipping candles–it all seemed so authentic.” Ed Zwick liked building a pueblo dwelling and visiting the pioneer room. “That kind of role playing and living history was very important to me.” In fourth grade he constructed some mock Civil War battlefields. “That kind of thing was right up my alley. And when I think about it, I have become in my life, for better or worse, a free-lance artist. The notion of a project as the vessel for a particular passion I have taken with me.” Zwick was the director of Glory, which was based on the story of Robert Gould Shaw and the black regiment he led during the Civil War.
Victor Bernstein and his wife elected to send their children to Inter-American Magnet School in Lakeview in part because “it deemphasizes academic drill and practice, and focuses on the social and cultural aspects of learning.” Bernstein is now chairman of its local school council. “The school-improvement plan at Inter-American is a push to get the school away from the rote to the experiential,” says Bernstein. He endorses that bent, and guesses his enthusiasm for the plan has roots in his own childhood.
More than most other graduates, Bob Perkins, who is now 36, can summon up the particulars of the Crow Island he left in 1962: the fruit cart the French teacher used to push around in third and fourth grade, the lack of homework (“You were supposed to go home, goof around, and watch Garfield Goose”), and the snails and butterflies he used to find outside in spring. “My father would become president of the Continental Bank, but back then he was working in the bond department. My parents moved to Winnetka for the schools. Everybody did. It was always emphasized at school–and reinforced through the parents–that you were lucky to be in this special school. I guess we all came to believe that–that we were part of something special. But how much the architecture had to do with it I don’t know. But we felt it.”
Perkins, Wheeler and Will, which evolved into Perkins and Will, specialized in schools into the 1950s. Notable among them were Blythe Park in Riverside, an inviting brick building with a bell tower and subterranean auditorium, and the Heathcote School in Scarsdale, New York. Heathcote, really six connected structures, occupies a hilltop and has hexagonal classrooms with windows that invite the outdoors in. Perkins and Will moved from schools to skyscapers and hospitals (the firm now employs 500 people in Chicago and three other cities), and Phil Will always encouraged Perkins to mention schools in sales meetings. Perkins, now 83, retired in the early 1970s, though he keeps busy. He went to the recent Crow Island reunion. “I even danced a little, though it isn’t my favorite activity.”
Eliel Saarinen died in 1950. His career was eclipsed by that of Eero, who veered toward the rectilinear designs popularized by Mies van der Rohe, putting his signature on the University of Chicago Law School, the Saint Louis Arch, and Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. He died in 1961.
The Crow Island School has been the subject of numerous articles in newspapers and magazines. In 1971 it won a citation from the American Institute of Architects as “a landmark in design in education.” In 1989 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and on December 14, 1990, it became a National Landmark. Its 50th anniversary celebration drew architects and educators from around the country.
Crow Island now has 360 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It has changed some. Perkins and Will added a fourth wing in 1955. There is a new circular drive out front, adorned by beech and maple trees and a steel sculpture of a crow. The landscaping has softened the lines of the building. The library, once considered almost secondary to collections in the classrooms, was moved to the basement and has reading lofts and caves in which to snuggle up with a book. The workbenches and gas jets are gone from the classrooms, as is Eero Saarinen’s furniture, now considered to have historical value. The youngsters enter and leave school from the classroom courtyards, but during the day the doors are locked, a legacy of Laurie Dann.
Otherwise, the school goes about its mission as always, still adhering to the core of Washburne’s thinking. “We view each youngster as a unique little person,” says principal Beth Hebert. “It is our task to receive this youngster as a student and design a program for the whole child.”
The self-instruction materials, now published for the Winnetka system out of the Crow Island basement, are still used. There is no prescribed text in social studies, only a curriculum guide. “We don’t go to Scott Foresman to tell us what to teach,” says Hebert. “We do it ourselves.” And, she says, there is no grouping into academic tracks. “We respect unevenness. You never know when a kid’s light will go on.”
Projects remain central. “The second-graders are building a city out of cardboard boxes and toilet-paper rolls,” says Hebert. As they have for 50 years, third-graders repair for one day a year to the pioneer room. Student progress is tracked on goal cards, though they are now seen more as reference points for teachers. Parents find out about their kids’ progress in parent conferences, not through letter grades.
The years have moderated Washburne’s methods. Formal academic instruction begins in first grade now. Cursive writing is presented in the fourth, not the fifth grade. Formal homework starts in fourth grade now too. Hebert hypes Crow Island’s reading program, pointing out that primary students write and share stories–a “whole language” approach–rather than read from a list of approved books.
She acknowledges that Washburne’s philosophy has a certain “compulsiveness,” but says she accepts his “larger point of individualized learning and teacher autonomy.”
Carleton Washburne left Winnetka in May 1943 to help the United States Army rebuild the schools in Italy after the fall of Mussolini. “My job was to reopen the schools and universities and rid them of fascism and fascists,” he said. In his memoirs he gave no deeper reason for his departure, although Julia Ostergaard says he had been traveling a lot and spending less and less time being superintendent. Winnetka had also apparently tired of him. He proceeded from Sicily to Naples and on to Rome and Milan, learning Italian along the way. He didn’t return to the United States until 1948.
The next year he took a position as director of teacher education and graduate studies at Brooklyn College. In 1960 he became an education professor at Michigan State University. He would write a total of 214 articles and 26 books.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1968 Washburne, who was 78, was at home with Heluiz. “He had just bought the turkey,” says his daughter. “The family was expected. He had just taken out of his typewriter the definitive biography of his work when he had a stroke.” He died within 24 hours.
“He was a dynamic leader with a great deal of vision,” she says. “His concern was for the maximum development of human beings.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Hedrich-Blessing, courtesy Winnetka Historical Museum, Kathy Richland.