Chicago Academy Wraps Remarkable Revamp

By SCN Staff

CHICAGO—Wheeler Kearns Architects has completed its multi-phase, 75,000-square-foot renovation and expansion of Great Lakes Academy, a K-8 charter school in Chicago’s South Chicago neighborhood. This ambitious adaptive reuse project doubled the overall size of the campus by renovating an unused building adjacent to the existing academic building, connecting the two through a contemporary single-story glass link.

Located at 8401 S. Saginaw Ave, Great Lakes Academy is just 10 miles from downtown Chicago. This area was the center of Chicago’s booming steel industry from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1950s when closures led to decades of disinvestment. The project revitalized most of a city block, building on the existing three-story brick masonry school that anchors the campus. Sustainability is considered throughout the project, minimizing new construction while leveraging existing building stock and implementing energy-efficient strategies.

The design combines old and new, with the contemporary glass link mediating between the solidity of the historic school and church buildings which date back to 1911 and 1952, respectively. This intervention is open and lightweight, with high-performance floor-to-ceiling glass, thermally broken curtainwall framing systems, and internally lit skylights filling the space with natural light. Atop, a green roof will reduce groundwater runoff, improve building thermal insulation, lessen the urban heat island, and offer enjoyable glimpses of green from above and below.

The former Church of St. Mary Magdalene, which closed in 2015, now serves as a flexible multipurpose space. The south half of the building is both a gym and performance space, with a regulation-sized basketball court, volleyball court, climbing wall, stage, and green room. The north half of the building, separated by a sliding curtain, houses a cafeteria that will serve over 600 healthy breakfasts and lunches each day, prepared in the commercial kitchen. Other new facilities throughout the campus include a visual arts room, library, maker space, and an artificial turf field with seating.

Students and the community consider the updated exterior of the campus a vital part of the Great Lakes Academy. A landscaped courtyard welcomes students and visitors into the new entrance. Outdoor spaces around the campus are designed for immersive activity, supporting learning through encouraging exploration and incorporating natural elements like boulders from a nearby Midwestern quarry. Outdoor seating allows teachers to hold classes outside and encourages families to socialize and play before and after school.

Wheeler Kearns Architects designed the expanded campus to be used as efficiently and extensively as possible, including on weekends, evenings, and vacations. Since the staff can secure the academic spaces with doors at the link, the gymnasium, kitchen, and restrooms can quickly convert to host community programs, extracurricular activities, or professional development conferences after school hours.

Emily Ray, lead project architect, remarks that “Working with a dedicated team to inject new life into this underutilized city block has been a rewarding experience. Our design aimed to celebrate the architectural and cultural legacies of the site, and our shared hope is that the expanded campus will serve the Great Lakes Academy students and act as a beacon for the community.”

Katherine Myers-Crum, Great Lakes Academy Founder and Executive Director, comments that “We are so proud of this newly renovated campus and all the resources and opportunities that it brings to our scholars, their families, and the surrounding community. It is our hope that this campus can start a movement to invest in and revitalize the southeast side of Chicago, a community with a rich legacy that is full of incredible people and ideas. WKA could not have been a better partner to work on this project with; they understand both function, aesthetics, and value and were highly collaborative throughout our partnership.”