Western Springs’ Birthplace: Grand Avenue School
Residents always associate the historic Water Tower with the earliest days of the village. But, did you know that another building was the first home to our village government?
In 1885, the Grand Avenue School was built to replace a smaller schoolhouse that had been on the same site. Later that year, the residents of Western Springs voted to incorporate as a Village, which became effective in January 1886.
Since there was no village hall as yet, the first meeting of the Board of Trustees took place in the school. This continued until 1892, when the town built the historic Water Tower, complete with two floors of office and meeting space.
In 1906, the partial second floor of the school was expanded to a full floor, and the bell tower on the southwest corner was removed and a center belfry cupola was added on the new second floor roof. These additions matched the original structure, and the Palladium window motif of the original south face (see first photo) was incorporated in the gables on each face (see second photo).
As the village grew, the schoolhouse expanded as well. In 1914, a two-story wing was added to the building’s north wall. The contractor for this work was Ford & Phillips, the “Ford” being Thomas Ford, for whom our library was later named.
During the summer of 1931, the interior of the school was remodeled to add another classroom. At the same time, the present arched entrance was added to the Grand Avenue side of the building. While Thomas Ford had tragically died in 1928, his firm, Ford & Phillips, once again did the construction work. And, because of the Great Depression, they agreed to do the work “at cost”.
In 1959, the school district acquired the original Congregational Church, which then belonged to the Christian Reformed Church. It was located directly north of the school on Grand Avenue. For a while, the former church was used as a school gymnasium. However, in 1965 it was demolished and a new gymnasium was built on the east side of the school. Although it was not practical to build a limestone structure, many cues were taken from the old structure, including the color and texture of the brick. See third photo.
Also in 1965, the unique portico facing Chestnut Street was removed. And, in 1977, the State of Illinois funded a complete interior renovation of the building, including the addition of steel support columns and beams. See fourth photo.
Just four years later, declining enrollments dictated that the school be closed. And, for a while, it was feared that the old building would be sold to private interests or demolished for development. However, through the herculean efforts of many residents and groups (too numerous to mention), in 1985 a not-for-profit organization was formed to acquire the property for use as a community center. Subsequently, ownership was transferred to the Village of Western Springs. See fifth photo.
Through these collective efforts, the building looks better than ever. It provides a myriad of services including pre-school day care, dance lessons, music instruction, gymnasium facilities, a senior center, and a home for the Historical Society’s archives. Stop by to visit and you’ll see how, after 128 years, this great building is still serving our village.