Lane Technical High School

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Lane Technical College Prep High School (architect John C. Christensen) is a Gothic icon on Western Avenue, a break from the relentlessly dense and unplanned commercial onslaught that lines Chicago’s longest street. Lane Tech occupies a full city block (or more); the building is beautifully and artfully planned, with enormous spacious grounds surrounding an equally enormous building complex. Founded as Albert G. Lane Technical School in 1908, it is the city’s largest high school, housing over 4,000 students.

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You would never guess at a glance that this building was finished in 1934. The red brick Gothic style was highly out of favor by that point, both from an artistic and economic standpoint, but apparently it was decided to press onwards rather than redo drawings that had been completed several years prior. The result was a building that was out of style before it was even built – but still remains highly impressive today.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that the prominent clock tower on the Western Avenue side marks the front of the school, but it doesn’t – a look at the building’s floor plan shows that the school is actually oriented to the north. Inside the tower is one of the school’s many stairwells. The clock itself no longer functions.

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On the north side, facing Addison Street, twin towers demarcate the school’s primary facade. Between them is nestled the library, a beautiful double-height space with vast north-facing windows that bathe the space in indirect light.

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The school’s corridors are overwhelmingly long and monotonous, begging the question of how students manage to get from one class to another in the paltry 4 minutes they are alloted.
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Though monotonous and monochrome, the hallways are enlivened in a most unusual way. A series of 40 murals, created for the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair, commemorating the contributions of every state in the union to modern technology.

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The attitude toward industry and manufacturing in these paintings is startlingly divorced from that of today. Whereas we see factories and refineries as eyesores to be minimized and avoided, these paintings celebrate them as welcome additions to even the most bucolic of landscapes. A steel mill alongside a lake is a thing to be celebrated, not mourned. It’s a fitting attitude for a building whose scale is that of a factory, an industrial-sized seat of learning.

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Lane’s early history is literally written on its walls. In the cafeteria, a small metal plaque notes that the sound system was the gift of the class of ’59. Art projects dating back to the 1930s are scattered around the building, including murals in the cafeteria and library, and bas reliefs carved in wood in the library.

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The wood reliefs were carefully restored just a few years ago. One, entitled Evolution of the Book, is in a WPA-influenced style similar to the Century of Progress murals. The other, Control of the Elements by Peterpaul Ott, is pure Art Deco – stylized, geometric, streamlined, and utterly amazing. Both were designed by teachers and executed with the help of students.

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One of the nearby murals was done by members of the 1942 Mural Club.

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Even the utilitarian courtyards are artfully decorated, and used to engender school spirit.

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Both the librarian and a security worker I spoke to had glowing praise for the student body – hard workers, disciplined, well behaved, smart. Many are the children of immigrants. A handful were in the library studying on a beautiful Saturday morning.

More Lane Tech: A followup post, July 2014

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