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From Shoe Factory to School: This Green Building's in a Class by Itself

Photo by Catherine Cook School

Historecycle has emerged from fall hibernation with renewed energy, like an aging building newly retrofitted with LED lights. For the past several months, we’ve been Sherlock Holmes-ing a few “mystery” structures we’ve discovered, to dig into their murky past. And the rigorous pursuit of historical data has been like a shot in the arm.

Take, for example, the former B.&B. Shoe Company factory, which dates to at least the 1920s. Located in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, B.&B.’s workers used sewing machines to turn out footwear by the hundreds, starting most likely in the 1940s. In 1990 the shoe company vacated the premises, and what was then known as the Melrose Cooperative Nursery School moved from its location in the adjacent church to the north into the old factory. By 1992 the three-story brick building had been sold to the current owners and reopened as Catherine Cook School.

Today the private school houses students from preschool to eighth grade. In 2004, the school added a gymnasium connected by a second floor walkway over a former alley, which now serves as a courtyard. In 2014, the footprint of the original building, now called “The Loft,” was doubled by attaching a 25,000-square-foot addition to the west, known as the “New Wing;” it too is a three-story brick structure.

Designers of the school expansion, while keeping the old building as its heart, took advantage of the opportunity to modernize the campus as a whole. A plethora of energy-saving features and other “green” elements were incorporated into the renovated complex. Now the school is spread over three full floors plus a lower level, and, along with traditional classrooms and the like, sports an IDEA Lab, AV studio, library/gathering space, art gallery, and two rooftop playgrounds.

After turning our magnifying glass on this shoe-factory-turned-school, we can say we know quite a few details about the building and its background. For example:

  • It was the home of B.&B. Shoe Co., originally known as the Brovar & Bernstein Shoe Co.

  • It was built and operated in a city known for shoe manufacturing and home to big-name businesses like Florsheim. At one time, in Chicago’s Old Town alone, several footwear factories, like Dr. Scholl’s (Scholl Manufacturing Co.), were literally down the street.

  • The building had several other uses before becoming a school: a furniture finishing operation, an upholstering company, and a toy factory.

  • In the 1940s and 1950s, work was interrupted by strikes at the plant, including one by the United Shoe Workers and another by CIO shoe workers.

  • The existing school was named after the former building owner’s mother, Catherine Cook Anagnost, a Greek immigrant to Chicago, who became a civic-minded CPA and attorney, as well as philanthropist. Cook died at 71 in 1990.

Yet many questions about the old factory remain unanswered: What was the genesis of the building? Who was the architect and what was its exact construction date? What kinds of shoes were assembled there? Who worked at the factory, and who were its managers? What motivated the laborers to strike? Such stones remain unturned, so to speak, despite our having toured the building and contacted a host of historians, archivists, key community representatives, and school employees, not to mention knowledgeable parties from the local history museum as well as two shoe museums, one in Canada and one in New York.

One thing is clear, however: Catherine Cook School now boasts a blend of old and new, traditional and state-of-the-art. Look up and you’ll find the same exposed wood beams that formed its original skeleton 100 years ago. Look around and you’ll see walls painted with nontoxic paint, and floors covered with carpet tiles certified Green Label Plus by the Carpet & Rug Institute (CRI). Walk into a classroom and occupancy sensors automatically turn on the lights and then turn them off again when you leave. Note the “environmentally friendly” linseed oil bulletin boards. Climb the stairs to the roof and an array of solar panels meets your gaze. Thirsty? Top off your water bottle at one of the refilling stations throughout the halls.

The M.O. of Catherine Cook School is to encourage students to be innovative, compassionate, and explore new avenues of learning. Where possible, sustainability is embedded into the curriculum, so, for example, in math class students may calculate how much wattage is generated by the rooftop solar panels. Thus it makes sense that the building contains as many green components as possible.

Note: When Historecycle first encountered the building in 2021, there was a small wind turbine on the roof. Roof-mounted wind turbines are still relatively uncommon on city buildings, let alone on top of a school. Unfortunately, the turbine became dislodged a few months later after being struck by lightning, and although no one was injured, the school decided not to replace it. As far as we know, the school’s solar panels and other green features have been a success.


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