PFOP: the “new” Bloomington High opened in 1959 | Local News


While it might be hard to believe, the current Bloomington High School is almost six decades old. The school opened in the fall of 1959, a mid-century modernist beauty symbolizing the optimism of the jet age and the promise of postwar America.

Yet as the price of the ‘new’ Bloomington High surpassed $ 3.66 million (the equivalent of nearly $ 31 million in 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars), the neighborhood found itself – in the middle of construction – scrambling to raise additional funds to complete and open the school.

The old high school, located in the 500 block of East Washington Street, opened in 1917. The two schools – the old and the new Bloomington High – represented a revolutionary change in American education as administrators sought to escape the limits of the urban grid and the congestion of old-fashioned neighborhoods for open spaces and suburban-type environments more suited to the sprawling footprints of modern school “campuses”.

As a result, in March 1948, the Board of Education purchased a 39.7-acre site known as the Grassfield tract in the hope that it would become the future home of a new high school. Located between Empire Street to the north, Towanda Avenue to the east, Locust Street to the south, and Colton Avenue to the west, this site made perfect sense. The sloping, undeveloped area provided ample space for expanding classrooms, additional athletic fields and, this being the golden age of the American teenager’s love affair with the automobile, parking. Additionally, the school’s football pitch was already located just south across Locust Street, where it had been for about two decades.

By the mid-1950s, when the post-war baby boom was well underway, Bloomington’s schools were packed to the brim. On September 20, 1955, district electors approved a $ 2.9 million bond issue to pay for both new schools and new additions to existing schools. For many Bloomington residents, the consolidation of junior high school classrooms (then scattered across Bent, Irving, and Washington schools) in the old building on East Washington Street was as eagerly awaited as the construction of the new high school.

Two large architectural firms from Bloomington, Lundeen and Hilfinger, and Schaeffer, Wilson and Evans, participated in the development of the new Bloomington High. In addition, A. Richard Williams, professor of architecture at the University of Illinois, was the lead designer for the project. Williams, who grew up in the Twin Cities (his father was an accounting professor at Illinois State Normal University), was a visionary modernist. He played a leading role in several of the region’s finest post-war buildings, including the Bloomington Federal Savings and Loan Association (opened in 1957 and now part of the Government Center).

School officials rightly boasted that the architects had “taken full advantage of the natural beauty of the site.” The original two-story class building faces Locust Street from the highest point of the hilly track. An attractive 12 ½ foot overhang runs the length of this building. To the northeast, a one-story wing contained the cafeteria, music and orchestra rooms, workshops and a garage.

When it opened in 1959, Bloomington High School was an example of international style architecture. Many of its design elements, such as the flat roof, large windows, metal casements, slender columns, and lack of architectural embellishments, are hallmarks of Mid-Century Modernism. Perhaps the most striking feature of the school remains the gymnasium’s “scalloped” cantilever trusses that extend from the east and west walls.

For its part, The Pantagraph called the planned high school “students of the Lyceum of Bloomington to come – not a palace but certainly not a livery stable.”

“Cautious optimism” marked the high school’s dedication ceremony on August 20, 1957. Caution came from community leaders well aware that there was not enough funds to complete construction. The district had about $ 2.67 million for a school expected to cost an additional $ 500,000 or more.

Part of the problem involved the difficulties inherent in districts facing growing baby boom enrollments. At the same time, inflation, especially with regard to construction costs, has increasingly eaten away at capital budgets. But more than anything, the district’s shortfall was due to a decision by the Illinois Department of Revenue to set the tax multiplier at a point that raised county assessments to a lower rate than expected, meaning that in by the second half of the 1950s, Bloomington schools had less money than expected entering the district coffers.

“It will not be easy to provide adequate schools,” Senator David Davis IV told those gathered at the inauguration, “and it will tighten my wallet and your wallet.”

Given these fiscal realities, school officials felt they had no choice but to call a second bond referendum, which asked voters an additional $ 590,000, enough to complete. their high school education.

Architect Edgar Lundeen defended the school against accusations from disgruntled taxpayers that the new building was overpriced and extravagant. For example, Lundeen noted that the gymnasium’s cantilever trusses, unlike the grunts of some penny-seeking residents, did not add additional costs to the project. And in other cases of alleged debauchery, architects simply followed instructions guided by public comment and set by school officials, such as building a state-of-the-art auditorium separate from the gymnasium.

Fortunately, the October 1958 referendum was passed with relative ease – 4,576-2,460. Unsurprisingly, the bond issue proved to be the most popular on the high-growth east side, where support is strong. is located at 3 to 1 or more. With sufficient funds to complete construction, Bloomington High School welcomed its first students on September 9, 1959.

In 1967, district voters approved a referendum on the bonds of $ 5.3 million, of which about $ 3.1 million was set aside to double the size of the existing high school. New additions included the southern gymnasium and an area vocational training center.

Over the years, Bloomington High School has undergone other renovation and expansion projects. More recently, with a planned addition to the fine arts, local architect Russel Francois has ensured that his design work remains attentive to Richard Williams’ original architectural vision.

Unfortunately, not all of the past work has served the school well from an architectural point of view. For example, the South Gymnasium, which opened in 1970, is a utilitarian, square brick rectangle that clearly stands out against Williams’ airy modernism. The southern gymnasium also obstructs the view of the original gymnasium and part of the original classroom wing. A stroll down Locust Street once afforded the awe-inspiring view of a sleek and shiny school of the future perched on a hill and surrounded by an open expanse.

The school’s mid-century modern shine is still there, it’s just harder to see and appreciate.

Bill Kemp is librarian at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Darcy J. Skinner

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