Transforming a Campus, students in Blaine courtyard walking up steps

Transforming a Campus

At the turn of the last century, as University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper worked to build bridges between scholarship and practice, Chicago became fertile ground for new work in the field of education. With his recruiting efforts, and the passion and support of activist and philanthropist Anita McCormick Blaine, by fall 1901 two educational innovators—Colonel Francis W. Parker and philosopher and Lab founder John Dewey—were operating schools at the University of Chicago. These precursors to the Laboratory Schools were housed, literally in houses: first on Kimbark Avenue, later on Rosalie Court (now called Harper Avenue), and then on Ellis Avenue. In 1903, the schools that Parker and Dewey had been operating separately merged and moved into the new Blaine Hall. 

Transforming a campus, Blaine Hall

Blaine Hall

A year earlier, three separate high schools—the Manual Training School, the South Side Academy, and a collection of students from Dewey’s school—had joined as one. They would form University High School and to welcome them, the University broke ground for Belfield Hall. Together, Blaine and Belfield Halls accommodated about 800 students and these grand Gothic structures served the Laboratory Schools well until the end of the 1950s. Also during that decade, Lab established its first formal middle school, led by teacher Raymond Lubway, AB’50, AM’57, who taught at Lab until 1990. (Lubway also hosted the WMAQ-TV series Read Me a Story in the mid-1960s and was a regular performer in Hyde Park’s Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company.)

As the total student body grew past 1,000, Lab opened the new high school in 1960—a three-story structure connecting Belfield and Blaine and regarded at the time as one of the most modern secondary school buildings in the United States. Among the modern features: rooms that could be reconfigured using collapsible wall panels (visit rooms C119/121 to see these on the Historic Campus), TV monitors in every classroom for instructional films (Lab had a library of more than 500 titles), science labs, and a foreign language lab at a time when such facilities were rare. Parents and alumni contributed $2.5 million to support the project and US Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur Flemming spoke at the dedication.

transforming a campus

And so Lab’s footprint and buildings remained relatively unchanged for decades, until in 1991 architecture firm Nagle Hartray created Lab’s first formal master plan. Recommended physical improvements were tied to a desire to increase the size of the Schools to 1,500 and to ensure that enrollment reflected the broad economic spectrum of the city. The five-year plan drove toward completion in the Schools’ centennial year. With board and director leadership, Lab’s first real capital campaign raised $5.1 million for a new middle school building, which opened in 1993. With more than 30,000 square feet, the new space replaced and expanded past the southern cloistered facade of the high school. As with most changes, this one brought both criticism and praise. Students lamented the loss of the bright and airy space that had fronted the high school and served as a central gathering spot. 

The robust planning and fundraising efforts paved the way for Lab to execute many other projects including renovating Rowley Library and the High School science labs. In 2001–2002, following the successful Campaign for the Gymnasium, the Schools constructed Kovler Gymnasium, a seamless addition to the 1920s-era Sunny Gym.  

By the early 2000s, the University (having already handed over portions of Judd Hall to Lab) began planning to make all of Judd ready for classroom and student use. In 2005, with the original master plan now well over a decade old, the Schools engaged Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in a next-stage master plan process. Lab received University approval in 2008 to move forward with the essence of SOM’s plan and the family of Earl Shapiro made the lead gift of $10 million to the Lab+ Campaign, igniting what would be the most significant transformation of Lab’s facilities in more than a century.  

The Lab+ Campaign represented the culmination of nearly a decade of facilities, programmatic, and enrollment planning, as school leaders responded to growth in demand from both the University and the broader community. Increasing the physical space at Lab would support a larger student body (more than 2,000) and allow Lab to maintain both a balance between University-affiliated and non-affiliated families and ensure the socio-economic and racial diversity that has been the hallmark of a Lab education for decades. Lab+ aimed to: 

  • Enhance the arts program with Lab’s first-ever purpose-built spaces to match students’ and teachers’ creativity and talent.  
  • Upgrade the Historic Campus to meet 21st-century learning standards including critical improvements, such as modernized HVAC and life-safety renovations, and add gathering areas—grand and intimate—and additional science and computer labs.
  • Build a transformative new early childhood campus to house Lab’s renowned N–2 program and provide our youngest learners with spaces tailored to maximize their independence and seamlessly connect indoor and outdoor learning.  
  • Increase student aid to help prevent financial considerations from getting in the way of attracting outstanding students to our Schools.
  • Enhance our libraries, making it possible for each of the four divisions to have its own library with expanded collections and new workspaces. 
Transforming a Campus, students reading at Lim Family Library

Lim Family Library, Earl Shapiro Hall

After Lab broke ground on the Stony Island site that would become Earl Shapiro Hall, it became a field trip destination and opportunity for inquiry. Nursery teacher Carrie Collin made weekly visits with her students in the spring of 2012. “Anytime we go for a walk, we come back and debrief as a group,” she said. She prompted the children to reflect on what they saw and guided them to posit and discuss answers to their own questions: 

  • How will the workers put in the windows (a.k.a., “the ice” to one marveling child)? (They’ll have to wear gloves.)
  • Will they build our playgrounds before the inside of the building? (The cranes and big machines might run over our new play equipment.) 
  • I saw lightning this morning. Will the workers be OK? (Someone probably called them and told them to stay home.) 

The children had a chance to look at the actual blueprints, drawing parallels with Ms. Collin to building with LEGOs. 

This would not be the last time that Lab’s major construction projects allowed students an opportunity for experiential learning. A few years later, students across the Lower School partnered with playground designers in a design-thinking project that ultimately translated into the students having specific and direct input into the final design of a new Kenwood Mall playground. “The last thing we wanted to do was create a space that all the adults had figured out,” said Lower School Principal Sylvie Anglin. “It was really important when we started thinking about these spaces that were going to be used by the children that we had students’ voices and ideas represented.” Students generated ideas in a design lab and gathered input through surveys. Then they explored the balance between imagination and practicality to ask, “What’s the most feasible and the most fun?”

The Lab+ initiative offered an expansive vision for the Schools, one that resonated with alumni and families who made transformative, historic gifts to the Laboratory Schools. In 2011, Sherry Lansing, ’62, a pioneer in the film industry, committed $5 million to support a major new facility for performing and visual arts. “Lab taught me how to think,” Lansing said. “My education there wasn’t simply a matter of learning particular facts, but of learning to question, to analyze, and to think strategically. It was a special place, and whenever I come back to Lab and to the University, the memories come flooding back.”

Transforming a Campus, Gordon Parks Arts Hall Auditorium

Auditorium, Gordon Parks Arts Hall

In 2014, the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation gave $25 million in support of the Schools’ new arts hall. This largest gift in Lab’s history concluded the Lab+ Campaign, which ultimately raised $80 million, far surpassing the original $40 million goal. At the request of financial executive Mellody Hobson and her husband, George Lucas, the new building was named in honor of the iconic American photographer, writer, film director, musician, and social justice advocate Gordon Parks. 

That fall, students returned to a completely renovated Blaine Hall. The Schools and architects had worked to preserve quintessentially Blaine elements—the lobby retains its historic beauty (with better lighting), the original Katharine Martin water fountain is still on the first floor, and you will find two original stone staircases. To the casual observer, the newly restored and renovated Blaine Hall might seem, well, still Blaine Hall. But, for the educators working there, the renovation was an invitation to innovate. Teachers seized opportunities to reimagine how their learning spaces could help children engage with their work. Mobile bookcases create study nooks on the floor. Curved desks turn students toward one another to stimulate interaction. Tall tables let kids get above the fray to see things from a different perspective.

When Gordon Parks Arts Hall opened in 2015, the Schools finally had spaces specifically designed for the arts: Middle and High School theaters, music and art studios, rehearsal spaces, kilns, and costume and scene shops. The beautiful building allowed Lab to expand its arts offerings, adding filmmaking, for example, thanks to a dedicated digital media lab. 

By the next fall, for the first time in five years, school began without a major construction project underway. Over that summer, the final Historic Campus work had been completed: Lab now occupied the entirety of Judd Hall, Judd and U-High had been entirely renovated, and the cafeteria had been wholly transformed. Wrote Interim Director Beth Harris that September, “I am convinced that Lab is significantly stronger and better than it was when we embarked on the expansion and building project a decade ago.”

In 2016, University Trustee John W. Rogers, Jr., ’76, made a gift of $10.5 million to the University, in support of scholarships at Lab and a program in the College that enables under-resourced students to pursue careers in finance. Rogers’ gift was a powerful contribution to Lab’s ever growing commitment to financial aid, helping Lab support more of the students it could now draw to its newly renovated and expanded campus.