The history of Crow Island School is an interesting story. The site on which Crow Island stands was, until the late thirties, a swamp, as was most of west Winnetka. Some of the grandparents of our present pupils recall wading and swimming in the area when they were children. A few high spots – “islands,” were in evidence. One, where the golf course is now located, was called “Strawberry Island,” because of the profusion of wild strawberries. Another, where the Crow Island Woods is still to be found, was called “Crow Island” because the crows liked to congregate there.
When the Skokie Marsh was dredged to drain the area, the fill was brought to west Winnetka and the swamps disappeared. Crow Island Woods remains behind the school today, an exquisite natural wooded area which provides for the school’s children an outdoor laboratory for learning and a virtually untouched forest where wildlife and wildflowers abound. Although most of the crows have left the island for less populated areas, Crow Island School now has its own permanent Crow in the form of a unique metal sculpture, designed and built by Winnetka lawyer-sculptor, Max Fleisher.
Like all good buildings, it grew from the inside out. The needs of the children determined the individual classroom shape and this, in turn, determined the basic design of the building. No better self-contained classrooms are to be found. Each classroom area has extensive natural light from the large low windows, numerous storage areas and display cases, its own private exit to an outdoor courtyard which the class may plant and maintain, acoustically treated ceilings and blackboards and other fixtures placed at the proper height for the children for whom the room was intended. In addition to the main classroom, each room contains a workroom plus a private lavatory.
The well-designed classrooms were grouped in three separate wings according to age level (a fourth wing was added in 1954) and connected by a core of rooms for common use: the auditorium, library, gym, activities room, administration, and so forth. The grounds and play area extending from the classroom wings were also zoned according to age groups which allows for increased freedom and greater safety in play activities. Incidentally, the “jungle gym” was developed in Winnetka’s schools at this time, a collaboration between Superintendent Washburne, North Shore Country Day School Headmaster Perry Dunlap Smith and patent attorney Sebastian Hinton.
Whenever the history of school architecture is discussed, Crow Island School is mentioned. In June of 1971, Lawrence B. Perkins, who headed the effort to build the school in 1940-41, for the architectural firm of Perkins, Wheeler, and Will (now the Perkins and Will Corporation), accepted the American Institute of Architects’ 25-Year Award for the school. The award has been given only once before, to the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Structures must be at least 25 years old to be eligible.
The deserved fame and superbly functional characteristics of Crow Island School stem from the painstaking planning of many people. The architects (Mr. Perkins, Eliel, and Eero Saarinen), the Superintendent of Schools (Carleton Washburne), the School Board, administrators, teachers, and other staff members were responsible for giving form to the dream. The grounds were developed by Robert Everly and John McFazdean, and the lovely ceramic sculptures were done by Lily Swann Saarinen.In 1975 Crow Island School received architectural recognition when its recently completed Resource Center was awarded citations for excellence of design by both the Illinois School Board Association and the American Association of School Administration (AASA) in cooperation with the American Library Association (ALA), and was featured in a display at the AASA Convention in Dallas. The U.S. Department of the Interior designated Crow Island School as a National Historic Landmark in 1990.