For much of the 20th century, it was the engine that powered one of nation's most massive retail operations. But by the beginning of the 21st century, the historic building was no longer needed to supply energy to what remained of the once bustling Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus on the West Side of Chicago.
The original purpose of the Power House, as the facility has been known since it was built in 1905, ended a few years ago when it was decommissioned. But the days of dormancy won't last long for the edifice. In 2009, extensive renovations will be completed, and students and teachers will transform the building into the Henry Ford Academy: Power House Charter High School.
Educators — especially those operating charter and private schools — searching for spaces suitable to house their schools often turn to facilities that at first glance might seem an odd match for classroom space. As construction costs climb and the availability of traditional sites dwindles, administrators and architects are able to envision education facilities in improbable settings — whether it's an old power plant, a shuttered shoe factory or a vacant shopping mall.
The Power House is one example among many in which educators, architects and community members come together to provide critically needed education space, give new life to unwanted or obsolete structures, and stretch the definition of what can be an effective and inspiring learning environment.
“The only limit is our imagination,” says Kristin Dean, president of Homan Square, which is redeveloping the old Sears complex.
As the world's largest retailer in the early 1900s, Sears needed a sprawling campus to house its headquarters and store the mountain of goods it mailed to its catalog customers across the nation. The complex it built in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood included a mail-order plant with more than 3 million square feet of space, rail spurs to bring merchandise in and out of the campus, and numerous other buildings, including the Power House.
The retailer moved its headquarters to downtown Chicago in 1973 when it opened the world's tallest building, the Sears Tower. By 1988, Sears had ended most of its operations at the West Side campus, and the neighborhood, steeped in poverty and population decline, desperately needed a boost. The company's top executive, Ed Brennan, sought out developer Charlie Shaw to come up with a plan for revitalizing the area using the solidly built Sears structures as a foundation.
The Homan Square developers brought in new housing, a community center, health services and other amenities. They had determined that because of the Power House's placement on the National Register of Historic Places, and because of the nature of the building itself, its best chance at finding a successful new purpose would be as an educational or non-profit facility.