Embracing the past
Located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, The School House is a restored 1947 midcentury-modern school reimagined as a versatile social space for various activities, such as events, pickleball, architectural antique galleries, and dining.
The project took a delicate approach to renovations and additions, balancing the school’s intrinsic charm and character with contemporary interventions to create a welcoming, vibrant, and accessible venue that accommodates a wide range of uses.
Within its walls, history converges with innovation. In the former principal’s office, an open café features a warm tambour wood-clad bar that complements the eclectic mix of furnishings and artifacts by the tenant, Architectural Artifacts. The classic vintage gymnasium—with original ticket windows, wall tiles, and an arched glulam and wood plank ceiling—was repurposed into a large event space featuring pickleball courts and a bar in the former cafeteria serving line. Adjacent, a new commercial kitchen in a former classroom supports the venue’s in-house restaurant and catering. Across the facility, classrooms are converted into rentable study, presentation, or co-working rooms, all uniquely adorned with nostalgic details like tiles, lighting, slate chalkboards, corkboards, and a curated collection of antiques.
To support the new uses and ensure the building is inclusive and safe for all visitors, major life safety and accessibility improvements were made, including a new and efficient mechanical system, wheelchair lifts, and ADA-compliant gender-neutral bathrooms. The existing concrete floor was ground and polished and exposed concrete ceilings are celebrated with white paint. In the former gymnasium, water-damaged wood planks were covered with color-matched tectum panels that add acoustic absorption into the space while remaining visually discreet. The original pendants remain and are supplemented with new high-output uplighting to provide endless flexibility.
Stepping outside, nestled between the school’s enduring masonry walls and a fence bordered by trees, an intimate courtyard is a natural extension of the event space. Here, overhead lights create a sense of scale, complemented by wood stairs and benches that add warmth and texture. On the north side, a sidewalk café is designed to be open and expansive. Matching fence elements, string lights, and stairs visually tie the two exterior spaces together.
A blend of history, art, and modern conveniences, The School House is a powerful testament to heritage preservation. By reimagining a midcentury-modern school into a dynamic, multi-purpose social hub, the project showcases how the past and present can harmoniously coexist, demonstrating that history need not be sacrificed for progress.