Great Lakes Academy Expansion

  • area / size 75,000 sqft
  • Completed 2021
  • Wheeler Kearns Architects designed the expansion for Great Lakes Academy to give students more space for play, learning, and creativity in Chicago, Illinois.

    Wheeler Kearns Architects has completed its multi-phase, 75,000 square-foot renovation and expansion of Great Lakes Academy, a K-8 charter school in Chicago’s South Chicago neighborhood. This ambitious adaptive reuse project doubled the overall size of the campus by renovating an unused building adjacent to the existing academic building, connecting the two through a contemporary single-story glass link.

    Located at 8401 S. Saginaw Ave, Great Lakes Academy is just ten miles from downtown Chicago. This area was the center of Chicago’s booming steel industry from the beginning of the twentieth century through the 1950s when closures led to decades of disinvestment. The project revitalized most of a city block, building on the existing three-story brick masonry school that anchors the campus. Sustainability is considered throughout the project, minimizing new construction while leveraging existing building stock and implementing energy-efficient strategies.

    The design combines old and new, with the contemporary glass link mediating between the solidity of the historic school and church buildings which date back to 1911 and 1952, respectively. This intervention is open and lightweight, with high-performance floor-to-ceiling glass, thermally broken curtainwall framing systems, and internally-lit skylights filling the space with natural light. Atop, a green roof will reduce groundwater runoff, improve building thermal insulation, lessen the urban heat island, and offer enjoyable glimpses of green from above and below.

    The former Church of St. Mary Magdalene, which closed in 2015, now serves as a flexible multipurpose space. The south half of the building is both a gym and performance space, with a regulation-sized basketball court, volleyball court, climbing wall, stage, and green room. The north half of the building, separated by a sliding curtain, houses a cafeteria that will serve over 600 healthy breakfasts and lunches each day, prepared in the commercial kitchen. Other new facilities throughout the campus include a visual arts room, library, maker space, and an artificial turf field with seating.

    Students and the community consider the updated exterior of the campus a vital part of the Great Lakes Academy. A landscaped courtyard welcomes students and visitors into the new entrance. Outdoor spaces around the campus are designed for immersive activity, supporting learning through encouraging exploration and incorporating natural elements like boulders from a nearby Midwestern quarry. Outdoor seating allows teachers to hold classes outside and encourages families to socialize and play before and after school.

    Wheeler Kearns Architects designed the expanded campus to be used as efficiently and extensively as possible, including on weekends, evenings, and vacations. Since the staff can secure the academic spaces with doors at the link, the gymnasium, kitchen, and restrooms can quickly convert to host community programs, extracurricular activities, or professional development conferences after school hours.

    Design: Wheeler Kearns Architects
    Contractor: Bulley & Andrews
    Photography: Kendall McCaugherty | Hall + Merrick Photographers