Blue Light Special: The Chicago-Area High School in an Old Kmart

CityLab Ι May 8, 2017

Belvidere Road is an unremarkable stretch of suburbia in Waukegan, Ill., north of Chicago, lined with highway-sign staples: gas stations, car washes, fast-food joints, and a low-rent motel.

It was only after a previous deal to move his private high school into a converted office building fell through that Preston Kendall came up with the idea to slide into the abandoned Kmart here. Kendall saw the former store as a potential new home for Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, which serves nearly 400 low-income, mostly minority students.

An abandoned big-box store was few people’s idea of fresh start. The reaction from the board was, “‘I don’t know about this, but I trust you,’” recalled Kendall, the school’s president. “It was kind of a hard sell.”

But Kendall had deep roots with the Cristo Rey community that helped him bolster his case. He was one of the founders of the first Cristo Rey school in Pilsen, a historically Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. Now Cristo Rey is a national network of 32 schools; 98 percent of the network’s students are people of color. The Waukegan school opened in 2004.

Kendall also had a secret weapon in mind to help snap his vision into place. To design the school, he hired Juan Gabriel Moreno Associations (JGMA), a Chicago firm with a talent for wringing progressive design out of rock-bottom budgets in buildings that serve low-income and minority communities.

For example, the firm’s founder Juan Moreno designed a charter high school in Chicagothat’s clad in shimmering stainless steel panels woven into wafting curves and intense angles. This steel was the cheapest material available when construction began, and if it had been delayed by mere months, the entire exterior might have looked very different.

In the eyes of the architects, the empty big box was a blank canvas, easy and economical to convert. Which would be important. The entire budget for the 55,000-square-foot school was a low $10 million.

“Many would see this as a stigmatized big box,” said JGMA’s Katie LaCourt, who shepherded the project from conception to construction. “[But] we saw a lot of opportunity because of the tall volume and wide structural bays that already existed.”

The Cristo Rey network’s curriculum revolves around a unique work-study program, in which students spend one day each week working at a private company or non-profit off-campus. In lieu of a salary, these organizations pay the school for students’ tuition. Because of the money raised this way and through traditional fundraising, parents and students only have to pay about $1,000 per year. (The average family income is $37,000.) Ninety percent of network students enroll in college. The Waukegan school has 98-percent college enrollment, and nearly 60 percent of its students go on to get a bachelor’s degree.

As such, Kendall told JGMA: “Don’t build us a high school. Our kids are going to work. They’re going to college. Build us some cross between a corporate headquarters and a college campus.”

LaCourt responded by breaking up the massive store’s scale and clumsy, horizontal massing with strong colors and graphic signage (a signature JGMA element). She and her colleagues arranged floor plans that subtly and economically borrow from the previous structure of the Kmart. In the new school, natural light floods into a previously opaque box through dramatic clerestory windows, skylights, and floor-to-ceiling glass curtain walls that look out to a wetland, a favorite place for students to congregate.

“The natural light lightens the mood a bit,” said Samuel Alvarez, a senior.

Less than half of the Kmart has been converted so far, and there are plans for a fine-arts center, a religious space, a gym, and more. The possibility of expansion is prized by the school leadership, considering where it came from. Its previous facility was a Catholic elementary school meant for 200 small children, not 400 high schoolers.

Alvarez remembered students being late to class because there were so many people packed in the hallways. There were modular classrooms in a parking lot, and a church building that held the gym had to be decommissioned when it became structurally unsound.

Granted, their new home wasn’t much to look at at first. Abandoned for years, squatters had moved into the former Kmart, LaCourt said, and the building was tagged with graffiti during construction.

That hasn’t happened again since students moved in in February. The only colors on the outside are borrowed from the school’s heraldry. A blue, gold, and yellow gradient gives the big box a new identity and makes its presence obvious, although it’s set far back from the road. The front facade is mostly painted concrete, in a curious (for a Kmart) pattern of alternating corduroy and square blocks.

Inside, the school is organized around two north-south corridors and two large gathering spaces: the cafeteria and library. These parallel bands follow the structural bays and column supports of the original Kmart.

The cafeteria is off the main entrance. Lunch tables convert into bench pews, allowing the Catholic school to set up for mass underneath wide sawtooth skylights. Exposed ductwork and simple finishes predominate. (For flooring, LaCourt just tore out the store’s tiling, stained the underlying concrete blue, and polished it.)

“We spent our money removing the [Kmart] sign and bringing in windows,” said LaCourt. “So what did we have left? Pretty much just paint.”

Classrooms here are glass-walled, so from the hall, you can see terrariums in the biology lab, equations on a white board in the math classrooms, and fume hoods in the chemistry lab. The classrooms on the library wing are arranged in pavilion-scaled pods along each side, and not connected to the ceiling. This further scales down the spaces, making the them more intimate than the school’s 20-foot ceilings would suggest.

JGMA’s Kmart conversion is changing how other Cristo Rey schools attempt to reconcile outsized ambitions with their modest means. Big boxes might be the answer. Partially inspired by the Waukegan school, Kendall said, the Philadelphia Cristo Rey school is moving into an abandoned tricycle factory. In Milwaukee, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School will convert a vacant grocery store.

It’s a likely bet that all of these will echo the tech-firm corporate campus vibe seen in Waukegan, with its small huddle rooms, glass walls, sharp graphics, and social hang-out spaces. “The kids are elevated beyond a high school level, so we wanted to make it feel like they’re on a college campus or corporate environment,” said LaCourt.

This sensibility has spread from workplace design to permeate many building types in recent years, though it’s an open question whether these kinds of spaces can grow into holistic and warm places for learning. But Cristo Rey St. Martin, at least, is not too sterile for a nickname.

Aura Ulloa, a senior and one of first three students at the school to be accepted at Northwestern University, calls it “Cristo Rey St. Kmartin.”