A History of Robert A. Waller • Lincoln Park High School
One Hundred Years in Lincoln Park
One-hundred years ago a high school was built at the corner of Orchard and Armitage (then Center Street), right in the heart of Lincoln Park, a growing community on Chicago’s north side. As the city of Chicago recovered from the Great Fire and began to prosper again, many citizens were moving north where land was fairly cheap. A number of elementary schools, a university, hospitals, churches and other institutions already had been established in the area, but there was a need for a high school.
The history of the school actually begins when North Division High School was established in 1875 as the first north side high school in the city of Chicago. It was one of three division high schools – the North, South, and West – opened to supplement Chicago’s first high school, Central High School, which had become inadequate to meet the needs of Chicago’s growing population. North Division was first located at 1130 North State (State and Elm) in five rooms of the Sheldon School. In 1884, in order to accommodate the expanding enrollment, the school was moved to larger quarters at Wells and Wendell Streets. This building later became the Sexton School.
As the new century approached, it became clear more space was needed, and the erection of a new building at the current location was begun in 1899. In 1900 the school officially opened and was renamed Robert A. Waller High School. However, for another two decades, the school continued to be referred to as North Division as well as by its new name. Its Greek revival style, in keeping with the grand architectural style of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, made it a striking addition to the community.
Robert A. Waller was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1850. His father, James B. Waller moved the family to Chicago (the LakeView area) and became prominent in real estate, civic work, and social circles. Robert A. attended Chicago public schools and graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. His work in real estate led to the development of the Buena Park neighborhood on the north side in the 1880’s. Later, he ran an insurance business with his brother at 164 LaSalle Street and was very active in civic affairs. He served as president of the Lincoln Park Board from 1892-1894, was selected to serve as second vice-president and on the Board of the Columbian Exposition (in 1890-1893) which included Cyrus McCormick, Joseph Medill and Potter Palmer, and was appointed City Comptroller in 1897 by Mayor Carter H. Harrison. He died on February 17, 1899 while still in office.
The first principal of Waller High School was Oliver S. Westcott, who had been the principal of North Division for 18 years. The students came to the new building from the old building at all class levels as soon as the building was ready. A 1903 issue of the Yellow and Blue, the school newspaper, lists 82 graduates. Of those graduates, a high percentage were of German ancestry. The first yearbook was published in 1910 and lists 31 faculty members. There were numerous student organizations including very active debate and drama groups. Athletic teams enjoyed varying degrees of success but garnered a good deal of student attention. Musically, the 75-member Glee Club was very active and a fledgling 13-member Orchestra included the principal playing flute. The 1910 yearbook also reports that 310 freshmen entered that year. Only 101 graduated in 1913.
By 1913 an Alumni Association had been formed and a Parent-Teacher Association organized. According the PTA annual report, only 10 percent of grammar school students were entering high school, and one of their chief concerns was getting more grammar school students to enroll in Waller High School. In anticipation of an increasing enrollment, a campaign was launched by students and supported by the PTA to get an addition built to the school since the lack of sufficient space had already become a problem. By 1917 the enrollment of the school was approximately 870. During World War I, students were very involved in the Waller Red Cross Unit , both raising money and making clothing articles for soldiers and refugees. When many boys returned from military service, the need for more space became critical. In 1919 the ROTC was established at Waller.
During the 20’s the two-year vocational program with a mid-year graduation increased in popularity. This program featured a strong commercial (business) component. Numerous clubs, organizations, and sports activities received strong student support. The Parents’ Night was a great success as were several Alumni events. An active Student Council continued the passionate crusade for a bigger building. The student body had grown so large that four portables (trailer size units) were in use and music classes were held in the Presbyterian Church across the street. The land just north of the building had already been condemned and the Board approved the building of an "annex" in 1928. However, with the Stock Market Crash and ensuing Great Depression, it would be another 10 years before the addition became a reality.
The hard times of the 30’s affected not only families but also the school system. Teachers were not paid on a regular basis; equipment and supplies were not available. The space problem continued however, because more students were attending school. In addition to the portables, the Franklin Branch (located next to the present Franklin Fine Arts Academy) was opened in 1934 with a full complement of academic courses and extra-curricular activities. The branch was to remain in existence until 1948. Students living between Illinois Street and North Avenue went to the branch for two years and then were integrated into the student body in the main building.
In 1935, the first girl’s competitive basketball team was organized. In spite of the lingering effects of the Depression, a Riding Club (Boots and Saddle), a Skating Club and a Hiking Club were added to the roster of extra-curricular activities. Junior-Senior Dancing begun in 1910 was still immensely popular. Every Friday there was an after-school dance with music provided by a student Orchestra. At long last, construction began on the long-awaited "Annex", and the work was completed by the fall of 1938. The portables were finally removed.
The school community happily settled into the new addition with its wider corridors, office space, new science rooms, two gyms and a swimming pool. In the "old" building, the gym was transformed into a two-story lunchroom. The added space allowed for the addition of an Industrial Arts Department which included Home Economics. In 1940 the 65th anniversary of Waller-North Division was celebrated with a gala dinner, a visit from actress Lillian Gish and the establishment of an alumni-sponsored vocational guidance and job placement program for students and alumni.
The entry of the United States into World War II greatly affected the life of the Waller community. A Roll of Honor in the 1945 Wallerian notes that serving in some branch of the military were former and current Waller students, numbering 928 boys and 8 girls. Waller students still in school raised $9000 through the sale of Bonds and Stamps and held numerous drives for scrap rubber, metal, paper and soap. When the war was over, the male student population began to increase and the school received a major face-lift with the painting of the interior of the building.
The 1950’s brought changes in the neighborhood as many middle class families moved to other areas of the city where housing was more affordable. Nevertheless, social activities flourished at Waller. The Waller Activity Night Program (also sometimes called the Waller Social Center) began and continued on into the 60’s. It was open every Friday night to young people of the Lincoln Park community and included roller skating (in the halls!), dancing, swimming, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, board games and other activities. It was supervised by faculty members, and a student committee worked with the administration to run the program. Homecomings were big events and, until 1966, they were sponsored by the Alumni Association. An elaborate voting system was in place for the selection of the Queen and her court, and the annual event received a great deal of publicity. The Homecoming Dances took place in the large gym.
It was a relatively tranquil time characterized by balance, racially and academically. The school population in the early 60’s was almost ideally integrated, and included a rich ethnic, as well as racial, mix. Yearbooks celebrated the diversity and the harmony that existed. The college preparatory emphasis was strong but so were the various vocational programs and work-study opportunities. Night classes were offered.
The enrollment was at an all-time high, and portables were again in use. In 1962, the Lincoln Park Conservation Association played an important role in persuading the Board of Education to make improvements once again. The school population of 2,350 gained badly needed space with the addition of a north wing that included an auditorium, lunchroom and music rooms. Further, changes were made in the existing building that made it possible to move the library into the former assembly hall and to make a suite of offices for the counseling staff by dividing the former two-storied lunchroom into two floors.
By the mid-60’s, Waller High School encountered the struggles for racial accord that consumed the nation. The increasing shabbiness of the school building, broken and boarded up windows and graffiti projected a negative image to the community. The proud claim to a successfully integrated school began to be eroded by actions beyond the school’s control. Urban renewal clearance displaced scores of families as did remodeling projects that boosted rent, resulting in a loss of 20% of the student body in a four year period. Further, Waller’s participation in the permissive-transfer plan accounted for dramatic changes in the school population. The number of racial incidents began to escalate. As staff and community worked together to improve the situation, the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King brought Waller more deeply into the turmoil experienced throughout the city and nation.
In the wake of the assassination, militant students saw some of their demands for curricula and teachers that explored black and Latino culture become realities. Waller was one of the first four Chicago schools to get an Afro-American history course. The Community Arts Foundation organized an artists-in-residence program which brought students in touch with artists such as Second City’s Paul Sills, novelist John Schultz, jazz-rock composer Bill Russo and choreographer Katherine Dunham, who started the unusual and exciting Walla Wa Basics dance troupe which explored and performed African dances.
But problems plagued the school into the 70’s. At one point in 1972, a Waller satellite school at 800 North Clark Street (in the offices of the North Urban Progress Center) was in business with over 70 students. Although many students were there for disciplinary reasons, some attended to avoid the difficult environment in the main building. In 1979, the school population was down to just over 1,000 students.
Community leaders and elementary feeder school parents, including some from the Cabrini-Green public housing development, continued to work on the problems, and gradually an optimistic spirit of cooperation began to develop. With the appointment of Margaret Harrigan as the District Superintendent in 1976, concrete plans for the renewal and revitalization of the school began in earnest. The vision was to return the school to one of highest academic quality and opportunity while working to regain an integrated student body. This was to be achieved through the implementation of federally-funded "Access to Excellence" magnet programs in languages, in science, and in the fine arts (1978), and the establishment of an International Baccalaureate Program (1981), a rigorous academic program in selected schools world-wide.
By 1979 it was time for the new beginning. To dramatize the transformation that was taking place, the name of the school was again changed, this time to Lincoln Park High School. Orchard Street in front of the school was closed to traffic to create a mall from Armitage Street to Oz Park. The Arnold Upper Grade Center became known as the "west building" as Lincoln Park utilized more and more rooms in that building. In 1996, the greater part of the west building was converted to a Freshman Academy.
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan publicly praised Lincoln Park High School, as the school produced many Science and History Fair winners, Illinois State Scholars and National Merit Scholars. A strong PTA raised funds for school programs. The racial balance began to be restored. By the early 90’s, approximately half the student body participated in one of the magnet programs while the other half comprised the general high school. During the decade of the 90’s the school enrollment fluctuated between 1500 and 2000 students.
As the new century begins, the school is consistently among the top public high schools in test scores and other measures of academic achievement. About 90% of graduates pursue some form of higher education, accepted at 160 colleges worldwide. Numerous improvements have been made in the exterior as well as interior of the building. Community groups support the school. Lincoln Park High School/Waller stands proud at the corner of Orchard and Armitage. It has survived and prospered through good times and bad. The school community has entered the new millennium with the same commitment and imagination that has made this institution an important part of Lincoln Park for 100 years.
-Written by Colleen Henry