New lives for old buildings: Evanston organizations repurpose empty school buildings


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

The structure that now serves as Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center was once a school. Community organizations in Evanston have been utilizing old school buildings for their events.

Alyce Brown, Reporter

Throughout the city, community-based organizations and services have moved into empty school buildings and given them second lives as gathering places and support centers. Here’s a look at some of these historic locations. 

Foster School turned Family Focus Evanston

Foster School was a public school in Evanston’s 5th Ward, and has been closed for over 50 years. Since then, community members have continuously pushed to reestablish a public, neighborhood school in the ward. Most recently, Evanston/Skokie School District 65 formed a committee to make recommendations on a 5th Ward school by March 2022. 

While there are no plans to house a 5th Ward school in its original location, there’s still history embedded in its space. Community members now use Foster School for Family Focus Evanston, a community service organization centered on education and family support.

The organization runs programs to support children’s education and provides support for families through parenting classes and coaching, as well as housing a food pantry and many other programs. Family Focus also rents out space to other community organizations.

Its early childhood programs are offered for children who are prenatal infants to those up to age three, Evanston center director Vanessa Allen-Graves said.

“We provide anything related to helping children meet milestones and be school-ready by the time they’re old enough for kindergarten,” Allen-Graves said.

For older children, Family Focus runs after-school programs that focus on both academic success and cultural learning. 

Third through eighth graders from various schools in the Evanston community come to Family Focus every day after school for the program.

These after school programs focus on STEM, literacy, visual arts, character development, life skills training and social-emotional growth, according to the Family Focus website.

Noyes Cultural Arts Center once an elementary school

The Noyes Cultural Arts Center, an art gallery and studio, has taken advantage of its repurposed school building in a slightly different way.

Since the 1980s, the center has occupied a former elementary school designed by well-known architect Daniel Burnham.

The city government owns the Noyes Center and rents out its space to artists and groups to use. Many groups, like the Actors Gymnasium and Piven Theatre, sponsor classes and performances at the center, while other tenants use the space as a studio.

Angela Allyn is the community arts program coordinator in Evanston Parks and Recreation Department and works on exhibits at the Noyes Center.

“The city has made a commitment to the arts by having this building, which offers a stable building dedicated to the arts in the heart of the community,” Allyn said. “Some (tenants) are visual artists, so they’re just here painting or drawing or taking pictures or making prints.

From an all-girls school to Evanston’s Civic Center

Evanston’s Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center was also once a school. The structure originally housed Marywood Academy, an all-girls Catholic school established in the early 1900s. 

Marywood, which at its height had a student population of about 500, covered an entire city block and housed classrooms and bedrooms for boarding students and nuns, according to an Illinois Historic Preservation Agency document. 

Now the building serves as a hub for the city government, with the area on the second floor that served as a chapel for Marywood Academy now holding the City Council chambers, according to the IHPA document. 

But it’s possible the Civic Center will relocate following years of resident concerns about the building’s location, accessibility and condition. 

City Engineer Lara Biggs said renovations to the current structure could cost anywhere from $20 to $24 million, according to a 2018 assessment of construction project costs.

“As a person whose job is to make sure our facilities are in good condition and operating properly, there’s a lot of problems with the Civic Center that don’t actually have to do with its current state,” Biggs said.

City Council voted Oct. 25 to move ahead with a relocation feasibility project for the Civic Center to determine the possibility of a move. According to Biggs, a move could potentially happen within the next three to five years.

But for now, community members and city officials will continue to convene in what was once a parochial school. 


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Twitter: @alycebrownn

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