The History of the Disney Magnet School

Was doing some research about something else, and found this brief history of the Disney Magnet School.  The info is on the now seemingly defunct blog design.slinger. The website was last updated in 2015, and seems to have a fair amount of architectural information about Chicago buildings. It’s definitely worth checking out.

I am reproducing the information and photos about the Disney Magnet School here, in case that website somehow goes defunct.


Walt Disney Magnet School
 by: chicago designslinger
[Walt Disney Magnet School (1973) Perkins + Will, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
When newly appointed Chicago schools superintendent James Redmond arrived in the  city in 1966 he told reporters that he was coming “to prove that the big-city school system is not doomed to failure.” The school board, with Mayor Richard J. Daley’s approval, had offered Redmond the job after a nationwide search, and came with a mandate from the mayor to deal with an educational system facing institutional challenges as the nation’s urban centers were undergoing major economic and demographic changes.
[Walt Disney Magnet School, 4140 N. Marine Drive, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
An idea had been brewing in education circles about creating schools with a targeted area of study that would serve as a magnet for the entire system and draw from a citywide student body, rather than from just a traditional neighborhood-based district. By featuring a specific area of study open to all students, the school had the potential to reflect more of the overall population of the entire city. It was a way to desegregate local school districts, and offer an educational program outside the boundaries of the traditional curriculum. Redmond was ready to put Chicago on the magnet map, and with the approval of the school board and the mayor, he put a plan in motion. The next decision was where.
[Walt Disney Magnet School, Uptown, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Long before Chicago had a Millennium Park, the only land area that existed between State Street and the shoreline of Lake Michigan was a stretch of sand along the eastern border of the future State Street, and the eastern edge of today’s Michigan Avenue. East of there it was all water. That sandy land mass was the “United States’ Reservation” which extended all the way from the Chicago River south to today’s Roosevelt Road, and included Fort Dearborn. In 1846 former Chicago mayor, Congressman John Wentworth got his colleagues in Washington to authorize the establishment of a marine and naval department at the fort. Then in 1852 Congress authorized the construction of a hospital just outside the fort on Reservation land, directly below today’s elevated southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. The facility would serve all men who were serving, or had served, in the nation’s merchant marine.
[Walt Disney Magnet School, Buena Park, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By the end of the 1860s the fort had been decommissioned, was falling apart, and the feds decided to look for a new location for the marine hospital. In 1869 they found an 8-acre piece of property far outside the city’s northern boundary in Buena Park, near Rees and Hundley’s Lake View House hotel. A handsome, 3-story, mansard-roofed building was ready for its first patients in 1872, and operated as a medical service facility for nearly 100 years.
The original hospital that was on the Disney site.
When the U.S Department of Health Education & Welfare decided to close the former hospital building’s doors in 1967, several local government agencies wanted to get their hands on the property. The Chicago Board of Education came-out as the winner, and Redmond decided that this is where Chicago’s first magnet experiment would begin. Now the name.
[Walt Disney Magnet School, Marine Drive, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901 in a 2-story frame house his father had built at 2156 N. Tripp Avenue in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood. Since the magnet school program was going to have an emphasis on the communication arts, why not pay tribute to Chicago-born, uber-arts communicator for “children of all ages,” Walt Disney. The first students attended classes in renovated portions of the old hospital building in September, 1969 while the city’s public works commission worked with architects Perkins + Will on the design of a modern building that would compliment the new school’s program. Disney Magnet would not give traditional grades, class times would be flexible, and the future 2,000 students would come from a city-wide pool of applicants whose attendance at Disney would be determined by a computer. The new building was ready for occupancy at the start of the school year in 1973. It had been constructed at the eastern edge of the now 11-acre property so that the old hospital building could be used until the very end, when it was finally torn down. Walt Disney had died in 1966, but his daughter Diane Disney Miller maintained a relationship with the school named for her father. By the time of her death in 2013, Miller had donated over $1 million to the school and its programs, including $250,000 to establish an animation lab. Redmond’s initial experiment with the magnet program has resulted in the establishment of fifty-two magnet schools in the city; forty-six for pre-school and elementary grades, six at the high school level. Disney is still focused on the communication arts, draws students for the north and northwest sides of Chicago, with student applicants still selected through a lottery system by a computer.