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History and Art of Oakton Elementary

Built in 1914, Oakton is one of Evanston’s oldest and most beautiful schools. Our hallways and classrooms are still adorned with the original woodwork, tile inlays and vivid murals created by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration in the 1930s, including the WPA mural in our auditorium featuring a stunning mural depicting the medieval epic poem The Song of Roland.

Visitors to Oakton Elementary School often remark on the school’s aesthetic beauty. The building was designed by renowned school architect and urban planner Dwight Perkins (1867-1941). The original building opened in 1914 and a later kindergarten (now first grade) wing was added in 1928. Following Perkins’s belief that gymnasiums and large auditoriums could double as community gathering places, the centerpiece of Oakton School is the theater/auditorium. With its fireplaces, wood paneling and the recently renovated Song of Roland mural, this lofty space evokes the grand reception halls of medieval castles.

Walking along the hallways of the school, visitors will encounter several pieces of permanent art. There are a number of rare-tile installations, including several tile benches and a large wall composition of 16th-century Persian tiles depicting a group of people in an outdoor setting donated by former superintendent Frederick Nichols (1858-1948). Outside of the library is a wall installation of rare tiles depicting a rural scene with cows. The first grade wing is home to a sequence of early 20th-century American tiles embedded in the ceramic brick walls lining the hallways and stairwells.

Oakton School contains several pieces of WPA work. There is a pair of WPA wood-relief carvings (one of wild animals, the other of farm animals) by Alfred Lenzi (1906-1986). Full-size plaster models of the 2 panels were exhibited at the San Francisco World’s Fair and singled out by the Sculpture Jury of the Fair “as among the most outstanding creations of the year.” There is a WPA diorama entitled First Chicago Railroad (Galena & Chicago Union R.R.) on display in the library hallway. Lastly, a damaged piece of WPA work remains outside on Austin Street. The ceramic top of a former sundial created by Louise Pain has been removed, but the carved stone base remains with the Latin inscription “Sine Sole Nihil” (without sun, nothing).

Oakton's Unity Fence featuring self-portraits created by 5th graders

In 2010, world-renowned poster artist Jay Ryan (see his website and Facebook page) created a screen printed, signed and numbered poster to promote Oakton School as part of an annual fundraiser. Art continues to flourish as the hallways fill throughout the year with student work. One example of student art is the "Unity Fence” on the north side of the school yard near the bus turnaround.  Fifth graders create self-portraits on fenceposts that are added to the display each spring.

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Most recently, Oakton PTA worked with artist Rahmaan Statik on a mural titled "Solidarity" located on the north side of the school building near the bus turnaround.  Statik's phenomenal work can be found all over Chicago and thanks to project partners Evanston Mural Arts we were able to get him to partner with us.  The themes of the mural communicate solidarity, interconnectedness and celebration. The mural was dedicated to the spirit of the Oakton community on November 21, 2021.

Beauty surrounds Oakton School—in its vibrant community, historic architecture, and impressive collection of art pieces. We hope that this history of Oakton’s art, past and present, will give you pause the next time you visit our amazing school.

Reference: Andreotti, M. (2007). Preliminary Survey of Historic Art in the Evanston Schools.

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