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IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK
Although 3241 S. Michigan Ave. has been our home for nearly 70 years, we were not always located here. As optometry advanced, ICO’s needs and locations changed as well. What remains is the photographic evidence that the past leaves behind. Searching through the archives, we found addresses through the city that have been “home” to our optometry students.
As the optometric profession became more regulated, especially through legislations, the need for additional space became evident. In 1922, NICOO evolved into NICO (Northern Illinois College of Optometry) and moved to Drexel Blvd. & 41st Street. By 1930, after a 5000 sq ft expansion, the former silent-movie studio was now a 12,000-square-foot facility. They advertised it as “the world’s most extensive plant for the exclusive teaching of optometry.”
If you’ve ever walked past our timeline at ICO, you might have wondered what the picture of an eye and a building in the background meant. The building is the Masonic Temple Building, previously located on the corner of Randolph and State Street. In 1895 it became the tallest building in the city. While NICOO (Northern Illinois College of Opthamology and Otology) was located there, NICOO’s advertisements prominently displayed the building. This way prospective students would associate the towering skyscraper with the prominence of both the school and the rising profession of optometry.
Before there was a Brady Hall or an RC, there was the Bernhard Hotel. And before that, there was no dormitory at all. Instead, many students would stay at nearby hotels like the Hyde Park YMCA. When the Bernhard Hotel was purchased in 1936, all non-resident students moved into the hotel.
In 1936, the Midwestern College of Optometry was established. A year later, it was renamed the Monroe College of Optometry. MCO moved to a building which had once been a poultry market. As one administrator recalled, “They say you could still smell the . . . chickens down on the ground floor.”
When the GI Bill passed, enrollment in both ICO and NICO exploded. For NICO, that meant expanding beyond the silent-movie studio and onto a six-building campus. In August 1947, the First Church of Christ Scientist building was bought for assemblies, lectures, and graduation ceremonies. Upper and lower stories of buildings nearby were also incorporated.
Our photo archive grows much larger after the mid-1940s. This is probably because photographs became more common, but also because there was a huge increase in the student population. Finally, MCO could much more effectively compete against NICO. For MCO, now renamed CCO (Chicago College of Optometry), this meant scaling up quickly. Since its founding, CCO had struggled to attract enough students. Now, suddenly, they were in a vastly different situation. To meet the new needs of students, 5 nineteenth-century brick-and-stone buildings were purchased which also included a clinic at the corner of Clark and Belden.
A New Home for ICO
By 1954, student enrollment at CCO had dropped from 480 in 1947 to 94. Both NICO and CCO were looking to relocate, and with the construction of IIT's campus, there was a lot of interest in affiliating and building near the newly developed campus. With the help of IIT’s board chairman, CCO purchased a parcel of land on S. Michigan Avenue.
Groundbreaking at CCO’s new campus took place on January 29. By the fall, the new structure, modeled after Mies van der Rohe’s modernist IIT campus, was ready to accept students. The weekend before classes started, a summer downpour flooded the school’s brand-new auditorium. The ICO family (then the CCO family) banded together to bail out water. That Monday, the fall session began on schedule.
June 9, 1955
With enrollment continuing to decrease, the two large optometric schools agreed to merge and to close their separate doors. The next day, June 10, 1955, Illinois College of Optometry opened. The new CCO building became ICO’s home while the N. Clark Street clinic served as the ICO Eye Clinic.
Growing Facilities and Growing Population
No building at ICO seems quite as iconic as the "Brady Hilton". Brady Hall was a place of community, hours of studying, and probably more than a few last-day-of-finals parties. At the same time, the clinic was being built. Today, the proximity of the clinic is one of the top reasons students choose ICO.
Brady Hall was built to end ICO’s heavy reliance on IIT’s campus. Since ICO was first built, housing, library, and cafeteria services were all provided by IIT. As both ICO and IIT’s student enrollments increased, this became unsustainable. In May 1964, the ground was broken for Brady Hall. Named after John J. Brady, a former chairman of ICO, it was built as a 3-story dormitory to house 170 unmarried male students. As the female student population began to grow, the dorm became co-ed.
If you’ve ever walked around the IEI, you might have noticed a corner stone dedicated to the “Eye Clinic” from 1968. As soon as Brady Hall was dedicated, ground was broken for a clinic wing. At that same time, the Department of Streets and Sanitation was planning its own expansion of Michigan Avenue into a 5-lane parkway. As Dr. Eugene Strawn, then president of ICO, pointed out, that would have meant “Michigan Avenue would run down the center of our main hallway in our College building.” Luckily, after a year of negotiating with the City, the need to liquidate all of ICO’s holdings and to move to the suburbs was solved. The City and ICO reached an agreement.
A Flagship Institution
As it stands today, ICO has gone through many changes. The infrastructure that we see today was mainly built in the 80s. The library, courtyard, and the IEI were all a part of a 50,000 square foot expansion that was finalized in 1985. Throughout ICO’s many years, optometry has advanced, and ICO has remained at the forefront of the latest technology because of the support of our alumni.
Alumni have played a key role in advancing the institution. In every instance, ICO would not be what it is today without the support of alumni. These leaders had the foresight and courage to build ICO into the force that it is today.
As we celebrate our 150th year, we honor those who made the profession what it is today, and we look forward to what the profession will become. We renew our commitment to remain at the forefront of teaching, training, discovery, and healthcare delivery, and we reflect on the importance of our alumni.
Alumni will continue to lead and stimulate innovation at ICO. Together, we can help this institution lead the way for the next 150 years.