For years, the school board and administration in Riverside Elementary School District 96 have wrestled with what to do about the windows at Blythe Park School. 

The school’s steel windows are original to the architecturally significant building, which was built in 1948 and designed by the renowned Chicago architectural firm of Perkins and Will. 

It is considered a masterpiece of mid-century school design and is designated a local landmark. But over the last 66 years the windows had deteriorated and they have become drafty.

Replacing the steel windows with relatively cheap and modern aluminum window frames would alter the look of the building due to thicker window frames and likely wouldn’t pass muster with the Riverside Preservation Commission, which has oversight over applications to modify the exteriors of landmark structures in the village.

The company that manufactured the original steel windows, New York-based Hope’s Steel Windows, is still in existence. However, the cost to replace all 120 or so windows with new steel windows was estimated to be about $1.1 million, a number that caused school officials to blanch. 

Adding in asbestos abatement, the cost to install new steel windows would come to about $1.3 million.

Replacing the original steel windows with aluminum windows that would nearly, but not quite, match the profile of the existing windows would cost about $850,000. 

So what should the district do?

District 96 Interim Director of Finance and Operations David Sellers was talking over the options with Preservation Commission Chairman Charles Pipal, who suggested that Sellers talk to Carol Dyson, the chief architect for the Illinois Historical Preservation Agency. 

Dyson told Sellers about a Chicago company that has perfected a proprietary process to add a second pane of glass to existing windows to create an insulated, energy-efficient window while preserving the original frames.

So, on May 17, the District 96 school board voted unanimously to award a $293,000 contract to Signa Systems to add another pane of glass to the existing windows at Blythe Park School. 

A retrofit glazing system will be applied to the existing exterior pane of glass to create  a hermetically sealed, insulated glazing unit. The existing steel window frames will also be scraped and painted.

“This creative solution preserves the original, architecturally significant windows, saves energy, makes the building more comfortable, and saves taxpayers a million dollars relative to the cost of new windows,” said Jeff Miller the president of the District 96 school board. “It never would have happened without close collaboration between our finance director, Mr. Sellers, and the historical preservation commission, especially with its chair, Charles Pipal. This is perfect example of the benefits of organizations cooperating for the public good.” 

In April, Signa Systems retrofitted the windows in one room at Blythe Park School as a demonstration project, which got the thumbs up from members of the Preservation Commission who gave it a look.

Pipal said that while replacing the windows with new Hope Steel Windows would be the Cadillac solution, the Signa Systems process works well for all parties. The Preservation Commission is expected to approve a certificate of appropriateness for the reglazing at its June 9 meeting.

“It’s a great solution, I think,” Pipal said.

Pipal should know. Signa Systems retrofitted some of the windows in a condominium that Pipal owns in a downtown Chicago building designed by famous architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe.

Signa Systems, a small specialized firm based in Chicago, has retrofitted the windows in numerous historic buildings such as the Chicago Theater, the Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Great Lakes Naval Training Center and the landmark Mies Van der Rohe building at 910 N. Lake Shore Drive.

Signa Systems is run by Richard Borys, who invented his propriety system of reglazing windows in Denmark in 1976. The company is giving the school district a 10-year warranty on its retrofit. At a May 3 school board meeting, Borys told the board that he has retrofitted windows that are more than 30 years old that have had no drop off in performance.

Borys estimated that the reglazing should reduce heat loss by about 60 percent at Blythe Park and outside noise by about 80 percent.

“Our goal is always for the old window to perform like a new replacement window,” Borys said.

Signa Systems submitted the only bid for the Blythe Park School window contract, because a requirement to participate in the bidding process was to have a record of a successful installation of double-paned windows that are at least 15 years old.

Interim Superintendent Patrick Patt praised Sellers for his work in finding Signa Systems and coming up with a creative and cost efficient solution.

“This was a great find,” Patt said. “We thought it would cost well over a million dollars but it came in at under $300,000.”