The Book of Knowledge sculpture anchors The Commons area at Oak Park and River Forest High School. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

If there’s anything constant, it’s change. And change is certainly afoot at Oak Park and River Forest High School where Phase 1 of the massive Imagine Oak Park remaking of the Scoville Avenue campus is focused this year on the core public area inside the main Scoville entrance, through the student common area, to the now rebuilt cafeterias and new library.

But there’s also much to be said for continuity.

It is right there in “The Commons,” between the main auditorium and the Little Theatre where, in a nod to its history, the school has resurrected the “Book of Knowledge” image, an architectural relic from the exterior of the school’s original 1907 entrance off Ontario Street, which was closed off in the late 1960s. 

The sculpture as seen in an OPRF 1930’s yearbook. (Provided)

Before now, the Book of Knowledge had not seen the light of day for 50 some years. It was in pieces, covered by a tarp, and stashed in a tunnel under the high school. 

Dr. Greg Johnson, the school’s new superintendent, was newly hired in 2017 as associate superintendent when he visited his grandmother, an OPRF alumna, class of 1937. Geraldine (Nichols) Salchow gave him her senior yearbook. She flipped it open and asked if the Book of Knowledge still existed at the school.

He went to Fred Preuss, director of Building & Grounds, who showed it to Johnson, “stepping over pipes and ducking under other pipes” to reach it.  

“What’s really interesting is a grad from 1937 … still remembered this as something really special and that took her back to her days as a high school student,” Johnson said. “For her, this image of the staircase and The Book of Knowledge was an iconic symbol of the high school. It’s pretty nice to be able to bring it back.

“It’s taking this really nice image of history and putting it within a brand new context, meaning we always need to evolve and change, but it’s really important to know our history; it’s really important to know where we come from, and to cherish that, but not at the expense, of course, of not evolving and growing and doing what we need to do as a full learning organization,” said Johnson. “So embedding this old in the new encapsulates that to some extent, which I love.” 

The hulking limestone architectural element encased in wood and glass sits near where it overlooked those teens of long ago entering the building. Now, though hard to imagine, Ontario Street, which ends in a “T” intersection at Scoville where the current main entrance is located, continued through to the athletic fields west of the school. The original main entrance to the school, with its grand staircase was where the Little Theatre now stands.

In the mid- to late-1960s, the original building, which had already gone through several modifications over the years, was connected to the athletic facilities south of Ontario Street. This addition added both the Little Theatre and auditorium, music instruction space, two cafeterias and more than 50 classrooms. It also meant the Ontario Street main entrance was demolished. The Book of Knowledge was saved, however, cut into pieces and hidden away for another day. 

  While the sculpture was reassembled from seven pieces in storage, part of it was missing — the center section, which appears to be the top portion of the book, surrounded by oak leaves. The solution is to put in another item of significance to students and alumni. An etched glass OPRF crest will fill the void.

“If you think about this Book of Knowledge when it was still intact as being something that is emblematic of the high school, it’s a lasting symbol of the school for folks who graduated [then],” Johnson said. “The crest is equally that symbol, even though it’s not just in one location.”  

The OPRF crest, which dates to 1908, has three main elements. Its oak leaves and acorn represent Oak Park. Wavy lines and three trees represent River Forest. And Ta’Garista (ΤΑ Γ’ΑΡΙΣΤΑ) translates from Greek to “the best,” and relates to the school motto, “Those things that are best.” The school itself has origins dating back to 1873 and was located elsewhere (south of Lake Street on East Avenue) before moving to the current site.

“The idea is to incorporate another iconic image within this historic iconic image, which is special,” Johnson said. “Not all schools have a history like this.”  

The glass-etched crest is expected to be put into place in the next few weeks. Also coming is a mural showing what the original 1907 façade looked like, with a plaque about The Book of Knowledge. Both will be in the waiting area alcove at the front entrance.

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