Best Gyms: The Amazing Drapes of Chicago Public League Gyms

A backboard between drapes at Steinmetz H.S.. The backboard is actually at half-court on the west sideline wall. Part of the photo series Illinois’ Best High School Gyms; Steinmetz H.S., Chicago, on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

The Amazing Drapes of Chicago Public League Gyms

A little joke I like to make is, “I’m willing to bet there is a line item on CPS’ budget sheet for draperies.” If you’ve spent enough time going to games at some of the Chicago Public High School gyms you may get that joke.

So, as I’m going over photos from my “Best Illinois High School Gyms” project, I keep meaning to post a collection of these draperies. Because yes, I’ve taken photos of them most times I see a set.

Chicago Vocational Career Academy (previously Chicago Vocational School)

Illinois varsity high school boys IHSA Class 3A Sectional Championship playoff basketball game between the Indians of Hyde Park from Chicago and the Bengals of Bogan from Chicago at Chicago Vocational, in Chicago on March 14, 2014. (Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

Chicago Vocational has probably the best looking drape set I’ve seen so far. The gym’s drapes are capped off with a yellow crown fringe (no idea what what the technical name for that would be) and that overlays the main navy blue drapes that go from the ceiling to bleacher’s top row. The school has a few of the mid-court drapes adorned with their initials “CVCA” in yellow.

Now I know some of you may be thinking that Vocational’s colors are navy blue & gold, but like many schools that claim gold as their color, the colors used typically resemble yellow not gold, so I’m calling it like it is.

According to the book “Why Mascots Have Tales”, published in 2005, only one Illinois high school uses the color “yellow” in their color scheme; Chicago Military Academy – Bronzeville.

Lane Tech’s Gym

Part of the photo series Illinois’ Best High School Gyms; Lane Tech gym, Chicago. The drapes behind the backboard that surround the scoreboard at Lane Tech, Chicago, on Jan. 26, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

Lane Tech, like more than a few Chicago Public high schools, has a gym located on an upper floor. Add to that it is located on the far western side of the school, with west facing windows and you can see why some of these schools have hefty drapes with blackout material backing them.

Steinmetz High School’s Gyms

The middle gym at Steinmetz is a throwback to when gyms were about fitness. Although I will admit some of the ropes and pulley systems in there resemble torture devices.. Part of the photo series Illinois’ Best High School Gyms; Steinmetz H.S., Chicago, on Monday, Feb. 7, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

Again, Steinmetz has a gym located on an upper floor. In this case the court is on the third floor, but with all the seating in a balcony, spectators actually have to walk up to the fourth floor, which is also where the windows are. Despite being in the densely populated Belmont Cragin neighborhood, the buildings surrounding the school are typically only one-to-two story homes and these west facing windows run along the side of the court.

Not helping the drape budget at Steinmetz is the fact they actually have two other gyms on the same floor, all with the same set of west facing windows.

DuSable High School’s Gym

DuSable H.S. is a “L” shaped gym which has drapes over its south facing windows (pictured here) and a set of windows that run along the east sideline. (Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson)

DuSable probably could have gotten away without putting in drapes, but a clear winter’s day with that low hanging sun could play murder on kids looking to shoot a baseline-three from the east side of the gym. A second floor gym court with a third floor balcony as well, it’s a good thing there are drapes, because players here already have to look out for some tight spaces; like the bank of cast iron radiators six-feet off-the-ground running the width of the court or the scorer’s table that is slightly in the playing area.

Austin High School’s Gym

The gym at Austin High School in Chicago has a south facing window bank that surprisingly has no drapes, photographed on Apr. 8, 2022. Part of the Illinois’ Best High School Gyms series. Photo copyright of Vincent David Johnson.

Not all Chicago Public high schools have drapes, one surprising case is Austin High School on the city’s far west side. Once again, this gym is on the third floor, and with a balcony on the west side blocking out most of the late day sun, this southwest corner gym has no outside protection on the southern side. Night games are a must, especially during basketball season when a low hanging sun would blind most players shooting at the south end hoop.

Providence-St. Mel High School

Team introductions at Providence-St. Mel High School, Chicago. Part of the photo series Illinois’ Best High School Gyms, on Feb. 19, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

Because most varsity games are actually scheduled for a 6pm or 7pm tipoff, there’s pretty much zero chance that sunlight will play a part in any of these gyms during a typical basketball season. However, Saturday games can often see a pre-sunset tipoff and you can see what this looks like in these photos from playoff game at Providence-St. Mel in Chicago in 2022.

While it’s not a public school, it does have very similar layout to many of the pre-1940s high schools built in Chicago. This fifth-floor gym has just enough room for the benches and a row of cheerleaders. Teams entering the court often do so through the athletic department office which has a door on the baseline just to the side of west basket. The gym is actually built in the center of the building and has wings of the school surrounding it on all four sides, but with the court on fifth-floor and the seating area on sixth-floor balcony, it puts its southern facing windows, which run the length of the sideline, in a prime position to catch plenty of sun during an early afternoon game.

Obviously as a photographer I think a lot about light, and some of you might be wondering why or what I’m talking about when I talk about the winter sun. For those of you who stayed awake in your morning science classes you probably know already that as the seasons change, so does the tilt of the Earth. A wonderful side effect of this is photographers like me get beautiful golden sunlight for our pictures almost all day for much of November through February, but it also means sunlight can spread across a room, often times directly at eye level as if it were sunset, even though it may only be 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

So good news is, if your girlfriends is looking for some golden-hour light portraits for her Instagram, you now know to get to snapping on those sunny winter days. The bad news is, if an athletic director or coach doesn’t realize this, players could have a brutal time in some gyms during critical games.

Part of the photo series Illinois’ Best High School Gyms; Providence-St. Mel H.S.. Featuring an Illinois varsity high school boys basketball IHSA Class 1A playoff game between the Flames of Lycée Français de Chicago from Chicago and the Knights of Providence-St. Mel from Chicago, at Providence-St. Mel on Feb. 19, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

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