I was at a Financing workshop this morning at the Bronzeville Visitors Bureau for what is affectionately called simply “The Rosenwald.” Organized by National Trust Advisor Paula Robinson and Harold Lucas, who have been involved in South Side community preservation for a generation, the effort was the latest in an ongoing series of attempts to save a truly important building. As Harold pointed out at the outset, the building – which covers most of the block between 46th and 47th Streets, Michigan to Wabash, was significant in both the history of Bronzeville as the home of famous individuals like Quincy Jones and Joe Louis, and in the history of Chicago’s greatest philanthropist, Sears, Roebuck Chairman Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald is known nationwide for his early 20th century empowerment efforts, building schools for African-Americans across the south. The Rosenwald was one of two predecessors to public housing in Chicago, the other being the Marshall Field Garden Apartments on the north side. Officially called Michigan Terrace Garden Apartments, Rosenwald had his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr. design the 5-story Art Deco complex for Bronzeville in 1929. It was listed on the National Register in 1981.
The building has drawn the attention of preservationists for a while. The National Trust put it on their 11 Most Endangered List three years after it closed in 2000. Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago have put it on their most endangered lists as well. Architect Phil Kupritz presented the redevelopment plan, which will add corridors and elevators, create 300 units instead of 440, and bring the building into the modern market.
The market is on its way already. If you haven’t been to the Near South Side lately – say 26th to 47th Street – it’s too late – that train left the station. The new housing at 35th and State where the Robert Taylor homes used to be has shot up in the last few months, and new greystones line every street from the lakefront to Michigan. Bronzeville has been one of the hottest markets for new single-family homes for the last decade. As one developer at the meeting said: it is only a matter of time before the Rosenwald is redeveloped. This thing is solid – concrete, not the knotty sticks they are using to build the new houses.
The scale of the building – almost a full block, well over 400,000 square feet, combined with the lack of elevators and fire exits to scare off developers a few years ago, but they are running out of excuses. A TIF district and a raft of tax credits – historic, low-income, New Market, make the deal better, and a preservation easement could add more. If it goes condo, the Illinois Property Tax Freeze could offer an extremely enticing incentive for new homeowners.
It’s not out of the woods yet, but I suspect the real challenge will be keeping the community – ably represented by Paula and Harold and Rosenwald preservationist Bobbie Johnson – in the deal. Harold has a nice sense of history – he talked about the proposed National Heritage Area for the section of the South Side where blacks were forced to live by racial covenants before 1948. This heritage area is a worthwhile goal, and like most historic projects, it will recall a time and place that is, in ways both good and bad, long gone.
Save The Rosenwald!