“The Laramie State Bank Building, in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, strikes an alluring profile on the corner of Chicago and Laramie avenues. A hulking, concrete box built in 1928 with ornate exterior terra cotta, it’s one of the city’s rare examples of Egyptian Revival design. Architect Katherine Darnstadt, AIA—whose firm Latent Design is working on a $37.5 million, city-supported adaptive reuse project seeking to re-envision the structure—says the enormity of the landmarked space, with the double-height banking hall and interior columns, makes it one of a kind.
“‘It communicated power, finance, and trust, announcing that, ‘Yes, we are an important place,” Darnstadt says. ‘What we found interesting about the project was the idea of bringing it back to that sense as much as possible.’
“That’s no easy task after decades of disinvestment in both the building and the surrounding neighborhood. After short stints as a banquet hall and other temporary reuses, the building was foreclosed on in 2012, and the Austin neighborhood has seen its population plunge nearly 20% in the past two decades following economic and social disinvestment. Darnstadt describes entering the building as exploring a cave, with so much water damage from poor maintenance that she expected a stalactite to fall from the deteriorating plaster ceiling. The excitement she feels for this project, part of a larger vision to create a ‘Soul City Corridor’ featuring a blues museum and affordable housing, is palpable, with permitting expected to be complete by the end of the year.
‘Honestly, it’s the dollars; it’s showing the city [is] investing in these areas,’ Darnstadt says. ‘[It’s] a stark contrast to the previous administration, which focused on the central business district. Every component of it ties into a neighborhood strategy, instead of a single building reuse strategy.’
“When Maurice Cox, commissioner of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, was discussing the city’s new Invest South/West Initiative, he described these buildings as ‘sleeping beauties’: buildings on formerly active commercial corridors that loomed large in people’s minds and just needed someone to reactivate them. The initiative is a $1.4 billion 10-neighborhood vision to find community-oriented catalyzing developments in oft-overlooked neighborhood corridors, including the Laramie State Bank Building.
“The projects that Darnstadt and others have embarked on or will embark on—revitalizing the modern skeletons of once-vital community and economic infrastructure—highlight the potential of adaptive reuse not just to ring a classic building back to life but to heal a void in one of the city’s disinvested neighborhoods. Often, these projects an be completed with a speed and more economical cost that make them a key part of larger development strategies. It’s a running theme both across the nation and especially in Chicago: The resurrection of the South Side Pullman neighborhood, a worker’s village erected by railroad magnate George Mortimer Pullman, has become a national monument and magnet for millions in economic development. The continuing art and preservation work of local artist and professor R. Theaster Gates, whose Rebuild Foundation has created cultural and community hubs in the city’s Grand Crossing neighborhood, dovetails with the recent news that one of the city’s postmodern gems, the spaceship-like James R. Thompson Center, will be spared the wrecking ball and transformed via a $280 million restoration into a new vital downtown destination with its soaring atrium intact.
“Part of the reason Chicago has so many of these projects is the age of the building stock, especially compared with cities farther west, says architect Matt Nardella, AIA, whose firm, Moss Design, recently redeveloped a bank in the city’s Northwest Side. Older Chicago buildings also offer the unique potential of transit-oriented development ordinances and the city’s fairly suburban zoning ordinance. In 2020, the city was leading the nation in the number of adaptive reuse housing projects that were underway.
“‘Many of the buildings we do adaptive reuse projects with couldn’t be built as they are today,’ Nardella says. By utilizing adaptive reuse’s potential for the Northwest Side bank redevelopment plan, which turned the triangular site into apartments and ground-level commercial space with a brewery and coffee shop, Moss Design was able to do a Flatiron-style building without having to provide the standard 20 parking spaces. ‘The last thing we want to see is a good building be demolished,’ he says.”
Read the full story at AIA Chicago
Sleeping Beauties: Chicago’s Adaptive Reuse; A wave of community-focused resurrections of former neighborhood anchors seeks to heal community — and architectural — neglect, Patrick Sisson, AIA Architect, 6/3/22