Chicago Public Housing
Altgeld Gardens, Commercial Buildings, “Up Top”, 13100 S. Ellis Avenue, 1946, Keck & Keck
Carver Elementary School “C Building”, between 133rd Street and 133rd Place, 1944, Naess & Murphy
Cabrini Row Houses, bounded by Chicago Avenue, Larrabee, Oak and Hudson Streets, c. 1940s, Holsman, Burmeister, Rissman, Grunsfeld, Solomon, Jones, Vitzman, Loewenberg, McNally
Lathrop Homes South Campus, South of Diversey Avenue, between Damen Avenue on the east and the North Branch of the Chicago River on the west, c. 1938, DeGolyer, Garden, Burnham, Tallmadge, Watson, Lowenberg, Roberts, Christiansen with Jens Jensen,
Preservation Chicago has once again selected Chicago’s public housing sites (or specific buildings within them), all of which are historic Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) developments, as part of our 2022 Chicago 7 Most Endangered list. Altgeld Gardens’ “Up Top” structure and “C Building”, Cabrini Row Houses, and Lathrop Homes’s South Campus comprise this year’s selection.
At Altgeld Gardens, we are spotlighting the unique Midcentury Modern, one-story curvilinear Commercial Building, known locally as “Up Top,” designed by the seminal architecture firm of Keck & Keck. This gently curving, block-long building, with its undulating cantilevered canopy and open arcade with retail tenants, overlooks a community plaza and greenspace and was once the very heart of the Altgeld community. The commercial storefront structure is the only privately-owned building in the Altgeld Gardens development and once contained a cooperative-owned grocery store, drug and variety store, beauty salon and barber shop, and a tavern. The building is now almost completely vacant while the open arcade contains a heartbreaking memorial wall of handwritten names for those lost to violence. The current owner has attempted to sell the building to CHA in the past, yet nothing has transpired in recent years, leading to the building’s further disrepair and vacancy. As a result, it has once again earned a place on our Chicago 7 Most Endangered List.
The other building in Altgeld Gardens that we are highlighting is the “C Building,” which is part of the George Washington Carver Elementary and Primary School complex. It was designed as part of a multi-building campus of one-story structures for preschool and primary grades and was housed in a Federal-style building overlooking Carver Park and the playground. The C Building in later years was used as an administration building for Carver School, but has been vacant for more than three decades. A demolition threat was recently held off as the owner, the Chicago Board of Education, wanted the building to be demolished. This building is part of an ensemble, along with buildings A, B and D; together, they form a curved wall of buildings fronting, protecting, and shielding Carver Park and schoolchildren on one side, while also providing a portion of two streetwalls on the street-facing elevations.
Altgeld Gardens was also part of our 2017 Preservation Chicago 7 Most Endangered List, with 624 housing units in 26 buildings in Blocks 11, 12, 13, 15 and 16 all noted as threatened, along with the privately-owned “Up Top.” These noted structures, except for “Up Top,” were all lost in the following years due to severe neglect and legal challenges as the residential buildings were considered too far gone. That former housing site is now the proposed location of a 130th Street terminal, station, and multi-story parking lot for the Red Line Extension.
The Cabrini Row Houses comprises 586 units on 16 acres. Bounded by Chicago Avenue, Larrabee Street, Oak Street, and Hudson Avenue, they were originally known as the Frances Cabrini Homes and consisted of two- and three-story buildings. Over the years this development has languished and fallen into disrepair. About 140 units of the western portion of these early row houses have been retained, restored and reused. However, a vast majority of this beautiful and utilitarian village of row houses have remained untouched, despite the overall growth and development of much of the former Cabrini-Green project area on the Near North Side. In a city desperate for affordable housing, there was a prior plan to eliminate half of the row houses for fear that emergency vehicles would be impaired by these narrow streets. However, off-site parking for resident vehicles on much of the nearby vacant land, still controlled by CHA, could resolve such problems. CHA needs to step up and get these buildings and houses back to a vulnerable community of residents that have been awaiting these homes for almost 20 years.
A 2013 Chicago 7 Most Endangered, Lathrop Homes’s North Campus and its historic Jens Jensen landscape has been beautifully renovated after a 20-year advocacy effort. However, the South Campus, located south of Diversey, comprises almost half of the development area and is again stalled. Since 2002, Preservation Chicago has advocated with the community and our partner organizations to reject the first revisioning concepts, which included a wholesale demolition of most, if not all, of the buildings on the Lathrop site. Most of the historic 1938 buildings are vacant, with the exception of a senior housing building and a new apartment structure, while a corner building at Diversey and Damen has just begun a renovation effort.
The CHA is once again neglecting its historic resources and developments, with more than 1,000 existing housing units being mothballed or vacant. In the case of the Cabrini Row Houses and the Lathrop Homes’s South Campus, many of these affordable units constructed for Chicago’s most vulnerable residents have remained vacant for far too long.
The Chicago Housing Authority was established in 1937 as a means to house Chicago’s most vulnerable population. The programs and housing developed were progressive and realized under the Public Works Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt. Other smaller projects had been employed in the past, mostly with religious or private affiliations. However, these new programs and houses were revolutionary in concept, with design services often offered pro bono for humanitarian reasons. Meanwhile, these projects saw the nation’s and city’s philanthropic business and civic communities coming together to achieve this goal. The first of these projects, developed in 1938 by the CHA, included the Jane Addams Homes (demolished), the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, and the Trumbull Park Homes.
Over the decades, many of these public housing projects were added to and further enhanced with more buildings, which sometimes included towers of buildings for miles on end, concentrating poverty and allowing for the isolation of some residents from other more central areas of Chicago. It was a separate but equal approach–not often obvious and perhaps an unconscious decision (and perhaps not). What has occurred over the decades is the neglect of these historic and groundbreaking developments. This was especially true with the earliest developments which employed a human scale and gave dignity to the residents, helping to create communities which often blended to some degree into the surrounding areas. Later additions brought high-rise developments, like the William Green Homes next to the Cabrini Row Houses, without much maintenance or security which soon failed. However, these early housing projects were amazing in their design and prove that these can be reusable resources, with the reinvestment and commitment of the owners and their development and community partners.
Altgeld Gardens History
Altgeld Gardens was constructed between 1943-1946 for returning Black veterans that served their country in World War II and their families. The development, situated in Chicago’s Riverdale Community and part of the larger Calumet Region on Chicago’s Far South Side, consisted of 1,500 units, divided into 162 separate buildings of two-story houses. It is bounded by 130th Street, South Doty and South St. Lawrence Avenues. The complex of buildings was mostly designed by the noted architectural firm of Naess and Murphy and was said to be “the most self-contained comprehensive public housing project ever constructed in Chicago.”
The Altgeld Gardens Housing Project was named in honor of Governor John Peter Altgeld (1847-1902), who served as Governor of the State of Illinois from 1893 to 1897. Altgeld was a leader in the Progressive Movement and implemented child labor and workplace safety laws to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents. He is often associated with the Labor Movement and the Haymarket Riots, as he pardoned three men charged for their involvement in the riot and refused to intervene in the Pullman Strike of 1894.
The Altgeld Gardens row houses consisted of 100 apartments with 3 1/2 rooms, 600 with 4 1/2 rooms, another 600 with 5 1/2 rooms and 200 with 6 ½ rooms. The development’s original population was 7,000 tenants with only 3,000 adults and 57% under the age of 19 years old, so the idea of caring for young families became paramount in the development of Altgeld Gardens. As the project was built on the Far South Side of the City and noted as having limited transportation services, a whole community was developed to support the needs of the residents. This included “a Board of Health station, public library, six-room nursery school for 240 children ages two to five, auditorium, clubrooms and teenagers’ lounge. The Chicago Board of Education built four, one-story school buildings (known as George Washington Carver’s A, B, C & D Buildings) for elementary and high school classes located across 133rd Place.
A large portion of Altgeld Gardens’s row houses were part of Preservation Chicago’s 2017 Chicago 7 Most Endangered list. Despite promises from CHA and their consultants that the buildings would be renovated and preserved, a lawsuit challenged this work and ultimately most of the buildings were demolished. However, during those Section 106 hearings, a proposal for a large and wide boulevard connecting 130th Street/Hazel Johnson Environmental Justice Parkway though the development and connecting to the Little Calumet River, would have eliminated many of the public buildings at Altgeld Gardens. This was halted, due in part to Preservation Chicago’s advocacy as part of these public hearings. At the time, Preservation Chicago made the argument that while everyone wanted to visit the sites where George Washington and Abraham Lincoln visited, in Chicago we had a sitting president, Barack Obama, who started his community services and engagement work with Hazel Johnson at Altgeld. Therefore, we should sensitively rethink such harsh and insensitive plans, along with a wide boulevard, which would have encouraged speeding cars into the heart of Altgeld Gardens.
These formerly proposed plans would have demolished the Commercial Building by architects Keck & Keck – brothers George Fred Keck and William Keck– along with the plaza and other public and semi-public buildings. That would have been a tremendous loss for Altgeld Gardens and its residents, along with individuals interested in modern architecture and that of Keck & Keck, one of Chicago’s best architectural practitioners during this period, who are comparable to other modernists, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and The Architects Collaborative, Paul Schweiker, and Bertrand Goldberg.
School Building C, part of George Washington Carver Elementary School’s campus of 1940s buildings, narrowly missed demolition last year after wrecking equipment had actually been delivered to the site. Despite being vacant for decades, the Chicago Board of Education didn’t repurpose the building or allow it to be a community-centric structure. With the building’s long-term vacancy and its shuttering, basic maintenance was deferred and the building was neglected. However, there are community visions for this building as a training center. It could be repurposed for a variety of reuse ideas.
We also understand from residents that over 200 renovated units at Altgeld Gardens remain vacant, despite a huge waiting list for those in need. In a large and resourceful city like Chicago, why aren’t our public housing developments addressing these needs in a more timely manner?
These buildings present amazing reuse opportunities, but the potential in each of these structures is close to being squandered. We can do better and we’re asking the Chicago Housing Authority, City Hall, and the Chicago Board of Education to work together, towards a beneficial preservation outcome for the community. That these buildings’ present condition and continued deterioration persist while public agencies stand by is an embarrassment to our City and its residents. It is time to act and make corrections to the mistakes of the past.
With the Red Line Extension coming in the next five years to 130th Street, we at Preservation Chicago are of the opinion that the Keck & Keck-designed “Up Top” Commercial Building should be acquired by the CHA or other agency and offered through a Request for Proposals from the City of Chicago. We join Altgeld residents’ concerns that this structure is extremely important for its architecture, innovation and cultural history. The Commercial Building should be considered for Chicago Landmark designation, as other notable structures by this seminal firm have been honored with a Landmark designation in the past. The firm’s recognition extends to Keck & Keck’s “House of Tomorrow,” which was part of the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. The House of Tomorrow was floated across Lake Michigan and re-sited in the Indiana Dunes, near Beverly Shores, Indiana. It is now undergoing a sensitive and much-needed restoration, much like what is required for Altgeld’s “Up Top.”
We also would like to join the community vision of a reuse and revisioning of the “C Building,” currently part of the Carver School Campus, which is in complete disrepair. This building has endless possibilities as a structure that could house worker training programs for residents in various industries, in addition to providing new skills and education in the various trades to local residents of Altgeld Gardens and the neighboring Philip Murray Homes. If funding was lacking for such programs, the “C Building” could be adapted in part as a cultural center or housing for seniors and people with disabilities.
Looking to the future, Chicago’s INVEST South/West needs to extend to the buildings of Altgeld Gardens to encourage a purchase, renovation and reuse of the “Up Top” Commercial Building, which has brought so much interest to this site. With a Chicago Landmark designation, the curvilinear commercial building could take advantage of Adopt-A-Landmark funds or perhaps Neighborhood Opportunity Funds. The same ideas and funding may be available to consider for the “C Building,” and perhaps the Chicago Board of Education (BOE) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), would consider a sale of the building for another use—a creative use. Using CPS and BOE funds to demolish their historic buildings is counterintuitive to their mission and could perhaps be viewed as a violation of taxpayer funds, when such buildings could be donated or sold to a new user or, better yet, gifted to the community, with support funding from other City agencies. There are many possibilities for the “C Building,” if only the owner could work with the community and elected officials.
Lastly, the City of Chicago needs to further recognize the outstanding work of Ms. Hazel Johnson (1935–2011), founder of People for Community Recovery (PCR) and recognized as “The Mother of Environmental Justice.” Ms. Johnson ,who lived with her seven children and family at 13141 S. Langley in Altgeld Gardens, was recognized and honored by several United States presidents for her work. Her home was the site of many visits from President Barack Obama, whom she mentored when he was a community organizer on Chicago’s Far South Side. Her former home, which is still occupied by members of her family at Altgeld Gardens, should be considered for a Chicago Landmark designation.
Hazel Johnson’s office and the People for Community Recovery Environmental Organization, as it was once known for more than a decade, now in its 43rd year, was also headquartered in the “Up Top” Commercial Building at Altgeld Gardens, and within the 13116 S. Ellis Avenue storefront–yet another reason for the preservation, reuse and Chicago Landmark designation of that important commercial building.
A recognition and Chicago Landmark Designation of Ms. Hazel Johnson’s work and service at Altgeld Gardens would further inspire many residents and citizens to take up causes in the field of environmental justice and the health hazards associated with the toxins in their communities. These issues continue to impact many housing projects and low-income communities across the nation, which we have all witnessed from Flint, Michigan and Chicago’s Far South Side to cities and towns across the United States. Much of this work began with Hazel Johnson and continues under the tutelage of her daughter, Cheryl Johnson, to this day.
Cabrini Row Houses History
The Cabrini Row Houses were designed in the early 1940s for an area of the Near North Side near the North Branch of the Chicago River which had been considered a slum by city officials and cited as lacking many modern sanitation standards. The architects of the new Cabrini Row Houses included Henry Holsman, George Burmeister, Maurice Rissman, Ernest Grunsfeld Jr, L.R. Solomon, G. M. Jones, K.M Vitzhum, I.S. Loewenberg, and Frank McNally. These were all recognized names in the world of architecture in Chicago during this time period.
The western boundary of the Near North Side, near the former Montgomery Ward Warehouse and Administration Building, had originally been settled in Chicago’s early years by mostly Swedish immigrants and known as “Swede Town.” By the 1940s, this area was considered dilapidated and was home to many immigrants and families of Italian, Irish and Puerto Rican descent, along with a growing African-American population. Prior to the construction of the Cabrini Row Houses, this area had been known as “Little Hell,” noting the living and sanitary conditions within many of the 19th-century buildings. Apartments and kitchenettes defined the area. For instance, in Devereaux Bowley’s book The Poorhouse, it is cited that most of the 683 apartments in these older buildings had severe sanitary issues with “443 having no bathtubs, 480 had no hot water and 515 were heated only by stoves. Forty-three toilets were shared by two families each, and there were twenty-nine ‘yard toilets’ and ten ‘under sidewalk’ toilets.”
As a solution to improving the conditions of residents’ lives, 586 new row houses were built in 1942, filling an approximately three-square-block area. These new row houses were constructed to replace the crumbling buildings, house the community’s ever-expanding population, and accommodate war industry workers and veterans during and following World War II. The units averaged 4.41 rooms each, with private bathrooms at a cost of $6,333 per unit. The first residents moved in on August 1, 1942.
The Cabrini Row Houses were named in honor of Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, M.S.C. (1850 – 1917), who was later beatified in 1938 and canonized in 1946 as St. Frances Cabrini. She was recognized as America’s first saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Mother Cabrini was born Maria Francesca Cabrini on July 15, 1850, near Lombardy, Italy and immigrated to America in 1889. She worked in cities around the nation, establishing orphanages, hospitals, and schools and addressing the conditions of the nation’s most vulnerable. In all, Cabrini is said to have founded 67 institutions in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, as well as throughout Latin America and Europe.
The success of the Cabrini Row Houses as a community to house a heavily immigrant and low-income population led to successive expansions of the housing project over the next several decades. In 1957, this expansion included many low- and high-rise red brick buildings, known as Cabrini Extension North and Cabrini Extension South which comprised about 1,925 units. Later developments included the expansion of another 1,096 units in 1962 with the William Green Homes, white brick tower buildings which were named for William Green (1873-1952), an American legislator, former Ohio state senator, labor advocate and president of the American Federation of Labor (1924-1952). These buildings were constructed north of Division Street and led to the hyphenation of the housing project as Cabrini-Green. By the late 1950s and extending into the late 1990s, the Cabrini-Green Development housed mostly African-American residents. Yet the lack of regular and general maintenance and repairs led to a disintegration of most of the buildings. Coupled with a large concentration of poverty and the buildings’ disrepair, most of the buildings were considered for demolition to alleviate both the issues of deferred maintenance and crime. At its height of occupancy and development, Cabrini-Green had over 3,600 units and 15,000 residents.
Demolition of a majority of the Cabrini-Green Housing Project and many of its high-rises began in the 1990s and continued to 2011, with the last of the tall buildings located at 1230 N. Burling. The Cabrini Row Houses are some of the few remaining of the original 3,607 units that the CHA has not demolished and destroyed. A small portion of the row houses were renovated, totaling about 140 units. However, according to the CHA, “the remaining rowhomes and flats are one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom units” and remain vacant as they have been for almost two decades. In 2019, there was a threat of demolition of these row houses and that threat continues, even with the unfulfilled promise of CHA to replace many of these units for the City’s most vulnerable.
It is said that 80% of the estimated 3,500 families who were promised a home in the new development have not yet returned and that the total price tag to the taxpayers $2 billion dollars, according to an article in Block Club Chicago “Cabrini-Green: A History of Broken Promises,” by Alejandra Cancino of the Better Government Association and published in December 2021.
Despite their good design, human scale and the almost European qualities of this tight-knit development, the Cabrini Row Houses remain vacant as they have for approximately 20 years. These row houses could make for wonderful affordable or mixed income family units. However, time and time again, there’s been little action. About five years ago, a Federal Section 106 Hearing to which Preservation Chicago attended as a Consulting Party member proposed a demolition of half of the housing units in order to widen streets to accommodate parked cars and emergency vehicles. We at Preservation Chicago, encouraged no-parking zones on the streets within the district of row houses, to allow for emergency vehicles to service future residents versus wholesale demolition of 50% or half of all of the historic row houses. We suggested parking nearby on the many acres of vacant land as a solution to this issue.
Following that Section 106 meeting at the Chicago Federal Center, no follow-up meetings for the Cabrini Row Houses occurred and they remain vacant to this day. This has encouraged Preservation Chicago to list the Cabrini Row House as a Chicago 7 Most Endangered for 2022.
The Cabrini Row Houses represent the very last remaining components of the once much larger Cabrini-Green Housing Project, bounded by a series of streets within the central area of Chicago, close to transportation and many resources, including excellent schools, jobs, grocery stores and other facilities. These cream-colored buildings are of a human scale and represent the original visions for Cabrini and other public housing developments in Chicago—and among the best of them. We therefore are of the opinion that the remaining vacant 446 row houses be given priority for renovation and restoration. We therefore encourage the City and CHA to work toward a fulfillment of prior obligations and promises to bring these homes back to the people that need them and provide decent housing for these families and citizens of Chicago.
Lathrop Homes South Campus History
The Julia C. Lathrop Homes was one of the Chicago Housing Authority’s first housing project developments, constructed in 1938 by a great assortment of architects including Daniel Burnham’s two sons, Daniel Jr. and Hubert Burnham, Robert DeGolyer, and others, with a noted landscape designed by Jens Jensen. It is our understanding that all architectural and design services were pro bono, gifted for the greater good.
In the case of Lathrop Homes, Preservation Chicago has advocated for the preservation and restoration of these housing units for almost two decades. As a result of our advocacy and that of our partners, working with City Hall, CHA, the developers, and at times the National Park Service, the north campus of Lathrop Homes has become a beautifully restored campus of buildings by a who’s who of architects that had originally volunteered their time in the 1930s. Throughout the course of this 20-year advocacy effort, plans to develop the area into market-rate high-rises along with scorched earth demolition have been thwarted. These proposals were unacceptable and, despite the wildly successful outcomes of the North Campus, we now face the same obstacles and delays that were so common in the past on the South Campus. CHA has to authorize the renovation of these units and we encourage a full preservation and restoration of these units to match the success of the North Campus.
While the North Campus of the Lathrop Homes has been fully renovated after a decades-long effort, we are witnessing numerous delays in efforts toward the renovation and restoration of buildings and features on the South Campus. This area, bounded by Diversey, Damen and the North Branch of the Chicago River, awaits the promised redevelopment plan while the boarded up and fenced buildings continue to deteriorate. This appears to be of concern as the buildings languish and there is talk of the possible demolition of more buildings, which are said to be structurally unsound, despite all of the Lathrop buildings being constructed at the same time and with the same materials. However, even with such considerations, work should begin on the buildings that are scheduled to be renovated and reused, noting the volume of units which are currently vacant and the extreme need for decent affordable housing in Chicago.
The development team of Related Midwest, Heartland Housing and other partners, along with the CHA, all need to come together to realize the same and proven vision and success realized on the North Campus. CHA and the Lathrop Partners must proceed forward quickly with the renovation and reuse of the many buildings, while also exploring alternate plans for some of the buildings that are said to have structural issues. What are those structural issues, who determined these faults, and can they be resolved without demolition? Also, what are the final plans for the row houses, with their kitchen gardens located just west of Damen Avenue, along with plans for a large boiler and power plant at the south end of the site, adjacent to the North Branch of the Chicago River? These are questions for a beautifully situated and pastoral site with incredible views of Downtown Chicago, located near many of the City’s most desirable neighborhoods and communities.