Swift-Morris Mansion

Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Historic Postcard
Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Photo credit: Cristen Brown / Twitter @Lady Topham Catt
Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Photo credit: Chicago Fire Department Media
Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Photo credit: Chicago Fire Department Media
Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers
Swift-Morris Mansion, 1892, Willett & Pashley, 4500 S. Michigan Avenue, a 2024 Chicago 7 Most Endangered. Photo credit: Eric Allix Rogers

Swift-Morris Mansion
Address: 4500 S. Michigan Avenue
Architect: James R. Willett & Alfred Pashley (attributed)
Date: 1892; c.1917 (coach house)
Style: Richardsonian Romanesque / Queen Anne
Neighborhood: Bronzeville

Overview

A landmark of the Bronzeville community, the Swift-Morris Mansion at 4500 S. Michigan Avenue has stood as an echo of South Side’s turn of the century “Gold Coast” for over one hundred and thirty years. The house further accrued significance as the headquarters of local businesses and social service providers well into the twentieth century. The property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, largely on its architectural merits and its association with prominent Chicago families – a distinction it proudly advertises via mid-twentieth century signage at the corner of S. Michigan Avenue. and E. 45th Street.

Built in 1892, and attributed to local architecture firm Willet and Pashley, the house is arguably most associated with its namesake and first resident, Helen Morris, née Swift (and extended family). After periodic use as a gathering space, funeral home, and insurance office, the property is further noteworthy for its role as the onetime home of the Cook County Bar Association and later, the Chicago Urban League, who occupied the house from 1964 to 1984, amid the height of the twentieth century civil rights movement.  Since 1995, it has been owned and operated by Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation (ICYAF), a non-profit providing housing and transitional services to formerly incarcerated individuals.

Sadly, on December 3, 2023, the Swift-Morris Mansion was the site of an intense fire which badly damaged the upper floor, attic and roof. Local media reports at the time indicated suspicion of arson, though the Chicago Fire and Police Departments have not yet provided a conclusion of their investigations. Fortunately, no individuals were harmed in the fire, and the property damage appears limited to the upper floors. Much of the impressive oak paneling and carved ornament on the ground floor interior appears to remain intact.

 

Threat

Despite periodic vacancy and semi-frequent changes in ownership, the Swift-Morris Mansion has nonetheless stood tall and found multiple viable uses for well over a century. Prior to the December 2023 fire, the property’s appearance was largely and remarkably unchanged. Composite roof materials were added sometime in the mid-twentieth century, in lieu of original slate, but otherwise its heavy stone exterior appears much the way it did at the time of its completion in 1892.

Media coverage, photographs, and drone footage of the recent fire, however, reveal extensive damage to the roof and upper floors. In the efforts to tame the fire, many of the upper floor windows were smashed open and subsequent water damage is no doubt left to be contended with. Most urgently, the roof is riddled with gaping holes.

Despite its proud history, the Swift-Morris Mansion is not a locally designated Chicago Landmark. Its Orange rating on the Chicago Historic Resource Survey would only require a 90-day demolition delay, in the event that the current or a future owner sought a demolition permit. Furthermore, reporting at the time of the fire suggested the City of Chicago’s Department of Buildings was conducting a structural report “to determine if the damage [was] bad enough to order the home demolished.”

The property is also located in the Bronzeville neighborhood, a section of the city that has contended with decades of disinvestment and extensive property vacancy. Any rehabilitation options may be perceived as cost-prohibitive.

Recommendations

The Swift-Morris Mansion should be immediately stabilized and its exterior envelope secured, ensuring that any further damage due to weather exposure is minimized and that the property will be successfully situated for eventual rehabilitation, if not full restoration. Considerable resources will be required to bring the house back to its former glory, but it is an otherwise stable, primarily stone structure that can surely be reconfigured for residential, commercial, or mixed use.

The Swift-Morris Mansion is an undeniable landmark in a South Side community with few such surviving examples. Its significance to Chicago business history, the city’s legacy of meatpacking, alongside its multi-decades role as a Black-led social service provider, make it a more than worthy recipient of the funding and sweat equity its restoration will require.

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