“A year after buying the Lu and Jorja Palmer mansion, the owner is still waiting to move forward with an ambitious renovation — and she blames Ald. Sophia King (4th) for the holdup.
“Bronzeville native Angela Ford took over the 133-year-old mansion at 3654 S. King Drive in April 2021 with the aim of converting it into a coworking and community space. It would also house the records of The Obsidian Collection, a nonprofit that archives Black media.
“The local block club and other influential figures back the project, but Ford said King is refusing to bring it to City Council for necessary approvals. King, who last year introduced an unsuccessful ordinance to restrict projects like the Palmer House renovation, denied trying to block Ford. But she said the proposal has ballooned into much more than a house museum.
“King said her office has helped Ford even though she worries about a large business being on a residential block, saying it would be like having ‘a Soho House next to your home.’
“After a war of words on Facebook, the two met privately Tuesday. Ford said the alderperson has pledged to schedule a public meeting about the project soon.
“‘I look at this project as a way to honor the past and inspire the future,’ Ford said. ‘The responses to my Facebook post show me that residents really want this, and we’re going to make it happen.’
“Lu Palmer was a reporter, columnist and radio talent who made stops at the Defender, the Daily News, WVON and other Chicago outlets. Jorja and Lu Palmer and others — including Timuel and Zenobia Black — oversaw the voter registration drive that swept Harold Washington into office as Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983.
“The mansion was built in 1888 for Justice D. Harry Hammer, according to Preservation Chicago. The Palmers bought it in 1976 and lived there until Lu Palmer’s death in 2004. Jorja Palmer died in December 2005. The home was vacant for years and landed on Preservation Chicago’s most endangered list.
“It took Ford two years to close on the property with grants from the Chicago Community Trust, plus the organization’s help in securing a $1.25 million home loan. Ford estimates the total costs — including buying the home, extensively renovating the decaying building and creating community programs — at $3.8 million.
“Ford presented her vision last year to the Greater King Drive Block Club, whose president is Delmarie Cobb, a political strategist whose ties to the community date back 50 years. Though Ford did not know the full history of the area — other Black journalism giants, including Claude Barnett, Ida B. Wells and John H. Johnson, lived or launched publications along that stretch of King Drive — the group felt Ford’s project was ‘a perfect fit,’ Cobb wrote in a letter to the alderperson’s office in March 2021.
“Ford also said the delays have cost her another $100,000 in attorneys fees and consultants.
“‘It feels personal. I don’t know [King]. I have no idea why it’s taking so long. Even my attorneys said that the timeline is highly unusual,’ Ford said.” (Nesbitt Golden, Block Club Chicago, 5/25/22)
Preservation Chicago had been concerned about the deteriorating condition of the Justice D. Harry Hammer Mansion/Lutrelle ‘Lu’ & Jorja Palmer Mansion for years. To help raise awareness and to pressure stakeholders, it became a Chicago 7 Most Endangered in 2019. We have played an active role working with community organizations, local leaders, and decisionmakers to help bring about a preservation-sensitive outcome for this building.
We are thrilled to support Angela Ford and The Obsidian Collection’s effort to adaptively reuse the Palmer Mansion for a nonprofit digital archives for photographs, video and documents to focused on making Black history more available and accessible. This is an incredibly exciting development and we will continue to do everything we can to support her effort.