Housing

Renewing the Rosenwald

Inside the history of Chicago's oldest new housing development

Archival Photographic Files, Mildred Mead Photographs, [apf-09303], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments had promise. So Edwin Embree, president of the Rosenwald Fund, predicted in June of 1929, in the Julius Rosenwald Fund’s 1928–1929 Year in Review. Possible complication? The apartment complex had been open barely a month.

Embree was right—sort of. The complex, which was quickly nicknamed “the Rosenwald” in honor of its benefactor, was a bustling hotspot in the heart of Bronzeville for decades, until another couple decades of misfortune and mismanagement resulted in its closure in 2000. Since then, it’s been a hulking presence on 47th Street, too big to deal with but also too big to ignore.

Now, nearly fifteen years later, Landwhite Developers, the Lighten-Gale Group, and Jim Bergman have received a permit to begin renovation of the run-down apartment building. Come 2016, when the development team hopes to complete renovations, the Rosenwald will have a second chance at success.

The original Rosenwald was years in the making. Julius Rosenwald, a Chicago philanthropist who made his fortune as president of Sears, Roebuck, and Co., first made moves toward providing low-cost housing for African Americans in 1914. As the Great Migration gained momentum, Chicago’s African-American population was booming. The boom soon turned explosive, causing the infamous race riot of 1919, which moved Rosenwald to devote funding to offsetting the Black Belt housing crisis. Encouraged by Edgar Stern, his son-in-law and fellow philanthropist, and Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald’s plan finally took off in 1928.

It’s easy to see why Embree was so enthusiastic about the finished project. The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments spanned an entire block between 46th and 47th and between Michigan and Wabash, close to public transportation and surrounded by thriving black-owned businesses. The one five-story building and the seven three-story walkups left ample space for playgrounds and a residential courtyard inspired by Viennese public housing. Twelve stores and two nursery schools complemented the building’s first floor, and all of it was sheathed in handsome Art Moderne brickwork.

Those vying for an apartment must have agreed with Embree’s declaration that the rooms were “unquestionably attractive and furnish better housing than Negroes have ever had in Chicago.” The 421 apartments, whose monthly rents were between thirty-five and sixty-one dollars, filled up immediately with middle-class families, as did the waitlists. Once the tenants were in place, a community flourished: adults attended tenant community councils and took part in sewing classes and Christmas toy-making, while their children joined ballet classes, a Boy Scout troop, and stargazing classes on summer nights.

At the same time, the apartments were inescapably a business venture. The $2.7 million put into the project had all been Rosenwald’s, and he wanted to prove that affordable housing could make money. The true mark of success, Embree wrote, would be to demonstrate “the feasibility of such apartment buildings and so induce other capital to enter this field.”

Rosenwald’s optimism was premature; the Depression hit, and by 1937 the same son-in-law who had urged Rosenwald to build the complex concluded that low-cost housing was “beyond the scope of private enterprise”—it was the government’s job. The building’s low rates of return ensured that the Rosenwald’s private subsidized housing model would not take over Chicago.

Nevertheless, the Rosenwald was the place to be for decades, anchoring 47th Street nightlife and even attracting celebrity residents like Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat King Cole, and Quincy Jones. A strict screening process instituted by apartment manager and soon-to-be Chicago Housing Authority chairman Robert Taylor guaranteed relatively affluent tenants, who would fit Rosenwald’s program of advancing African Americans by leveraging respectability politics. Though both Bronzeville and the complex experienced a steady decline after World War II, when much of the middle-class African-American population left the area, its reputation lived on for years, attracting praise through the 1960s.

The mid-1980s marked the Rosenwald’s clear downturn, as it fell into the hands of CHA, the last in a series of poor managers. Under CHA management, the building did not screen prospective tenants and let in former residents of the Robert Taylor Homes for the first time. The crime that dogged public housing spread to a complex once famed for its orderliness, flaring up in gang wars that CHA responded to by effectively jailing residents, keeping only one entrance open and setting up steel gates around the building. Retailers, beset by slower business and more burglaries, left the building, replaced by more security guards and surveillance cameras. Entry required photo ID.

The Rosenwald closed in the summer of 2000, defeated by a leaky gas pipe. For such a large mass of architecture, its existence was, until recently, decidedly precarious. Although the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, this provided little protection. A crowd of people protested the possibility of demolition shortly before its official foreclosure in 2002, piqued by then-3rd Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s unwillingness to save the building. In the meantime, the Rosenwald showed up on a number of preservationist organizations’ watch lists: the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2003,” Landmarks Illinois’ “Chicagoland Watch List in 2005,” Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago’s 7 Most Threatened in 2007.”

It didn’t fare well physically: most of its 1,150 windows have been removed or broken since closure, exposing the interior. The cost of structural rehabilitation repelled redevelopment, according to a 2010 Chicago Urban Land Institute panel report, but the building also obstructed Bronzeville’s recent middle-class revitalization—the complex was cited by the panel as a safety concern for commercial development on 47th Street. Still, due to the same historical and cultural significance that attracted preservationists, the panel, which 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell commissioned, recommended redevelopment of the Rosenwald over demolition.

Dowell’s commitment to renovation set a solid plan into motion: with real estate firm Landwhite Developers in charge, the renovation began getting consistent press in 2012. So did local opposition. The most vocal group, Rosenwald for All, comprises forty to fifty Bronzeville residents who all live in a four-block radius of the Rosenwald.

Although details of the renovation have changed since Rosenwald for All first released a statement online in 2012, its main complaints have remained the same: unappealing design, uncreative use of the property, too much low-income housing that may inhibit Bronzeville’s revitalization, poor planning for retail space, and poor use of public financing. (More than half the project’s $109 million cost is publicly funded. The $25 million in TIF money has especially garnered attention, though Dowell told WBEZ in 2013 that the TIF money is “within the city’s policy” and “entirely appropriate for this kind of development.”)

There’s not much the group can do now. The permit for renovation was issued December 30, 2014, for 120 senior units and eighty-six family units. The rent will range from $450 to $850, according to Dowell’s website. This reincarnated complex will be known as Rosenwald Courts, which wouldn’t have pleased Julius Rosenwald (he refused to let the Museum of Science and Industry, which he funded, be named after him).

These are the facts, and they are indisputable. Rosenwald for All knows this. While founding member Byron Williams didn’t follow up on a promise to talk about the set-in-stone renovation, another unsigned email from the group’s email said, “Like many things in the city of Chicago, it really does not matter what one thinks or feels when it comes to something that elected officials have decided to do it will get done despite opposition.”

Others believe Rosenwald Courts’ combination of affordable housing and retail could support Bronzeville’s revival and accomplish what Julius Rosenwald said drove his philanthropy: “to cure the things that seem to be wrong.” The outcome—what will happen when the old is made new again—remains to be seen.

Thoughts on “Renewing the Rosenwald”

    • I’m interested in the rosenwald apartments. I am very amazed at such great history they have in our black community.

  1. WOW, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, PAT DOWELL. This has always been a vision of mine to see this wonderful possibility become a true realty. WOW!!!

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