Rosenwald, Muddy Waters, Carter Woodson
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The Rosenwald Court Apartments, taken this week. Photo by Samantha Kearney

Black History

Written by Samantha Kearney

February is Black History Month, and this week's newsletter highlights homes and buildings related to prominent Black figures: the renovation of the Rosenwald Court Apartments, Muddy Waters' vacant house, and the Carter G. Woodson Library.

Rosenwald Court Apartments
This expansive series of Grand Boulevard apartments that completely occupy a city block was built in 1929, funded by Sears & Roebuck's president Julius Rosenwald to affordably house black workers from The Great Migration. For the architect, Rosenwald hired his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr., who also designed the Adler Planetarium. The Rosenwald's 421 units housed many families and individuals over its' decades of operation, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat King Cole, Quincy Jones, and Joe Louis. The Rosenwald was vacated in 2000 due to building violations, added to the National Trust’s “Eleven Most Endangered” list in 2003, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, and included in Preservation Chicago's "Chicago Seven" endangered list in 2007. People strongly felt that these buildings must be revived, and soon.

Fortunately, the Rosenwald is now undergoing renovations. The building permits estimate construction costs between $53,200,000 and $57,200,000 to build 120 senior units and 86 family units. Additionally, there will be 40,000 sf of retail and office space, 150 parking spaces, and a two acre courtyard. Funding sources include:

  • Tax Exempt Bonds
  • Tax Increment Financing
  • LIHTC and Historic Preservation Tax Credit Equity
  • State Donation Credits
  • Neighborhood Stabilization Funds
  • Public Housing Capital Funds
  • Seller Financing
  • DCEO Energy Grant
  • FHLB AHP Grant
  • Pre-development funds by JCUA

Many organizations, government agencies, and private firms are cooperating to make this revival happen.  According to the Lightengale Group, the primary partners are Iceberg Development, RCAP LP, Lightengale Group, and DR Rosenwald. The general contractors include George Sollitt Construction Company, Powers & Sons, and Brown & Momen. ERS Enterprises & Strategic Precision Management are responsible for compliance and community outreach. Hooker DeJong, Inc and for the 3-story by John Joyce Architects, Inc. are the architects. MacRostie Historic Advisors LLC are the historic preservation consultants, and DLA Piper and Charity & Associates are the lawyers. Financing primarily comes from the City of Chicago, Citi Community Capital, Chicago Housing Authority, Two Rivers Bank & Trust, federal historic preservation tax credits, and Credit Capital/ The Richman Group. Once complete, the Rosenwald will be managed by Mercy Housing.

Renderings and floorplans show that the interiors will be gutted, but the exteriors will be fully restored. Rents will be between $450 and $850 for 1 and 2 bedroom units, and interest in office and retail space is expected to materialize soon.

Muddy Waters' house

Not far from the Rosenwald Court Apartments, in North Kenwood, is the former home of blues legend Muddy Waters. Affectionally called "the real house of blues," this building sits vacant in a neighborhood of stately houses and not far from the 47th Street Metra station. A branch of Waters' family established a foundation to restore it and turn it into a museum, but the foundation changed course when a buyer indicated that they would do just that, however, this real estate deal fell through. The house was put back on the market by its owner, Waters' great granddaughter (who lives in Milwaukee and is form a different branch of the family) for $100,000 in February of 2014, and it is not clear if it was purchased, because though it is currently off the market, it is currently vacant and still has a Red X affixed to its facade, with no indications of recent construction or building permits. The foundation has not picked up where it left off with the first potential sale, instead it focuses on scholarships. Furthermore, family members won a lawsuit in April of 2015 claiming that Waters' estate was mismanaged by its executor.

Muddy Waters home at sunset
Muddy Water's house at 4339 S Lake Park Ave. Photo by Samantha Kearney

The house's fate is still uncertain. It is part of an historic district, so demolition, except by neglect, is less likely but still possible. It nearly happened when a demolition order was considered, prompted by numerous building violations. Neighbors have grown impatient with the boarded up building. Local and national advocates have expressed concern for its fate, lamenting that Chicago has no blues museum and saying this would be a great opportunity to create one. It isn't going to happen in North Kenwood, but if it's any consolation, Navy Pier is building one.

The front door of the Muddy Waters home at 4339 S Lake Park Ave. Photo bySamantha Kearney

Carter G. Woodson Library

The Carter G. Woodson Library, named for the man whose vision eventually became Black History Month and the father of Black historiography, holds the largest collection of black literature in the Midwest. These include manuscripts, slave records, and genealogy records. It is also a full service Chicago Public Library. Despite its importance to the community and its historical significance, scaffolding has been holding the crumbling facade in place since 2002. The most recent building permit issued for the building was in 2014.

Woodson Library covered with scaffolding
Film still from WGN's feature story

This inaction has offended people in Washington Heights. To make matters worse, a community meeting in January about the sorry state of the library drew over 100 community members, but the Chicago Public Library representative and a representative from Chicago's agency charged with the library's facility management failed to attend. Estimated project costs of repairs are between $5 and $10 million, and the project should go up for bid in March. Nearly $10 million has been earmarked by the state for Woodson, but some of those funds are stalled due to the budget impasse. Like the Obama Presidential Library, we look forward to reading more about the details as they unfold.

Neighborhood News

Sponsored event listing
Shared office open house

Upcoming events

  • 2/25: 3rd Ward community meeting
  • 2/25: Meeting about designating a "Kimbell" Farm Historic District
  • 2/28: Jefferson Park Forward social event
  • 2/29: 11th Ward quarterly meeting
  • 2/29: 46th Ward zoning meeting
  • 3/01: Community meeting about former Children's Memorial Hospital site
  • 3/02: CMAP's rescheduled On To 2050 unveiling event
  • 3/02: Streetsblog Chicago monthly meetup
  • 3/03: Commission on Chicago Landmarks 
  • 3/07: Community meeting about two large Uptown developments
  • 3/08: Community Development Commission
  • 3/09: South Loop get together about real estate development
  • 3/10: Shared office space open house *sponsored*
Submit an Event or News Item

Demolitions Alert

The city is fast tracking demolition of vacant properties in high-crime areas as a strategy to fight crime. These cleared lots will be eligible for $1 purchase in the Large Lots program.

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