Rosenwald Court Apartments

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

In the early 20th century, the African American population in Chicago was rapidly growing due the Great Migration from largely southern states. Because of existing housing segregation practices, African Americans looking for homes were largely restricted to the “Black Belt,” a long, relatively narrow strip of land on the South Side that was centered along State Street. This “city within a city”—especially the neighborhood of Bronzeville—grew into a vibrant and largely self-sufficient African American community. Residents, however, often faced great difficulties finding modern and affordable housing.

Responding to this need, socially conscious philanthropist and Sears, Roebuck & Company Executive Julius Rosenwald commissioned a 421-unit residential complex on Michigan Avenue in 1929. The complex was intended to provide sound housing for the growing black middle class and provide a small return on investment for Rosenwald. According to AIA Guide to Chicago (1993), Rosenwald’s inspiration for the development was post-World War I municipal housing in Vienna. The architect was his nephew, Ernest A. Grunsfeld, Jr. (architect of Adler Planetarium) and his son-in-law, Alfred K. Stern, was in charge of the development.

During its heyday, a number of well-known people lived at the Rosenwald Court Apartments, including writer Gwendolyn Brooks, singer Nat King Cole, boxer Joe Louis and record producer Quincy Jones. “For decades the apartments were extremely attractive to working-class renters, but profit was only 2.4 percent over seven years on a $2.7 million investment,” the AIA Guide to Chicago states. “After Rosenwald’s death in 1932, Stern conceded that low-income housing needed government support.”

Later, the complex was sold to the Chicago Department of Urban Renewal and ownership eventually transferred to the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). The Rosenwald complex housed both Section 8 and many displaced residents from the Robert Taylor Homes – a nearby public housing complex that was demolished. However, CHA later vacated the building and the complex closed in 1999. For years, it sat vacant and deteriorating under ownership of the City of Chicago, which had no plans for rehabilitation for the buildings.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time of Listing - 2002

For the nearly two decades following CHA’s abandonment of Rosenwald, community residents, led by a fiery and determined activist named Bobbie Johnson, the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, with assistance from Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust, Preservation Chicago, Urban Land Institute and many others, advocated for preservation over demolition of this important neighborhood anchor.

In 2002, as Rosenwald faced the ongoing threat of demolition, Landmarks Illinois included the complex on its Most Endangered list. A year later, the National Trust for Historic Places also called attention to the apartment complex by placing it on its America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

Thanks to these impressive combined efforts, the Rosenwald Apartments were ultimately saved from demolition. With strong support from the City of Chicago, local Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell and the Chicago Housing Authority, the lead developer, Landwhite Development LLC, completed an ambitious $132 million rehabilitation of the historic complex providing 235, one- and two-bedroom units for senior and family housing, with restored landscape in the inner court and refurbished retail spaces lining Wabash and 47th Streets. The project utilized an intricate layering of multiple important tax incentives, including federal historic tax credits, low-income housing tax credits, tax-increment financing and a loan from the CHA.

On Oct. 4, 2016, the rehabilitation and reopening of the Rosenwald Court Apartment complex was unveiled to a heavily attended ribbon-cutting ceremony. Third Ward Ald. Pat Dowell helped bring much of the city’s public dollars to the rehabilitation project. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Dowell pointed out how Rosenwald’s reopening coincided with the 100-year anniversary of the Great Migration.

“What more befitting tribute to this time in history than a celebration of the restoration of the iconic and historic Michigan Boulevard Apartments,” Dowell said.

In 2017, City Council approved the apartment complex as an official City of Chicago landmark, protecting the buildings’ exterior as well as the interior courtyard from alteration or demolition. The same year, the historic complex also received a Landmarks Illinois 2017 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award. It has also earned the Chicago Landmark Award for Preservation Excellence Rehabilitation, the CNDA Outstanding For-Profit Neighborhood Real Estate Project Award, the Novograd Historic Preservation Award and the 2018 US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

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