Vote No R.I.P. for Rosenwald

Vote No R.I.P. for Rosenwald


Early in my business career I learned the folly of  worrying about anything. I have always worked as hard as I could, but when a thing went wrong and could not be righted, I dismissed it from my mind.

Julius Rosenwald

Julius Rosenwald might not be pacing the halls of heaven wondering what will become of the beautiful buildings he commissioned in Bronzeville but a number of us earthbound are worried.  It seems that everything that can go wrong is happening or trying to happen.  For those of you who read my blogs you know I love imparting a little bit of history in relation to current events.  This situation is no different.

“The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer.”

Julius Rosenwald

Rosenwald is credited with saving the flagging Sears Roebuck store. Rosenwald’s leadership as Vice President and Treasurer increased annual sales of the company from $750,000 to upwards of $50 million. But it was his sense of justice and fairness that was his true fortune.  In the early 1900’s Rosenwald was introduced to Booker T. Washington.  From that meeting grew friendship and common cause.  Dr. Washington asked Rosenwald to serve on the board of directors of the Tuskegee Institute, an invitation he accepted and a post he held until his death in 1932.

Sepia Photo of Rosenwald Building

Rosenwald’s concern for suffering minorities led him to become a most prolific philanthropist.  He established the Rosenwald Fund in 1917.  His contributions to black Americans included over 70 million dollars to public schools, colleges and universities, museums and black institutions. The rural school building program was one of the largest programs administered by the Rosenwald Fund. It contributed more than four million dollars in matching funds to the construction of more than 5,000 schools, shops, and teachers’homes in the South. These schools became informally known as “Rosenwald Schools”. 1

His largess did not stop with rural communities or with education. In 1929 Rosenwald hired his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr., an architect who would
later win an AIA Gold Medal for Adler Planetarium, to design the 447 unit complex located at 47th St. and Michigan Ave built to house black American workers.  The Rosenwald Apartments (as they were later dubbed) were actually a full-block series of interconnected buildings with landscaped courtyards at two of the eight separate entrances, and a large central green space with the structures along its perimeter.  This was one of the most “green” buildings in Chicago.  Central to the appeal was the enclosed and landscaped 2-acre courtyard, where children could safely play and
residents could stroll. Large numbers of windows allowed in light and air and easy views to the central area. Another amenity was the building’s commercial use on 47th Street, including 12 retail spaces and a nursery to accom­modate working parents. The five-story building filled immediately, and waiting lists surged. Rents were kept below market rate, but property manag­ers could be selective when choosing tenants.  The Rosenwald was home to Gwendo­lyn Brooks, Nat King Cole, Joe Louis, and Quincy Jones.

1953 Jet Magazine carried then property manager Robert R. Taylor’s announcement that the complex would begin accepting white tenants, “mainly school teachers and social workers.  In 1967, Jet reported the complex was to undergo a $2,000,000 modernization and be converted to condo’s ranging in price from $6,265, for a one bedroom, to $9,215, for a three bedroom unit.  This did not come to fruition.

January 2009 the Chicago Real Estate Daily stated Chicago-based brokerage firm Melvin M. Kaplan Realty Inc. was hired to sell the Rosenwald.  The article stated that the Bronzeville buildings total 465,544 square feet, with 16,400 square feet of first-floor retail, and are owned by AMA Realty Group LLC, which bought the complex in 2003. The purchase price could not be determined, but Skokie-based AMA financed the acquisition with an $8-million loan, according to public records.  The property was eventually put up for auction but no takers.

The historical significance of the building is reflected in its 1981 designation on The National Register of Historic Places, and its presence on the City of Chica­go’s Historic Resources Survey. (The older three-story buildings on the site are not included on the Register.) In 2003, the National Trust placed it on its “Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places” list. Landmarks Illinois followed in 2005, placing it on its “Chicagoland Watch List” for that year. In 2007 it landed on the “Chicago 7”, Preservation Chicago’s annual list of most threatened sites.  As of 2003 the complex is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is not protected as a local landmark.

The Decline of the Rosenwald

Restoration attempts died on the vine through Dorothy Tillman’s 23 year reign as the alderman.  Pat Dowell, the current alderman, is now tasked with attempting to do something regarding the Rosenwald.  This is not an easy task.

Alderman Dowell and the city of Chicago Department of Community Development enlisted the assistance of The Urban Land Institute to study the issue.  By the end of February 2010 the think tank was busily reviewing all available documents, data sets, etc. of the then vacant for ten years Rosenwald Building in an  attempt to divine a solution.  The following is some of what came out of those meetings. (Read the full report RosenwaldReport CLI)


In the context of redevelopment, the shuttered Ros­enwald is seen by some residents and business owners as an obstacle, citing, for instance, safety concerns from the partially-secured building. Other residents see the Rosenwald as an essential pillar of the cultural heritage of Chicago’s black community and a fixture of Bronzeville’s 47th Street Corridor.



The rich history of the Rosenwald – a symbol of black heritage and a tangible legacy of its namesake – positions the building to serve as a
significant community anchor to further brand Bronzeville.

Adaptive reuse could incorporate mixed-use com­ponents, including modern and customized shops, restaurants, or light industry, that would serve
resi­dents in need of employment as well as residents currently traveling outside the neighborhood in search of amenities.

The building has potential as a Transit Oriented Development, due to its strategic location 5 blocks west of the CTA Red Line and Dan Ryan Express­way, 3 blocks east of the CTA Green Line, 16 blocks from Lake Shore Drive and within access to mul­tiple bus lines.


Substantial structural damage from weather ex­posure and the extended period of vacancy render a complete rehabilitation of the Rosenwald cost
prohibitive, estimated at $310 per square foot for retail, residential and office, exceeding a total of $144,000,000.

Rehabilitating the Rosenwald to a level that is compatible with the City’s building codes and the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities
Act (ADA) would require gutting the structure and a potentially substantial reconfiguration of units.

The amount of public subsidies required to make the rehabilitation financially feasible are signifi­cant. This is particularly challenging given the limited funds available due to current economic conditions.



Demolition is the relatively cost effective op­tion, estimated by panel members at $8 -$10 per square foot, approximately $4.2 million; a fraction of projected total rehabilitation costs.

The unsecured and vacant building is currently providing a haven for crime and vandalism. Total demolition would remove the opportunity for crime that the building presents, though large vacant sites also create challenges.


The historical significance of the Rosenwald building, recognized by both the community and preservationists, introduces an unquantifiable cost to the cost/benefit equation.

The Rosenwald is listed with an “orange” building rating on the City of Chicago’s Historic Resources Survey, which mandates a 90-day stay of demoli­tion upon appeal.

Given the current economic environment, rede­velopment of the site could be significantly pro­longed and the block would remain vacant for an indefinite period of time, hampering community development.

After exhaustive consideration of financial constraints, the current condition of the buildings, continued deterioration and the historical importance of the Rosenwald to Bronzeville ULI recommended that the building be saved.  The problem is how.

The ULI Technical Assistance Panel (T.A.P) produced two scenarios for addressing the problems.  One would require tackling the whole enchilada to develop a mélange of residential, commercial, office, green space and retail for the paltry sum of 144 million.

Option B is less costly but recommends demolishing about 60% of the original structure.  The plan calls for more open space, including urban community gardens.

Frankly, I would like to see an Option C.  What about using some of this huge building to house a part of the Obama Presidential Library?  (Facebook Obama Library @ Rosenwald). The U of C could still house the bulk of it but maybe share the on line access and a little museum with Bronzeville.  Julius (Rosenwald) did a lot for the U of C.   I thnk he would be happy with this suggestion.

Community gardens are great but Chicago has a relatively short growing season.  So, why not develop some of the building for aeroponic gardening and commercial hydroponics for year round food production and jobs?  Let’s face it; this is a project that demands creative thinking. Grant dollars are just about nil in this economy.  Perhaps looking at social entrepreneurial, sustainable projects (maybe even L3C corps.bring in Marc Lane)  might help get this project over the hump.  Hint, that’s a lot of rooftop for wind jet energy and/or sun.

I think this might just be the first of several articles to come on this topic.  Tomorrow I will be sitting with other “Bronzevillians” and our alderman to see what the next steps are.  DO I intend to put in my two cents?  You bet your green backs I do.


1. Wikipedia

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