Plans altered slightly for rehabilitation of historic Rosenwald Apartments

David Roeder, of The Chicago Sun-Times‘ business section, reported recently that Landwhite Developers have changed up the retail and housing breakdown in their plan to restore the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments (more commonly known as the Rosenwald Apartments). In community forums, residents called for less housing and more commercial space, citing the danger in adding more residents to a neighborhood that currently lacks social services and commercial amenities. With ample modern commercial space, the building may attract the kind of useful businesses current and future Bronzeville residents need.

When the Rosenwald Apartments opened in 1929, it had 421 apartments and 16,400 square feet of commercial space. When first unveiled, Landwhite’s plan had called for 331 apartments and 21,000 square feet of commercial space – a lower number of apartments than the original because the old floor plans are small by today’s standards. Now Landwhite is looking at 235 apartments and 75,000 square feet of commercial space, the latter of which, by my quick calculations, would account for most of the first floor of the huge building.

Roeder notes that Rosenwald’s original plan for the building was “idealistic,” and he’s right. However it was also practical, and Rosenwald had every reason to believe that he could get a solid 6% return on his investment on a new building intended to be occupied by middle-class African Americans (a notion that was less than universally agreed upon at the time). He would have, too, but the building was completed just as the Great Depression hit, and it struggled to remain fiscally sound in its initial years.

Prosperity is on the horizon for the derelict Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments
Photo credit: SilverRaven7 (flickr)

This new iteration of the Rosenwald Apartments (which is being referred to as “Rosenwald Courts”) will be occupied largely by low income renters, so Roeder’s point about the difficulty in making the numbers work is well taken. On the other hand, the project will be funded by a prodigious collection of grants and subsidies from the city. It seemed for many years that the Rosenwald was just too big to rehab, but the plan put together by Landwhite and the contributing community organizations seems like it has a good chance of success. 3rd Ward Chicago Alderman Pat Dowell is optimistic that a rehabilitated Rosenwald could be a driver for positive change in the neighborhood, and on her website she’s released a document with answers to frequently asked questions about the project.

We will be following the progress closely, so check back here for updates.

By Michael Rose

Rosewood Beach poised for redevelopment; the legacy of the Rosenwalds on Chicago’s North Shore

Julius Rosenwald’s estate sat in one of the scenic and highly prized ravines of Lake Michigan’s northern shoreline, in the town Highland Park. Although the Rosenwald home burned down some years ago, the parks department of Highland Park turned the grounds of the estate into Rosewood Park and Beach. This scenic public park, which abuts Lake Michigan, gains from its original design by the famous Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen. Jensen designed this and many other grounds in the Chicago area in his distinctive “prairie style,” utilizing open spaces and native plants.

Rosewood Beach
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, May 2012

Recently, the park and beach have been the subject of an ongoing debate about whether to add infrastructure or to leave the space as is. Neighbors are divided on the issue. Last week, in spite of strong resistance from some residents, the park commissioners of the town of Highland Park unanimously approved a plan that would add restrooms, a concession stand, a lifeguard shelter and a lakeside “interpretive center.” Opponents of the redevelopment cited concerns that the interpretive center’s location on the beach would make it susceptible to damage from storms and that the new infrastructure would ruin the “natural and tranquil environment” of Rosewood Beach (“Leave Rosewood Beach alone,” the Chicago Sun-Times). The Chicago Tribune reports: “People on both sides of the debate invoked the names of philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who owned an estate on the beach, and celebrated landscape architect Jens Jensen, who designed the estate’s grounds, trying to ascertain what each historical figure would think of the project.” Enlisting Jenson and Rosenwald into either side of the debate would be difficult to do, as both men clearly valued the tranquility and natural landscaping of Ravinia while also appreciating the importance of public space.

Regarding this latter point, Julius Rosenwald’s wife Augusta was perhaps best known for her contributions to the parks of Illinois. Along the Union Pacific North rail line in downtown Highland Park is a small park designed by Jens Jensen, built in commemoration of the landscape architect who lived and worked nearby on Dean Avenue. But the park is also a memorial to another famous resident of the Ravinia section of Highland Park: Augusta Rosenwald. In addition to commissioning his work at the Rosenwald estate, the Rosenwalds were personal friends of Jensen and Augusta was a member of his park advocacy organization, the “Friends of Our Native Landscape.” The Friends lobbied for the creation of new state and national parks in Illinois in areas with unique natural features such as the Indiana Dunes and the Shawnee National Forest, as well as the augmentation of existing parks such as Starved Rock. The centerpiece of Jens Jensen Park is a council ring (a trademark of Jensen’s work) that surrounds a boulder with a small plaque memorializing Augusta Rosenwald. The boulder, installed in 1930, a year after Augusta’s death, is a fitting tribute to the friendship and shared advocacy of Jensen and “Gussie” for the preservation of historical and scenic parts of the landscape around Chicago.

Boulder honoring Augusta Rosenwald in Jens Jensen Park (click the image to view a larger version)
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, May 2012

In late May of this year, Aviva and Peter Ascoli (grandson and biographer of Julius Rosenwald) visited the Ravinia community in Chicago’s suburbs where Rosenwald had a summer home. Aviva and Peter attended the dedication by the town historical society of a plaque commemorating Rosenwald’s achievements and philanthropy. The plaque was embedded into the sidewalk of Central Avenue in Highland Park.

Sidewalk plaque honoring Julius Rosenwald in Highland Park
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner, May 2012

By Michael Rose