Chicago Real Estate Daily published a short interview with David Roos of Landwhite Developers LLC, in which he discusses the financial plan for redeveloping the historic Rosenwald Apartments. As the project has progressed through its planning stages, the number of residential units has dwindled from 331 to just 235 (originally, the building held 421 units). The article also includes a preliminary rendering of the rehabilitated building.
Did Julius Rosenwald make it his last philanthropic act to fund the investigation of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone? Although he never spoke about it publicly before his death in 1932, Rosenwald was allegedly a member of the “Secret Six,” an organization of wealthy businessmen who, when faced with the inability of the police and courts to stop organized crime in Chicago, took matters into their own hands and funded a private investigation of the Chicago “Outfit.”
The impetus for the formation of the Secret Six came in 1930 when Philip Meagher, construction superintendent for the new Chicago Lying-In Hospital was gunned down in broad daylight by two gangsters at the construction site. The new hospital was being built on the University of Chicago campus thanks to a large donation by Julius Rosenwald, who was also a benefactor of the hospital at its previous location. While receiving treatment for his wounds, Meagher told the police the shooting was due to “labor trouble,” as the construction company Meagher worked for had chosen to use non-union workers.
Shortly after this event, Colonel Robert Isham Randolph, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce, told the press that the CAC was taking an interest in the case because violence was increasingly moving from the criminal underworld of alcohol bootlegging into the world of legitimate business. Randolph formed a subcommittee of the CAC to combat organized crime and when he wouldn’t reveal its members to the press, one newspaperman dubbed them the “Secret Six.” In April of 1930 (two months after the shooting of Philip Meagher) Randolph was quoted by the Chicago Daily Tribune, describing the purpose of the Secret Six:
“We want it understood that we have not taken over the city from its constituted authorities. We are not vigilantes and we are not adopting extra-legal methods. The law enforcing agencies were scattered and there was an apparent lack of coordination between them. We feel that we have brought about a coordination of police, prosecutors, and Criminal court judges. We have done more—we have set up a real secret service for the prosecutors—something they would have been unable to do themselves.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 15, 1930)
Specifically, it seems that the Secret Six funded private investigators, began a protection and relocation program for state’s witnesses and supported an income tax investigation (tax evasion was what Capone was ultimately convicted for). This six man anti-crime organization was necessarily secret: in this time of bribed law enforcement and bold intimidation of civil servants by gangsters, it was important that anyone wishing to stand up against organized crime remain anonymous. It should come as no surprise, then, that Rosenwald never claimed membership in the Secret Six, especially because he passed away shortly after Capone’s conviction. Randolph, in his 1932 eulogy for Rosenwald addressed to the Chicago Association of Commerce, expressed gratitude for Rosenwald’s financial support of the Secret Six, calling him “the most human of men” and praising his “wise” philanthropy.
The Secret Six’s role in bringing down Al Capone and other racketeers has been overshadowed by the more heavily dramatized story of Eliot Ness and the “Untouchables,” but their financial support of crime fighting efforts was crucial to Capone’s conviction. At the time, the Secret Six were well known nationally. Their work was discussed in many newspaper articles and the story was the subject of a pre-Code gangster film in 1931 named The Secret Six, about the rise and fall of a bootlegger named Slaughterhouse Scorpio (a character loosely adapted from Capone). Although it’s less well known than other pre-Code classics like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (though it was released within a few months of them) it’s no less exciting and fast-paced. It also serves as a revealing document of the popular perception of Prohibition-era gangsters (and those who worked to bring them to justice) made during a time when alcohol bootlegging and the attendant violence was still very much a reality in cities like Chicago.
By Michael Rose
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
Works by Charles White, Rosenwald fellow, on display at North Carolina Central University Art Museum
A couple weeks ago, a new exhibit featuring 47 works by the great painter and print-maker Charles White went on display at the Art Museum on North Carolina Central University campus.
White was a native Chicagoan who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After graduation, he joined the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration, and produced one of the WPA’s best known murals entitled “Five Great American Negroes.” The mural, which features Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Marian Anderson was originally installed in the George Cleveland Hall Library on Michigan Boulevard in Chicago. This historic library is located just one block from the Rosenwald Apartments and was built on land donated by Julius Rosenwald to the Chicago Public Library. Today, the mural resides in the Law Library at Howard University.
Shortly after completing “Five Great American Negroes,” in 1942 and 1943, White received consecutive Rosenwald grants that allowed him to travel the south and study art. Around the same time, White married another Rosenwald fellow Elizabeth Catlett.
Admission to the museum is free and the exhibit will be on display until December 21st.
By Michael Rose
Sears’ West Side Campus: the original Sears Tower in Chicago presides over a transitional neighborhood
The original Sears Tower, 930 S. Homan Avenue, Chicago
Photo credit: flickr user Zol87, June 3, 2009
While in Chicago, many tourists make a stop at the former headquarters of Sears located in the tallest building in the United States. The views of Chicago’s Loop from the top of what’s now known as the Willis Tower are stunning. An equally interesting view can be seen from the top of a different tower just four miles west of the Loop. This somewhat lesser known building, commonly referred to as “the original Sears Tower,” is found on the 40 acre North Lawndale campus that Sears called home for many years. The 249-foot building, originally surrounded on three sides by the massive Merchandise Building, now stands alone on a much smaller footprint facing Homan Avenue. Saved from destruction and later restored, this still empty but beautiful and striking building symbolizes both the history of Sears’ commercial might and the aspirations of the redeveloping community around it.
View of the Merchandise Building and Sears Tower
Photo credit: Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, circa 1920s
Sears consolidated its operations in North Lawndale in 1906, a site considerably removed from its former location, a mishmash of unconnected warehouses in the West Loop. The new complex was built along the B&O rail line, but the surrounding neighborhood was primarily residential, not industrial. In the years after Sears opened its Homan Avenue campus, upwardly mobile Jews from areas closer to downtown settled in North Lawndale. The neighborhood, close to centers of employment and situated between two of Chicago’s beautiful west side parks (Douglas Park and Garfield Park) became a prosperous Jewish community filled with elegant greystone homes and successful businesses, theaters and community organizations.
With the help of his friend Henry Goldman, Julius Rosenwald led Sears to a successful IPO in 1906 and oversaw the construction of the Sears, Roebuck Complex on Homan Avenue. Rosenwald assumed greater and greater leadership in the company and took over as president from Richard Sears in 1908. Rosenwald competently managed the three million square foot campus (the largest business building in the world at the time) which featured a complex pneumatic tube system, a scale model of the interior of one of the pre-fabricated bungalows Sears sold and a chemical laboratory for testing new merchandise. An open invitation to members of the public went out in the Sears catalogue, and many people toured the facilities each week.
Sears was the largest employer in the area and the Homan Avenue campus became a self-sufficient town center for its employees. Along with its factory, rail yard and distribution center, the site also contained its own power plant and fire station along with a variety of amenities for employees such as a YMCA, a public library, a cafeteria and a dining room. Later, in 1925, the first Sears retail store opened at the Homan Ave campus. Under Rosenwald’s leadership, Sears was booming, and its campus, which resembled a modern day suburban office park, was sprawling by early twentieth century standards, with surplus space left open for future expansion. This space was put to good use, as the company provided gardens, tennis courts and baseball diamonds for its employees. The Sunken Garden park with its Greek Pergola, provided by Sears as a respite for its workers during day, can still be seen on Arthington Street.
The Sunken Garden and Pergola, circa 1910
Photo credit: flickr user rich701
Sears began to move out of the Homan Avenue complex in the 1970s. Since that time, as other employers eventually moved to the suburbs as well and the area’s original residents followed suit, North Lawndale became an impoverished area with rundown housing stock and few amenities for residents. Beginning in the early 1990s, affordable housing was built on the site as part of a comprehensive development known as Homan Square. Rosenwald would likely have approved of an initiative like this, given the passion he displayed for modern, affordable housing in the construction of the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in Bronzeville, on Chicago’s South Side. Homan Square is a mixed-use development that makes use of the site and some of the buildings of the former Sears headquarters. In addition to new housing, a large community center with indoor pool and gymnasium was built more recently at Homan Square, providing a vital amenity for North Lawndale residents. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the reuse of the Sears complex and grounds is the rehabilitation of the Power House Building, which once provided electricity for Sears’ operations. Power House High is a tuition-free charter high school that won awards in 2009 for its creative reuse of the remarkable building. Also known as The Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center, the rehabilitated school made use of sustainable materials and building methods and preserved many of the large industrial machines left over from when Sears occupied the building. A PDF document detailing the historic features of the building can be found here.
View of North Lawndale from the Sears Tower
Photo credit: flickr user Ian Freimuth, October 16, 2011
The history of the neighborhood around the Sears complex is reflected in its housing stock. As you can see in the picture above, taken from the vantage of the Merchandise Building Tower, vintage working class two and three flats stand alongside elegant early twentieth century single-family greystone homes. Interspersed throughout, but especially in the foreground, are some of the recently constructed townhomes that make up the Homan Square development on what used to be the grounds of the Sears complex. By building affordable housing alongside retail, community services and schools, and integrating it all into the existing neighborhood, the Homan Square development is leading the charge in revitalizing North Lawndale. The community today is very different than it was in 1906, but the Sears campus is once again at the center of it.
By Michael Rose