Altgeld Gardens, Blocks 11, 12 and 13

Altgeld Gardens, Photo Credit by Eric Allix Rogers

OVERVIEW:
Altgeld Gardens was designed by architects Naess and Murphy, as a public  housing  complex  in  the  1940s,  and  stands  as  a  testament  to good public housing design ideals, with low two-story buildings, linked together  in  groupings,  and  placed in  a  park-like  setting. The complex was said to be “the most self-contained comprehensive public housing project  ever  constructed  in  Chicago”.  It  includes  a public  library, schools,  an  auditorium, clubhouse,  and  modernist  shopping  center, which created a self-sufficient commercial development in the heart of the complex. Altgeld Gardens is located on a 157-acre site on Chicago’s Far South Side, near 130th and Ellis, in the Riverdale Community Lake  Calumet  Region.  While  there  has  been  a  great  commitment  towards preservation and reuse of many of the housing units in the past, a number of buildings, which had been mothballed for future renovation, are now facing potential demolition.  

HISTORY: Altgeld Gardens is named after Governor John Peter Altgeld, who served as Governor of the State of Illinois from 1893 to 1897. He was a leader in the Progressive Movement, implementing important child labor and workplace safety laws. He also pardoned three men related to the Haymarket Riots and refused to intervene in the Pullman Company Strike of 1894 in Chicago. He was the developer for the “Unity Building,” designed by architect Clinton Warren, which was a 16-story office building, once among the City’s tallest, known as “The Leaning Lady of Dearborn Street” located on Block 37, at 127 N. Dearborn.

Altgeld Gardens was constructed between 1943 to 1945 for African-American servicemen returning from World War II and their families. Many of the residents in the 1940s were employed by the many industrial factories of the Lake Calumet Region of Chicago, including armaments, steel mills, utilities, and wastewater treatment facilities. The Altgeld Gardens development was a project of the Chicago Housing Authority’s legendary Executive Director, Elizabeth Wood, who served from 1937 to 1954, and was responsible for managing many of the early public housing initiatives in Chicago. At one time, Altgeld Gardens contained 1,500 units, divided into 162 groups of two-story row houses. Spread over 157-acres, it is bounded by 130th St, South Doty and St. Lawrence Avenues in Chicago. In the years prior to the Civil War, this area of the Calumet Region had historic links to the “Underground Railroad.”

In 1954, the Phillip Murray Homes were added to the Altgeld Gardens development area. Notable visitors over time included Paul Robeson, Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens, and a young community organizer
named Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama began much of his community outreach and community organizing at Altgeld Gardens. It played a important role in his early years in Chicago, prior to his election as a State Senator, United States Senator and ultimately, as President of the United States. Some of the residents of Altgeld worked with the former President, including environmental activist Hazel Johnson. This historical site is a testament to President Obama’s early career and volunteer work in the community.

Altgeld Gardens has seen a renovation and restoration of many residential buildings of the campus, with additional reinvestment planned for the public-use buildings. A highly-unique former commissary and store building with a curvilinear façade by architects Keck & Keck is scheduled for restoration and reuse as a library. This welcomed good news has been tempered by the pending demolition of three entire blocks of residential buildings.

THREAT:
Over the course of several years, the Chicago Housing Authority, along with State and Federal agencies, its consultants and consulting parties, including Preservation Chicago, have worked together to ensure good preservation outcomes for Altgeld Gardens. Two years ago, an agreement was reached with all involved parties which included approximately 98% preservation. Since that time, the development has suffered from demolition exceeding the agreement, with the loss of 15 buildings and 212 sorely-needed housing units. Notice was recently received that Blocks 11, 12 and 13, dating from the earliest years of the Altgeld Gardens development and comprising 25 structures and 244 units, are to be destroyed. We consider this to be contrary to policies of the past and we would like to encourage all parties to fulfill the promise of affordable housing for Chicago’s most vulnerable residents.

Preservation Chicago does not believe that the City of Chicago should be reducing public housing. We encourage another agency or owner to assume the renovation of these structures. Otherwise, we will see a total of 40 two-story buildings demolished and a total of 456 housing units lost, in an area with a great need. Additionally, this is the terminus of the proposed Red Line CTA Rapid Transit Extension.

RECOMMENDATIONS:
We would like to see the Chicago Housing Authority or another third-party housing organization, take responsibly  for  these  25  structures,  renovate  them,  and  return  them  to  active  use  as  affordable  and  low-income housing. We also believe that they should be considered for the National Register of Historic Places due to their significance in the history of public housing and their connection to the legacy of President Obama.