The homes of Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Chicago Defender founder Robert S. Abbott, Thomas Dorsey and many other Black historical sites are not official Chicago landmarks. Important to Black history, they are unprotected and a new owner can demolish them anytime without any opposition.
By Erick Johnson
Alderman Sophia King (4th Ward) had a problem in her ward in 2017. Developers were jockeying for some fresh real estate to build skyscrapers in the fast-growing South Loop neighborhood along Michigan Avenue. In the middle of the hustle and bustle was a small, vacant 11 story-building that was once the home of Johnson Publishing Company, which produced the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines.
Amid the power point presentations and board room discussions, there were concerns that the house that trailblazer John H. Johnson built would be demolished to make way for Chicago’s next skyscraper.
With her political influence and connections, King moved quickly to save the Johnson Publishing Company property from hungry developers possibly demolishing a vulnerable, yet significant piece of Black history important to Chicago and the nation. By the end of the year, the Johnson Publishing Company building was an official Chicago Landmark whose future was safe and secured.
Today the building at 820 South Michigan remains the same as it was in 1972. The building now houses modern apartments with remnants of its past adorning the halls.
Since 1972, Black Chicago has lost some of its most important buildings that despite their historical significance were not official Chicago Landmarks. They include the Regal Theater, Metropolitan Theater, the Palm Tavern, the South Center Department Store and the homes of Sam Cooke and pilot Bessie Coleman.
At a time when downtown and white neighborhoods were off limits, many of these locations provided Blacks pride, culture, entertainment and a taste of the good life in Bronzeville. Today, all of those buildings are gone. In their place are new buildings or vacant lots, and no markers to educate new generations of Blacks on the significance of the properties to their cultural heritage and past.
More historic buildings and homes that still stand today also are not Chicago Landmarks and remain unprotected from demolition.
In an extensive analysis of city records, the Crusader has identified a number of structures among at least 44 properties that are not official Chicago Landmarks.
They include the shuttered Griffin Funeral Home, Parkway Ballroom, the Forum, the Swift Mansion, the Lu Palmer Mansion, and the homes of Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters. Without the critical Chicago Landmark status they can be altered anytime or even worse, demolished with no opposition from city officials.
Of 353 Chicago Landmarks across the city, only 72 represent historical significance to the Black community on Chicago’s South and West Sides, according to data from the Chicago Commission on Landmarks, a group within the city’s Historic Preservation division in the Department of Planning Development.
While the tomb of slave owner Stephen A. Douglas remains a Chicago Landmark, the Bronzeville home of the doctor who performed the nation’s first heart surgery, Daniel Hale Williams, is not. Not even the Stony Island Trust and Savings Bank Building, which houses the acclaimed Stony Island Arts Bank and Library is a Chicago Landmark.
Of the 72 Black Chicago Landmarks, the Crusader found that Bronzeville, Chicago’s oldest Black neighborhood, is home to 33 of them, more than any community in the city.
Seven Chicago Landmarks are on King Drive in Bronzeville alone. South Shore has four, Washington Park has three and Woodlawn has two Chicago Landmarks.
The home of 14-year-old Emmett Till, brutally murdered by two white men in Mississippi after being accused of whistling at a white woman is one of Woodlawn’s landmarks. Till’s home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence became the newest Chicago Landmark last month after Alderman Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward) threw her support behind a campaign to protect the two story flat after similar campaigns in previous years had failed.
The actions of Aldermen Taylor and King to save historic Black structures are part of a new wave of activism by Black political officials to salvage important relics of Black history.
Like residents, urban renewal, a changing racial climate and the plans of developers have awakened political officials to the grim realities of forgotten Black historic sites in a city that for decades has overlooked their significance. Today residents’ involvement remains more critical than ever as development booms in Bronzeville and Woodlawn grow, sparking concerns of gentrification.
With their rich history and connection to Black Chicago’s past, the two neighborhoods are among dozens of communities whose Black culture and identity are threatened more than ever as home values grow and whites move in, reversing white flight. With an influx of cash, they seek to capitalize on development projects like the impending Obama Presidential Center and Library. Such projects have turned Black historic neighborhoods into potentially attractive locales for whites to live.
Amid the hustle are decaying Black historic sites that gave Black neighborhoods life, culture and identity. Many are gone. Many are vacant and some have fallen into disrepair. Most important, many are not official Chicago Landmarks, protected from demolition or alteration by hungry developers seeking to plan their next project.
Two overlooked historical sites in Bronzeville, Griffith Funeral Home and the Lu Palmer Mansion are among the most vulnerable. They have been vacant and in disrepair for years. Because they are not Chicago Landmarks, a new owner can do with the property as he wishes, including tearing down the building, with little opposition.
Located on the former Camp Douglas site, the Griffin Funeral Home at 33rd and King Drive closed in 2007 after 60 years in business. It handled the funeral arrangements of Olympic Gold Medalist Jesse Owens and Nation of Islam Leader Elijah Muhammad whose funeral procession in 1975 included 500 cars.
At 36th and King Drive, the 49-room, three-story Lu Palmer Mansion is one of the largest historic homes in Bronzeville. Built by Dr. Harry Hammer in 1885, it was once owned by political activist, Chicago Defender and Chicago Daily News columnist Lu Palmer, who died in 2004. Palmer, instrumental in Harold Washington’s successful run for the city’s first Black mayor, held campaign meetings at the mansion.
Another Black historic building that is not a Chicago Landmark is the Robert S. Abbott Mansion at 4742 South Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.
From 1926 until his death in 1940, Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper, lived in part of this large Queen Anne brick structure that includes a coach house in the rear. According to documents nominating the mansion for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1926 Abbott paid $24,000 for the manse, equivalent to over $350,000 today.
At the beginning of the Depression, Abbott was reportedly drawing $2,000 as a weekly salary plus regular bonuses, according to historic documents that said he had nearly a half million dollars in cash. Documents also state that amid marriage problems, Abbott sold this mansion to the Robert S. Abbott Publishing Company, which became the home of the Defender itself until 1944.**** “the home” is my entry. IS THIS CORRECT?
Despite being on the National Register of Historic Places and a National Landmark, the Robert S. Abbott Mansion is not an official Chicago Landmark. To find out why, the Crusader sent several emails to the city’s Department of Planning and Development, which did not respond by Crusader press time for its special Black History Month edition.
“That’s a shame. Why would that building get national prominence and not historical prominence?,” said Sherry Williams, founder and president of the Bronzeville Historical Society. “This shows the disrespect they have towards historic African American sites.”
The Robert S. Abbot Mansion is not the only nationally recognized site that is not a Chicago Landmark. The Crusader found 19 Chicago structures on the National Register of Historic Places that are not official Chicago Landmarks. They include the Daniel Hale Williams House, the Oscar De Priest House (home of Chicago’s first Black alderman), the Swift Mansion, and the Forum Dance Hall.
The Forum, a vulnerable Black historic site sits vacant and deteriorating at 324 East 43rd Street near the Green Line station in Bronzeville. Built in 1889, it was the largest dance hall on the South Side. Jazz music’s elite lit up the place to the delight of Black spectators. After the closure of “Forum Hall” and the second-floor performance space in the 1970s, the building fell into disrepair. Retail and other establishments and a community group, Urban Juncture, stepped in to try to save it from demolition. Today, Forum Hall remains a gutted, rotting building.
In 2018, Landmark Illinois put the Forum Hall on its list of the Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois. One community leader estimated that it would cost $25 million to fully restore the Forum Hall.
Concerns are growing as developers fuel urban renewal efforts next door to the Forum Hall. Last November, several developers proposed a $30 million high-rise apartment building near the CTA’s 43rd Street Green Line stop, hoping to boost residences and stores in one of Bronzeville’s struggling commercial districts.
The proposal was submitted in a zoning application to the City Council. The development reportedly will be built on city-owned land which the developer will later acquire.
Vacant and disintegrating and without a Chicago Landmark designation, the Forum Hall’s future is uncertain.
In 2007, the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church at 4100 S. King Drive in Bronzeville, after a years-long campaign to save it, learned in 2001 that it was threatened with demolition. **** Is it 2001 or 2007?At one point in the struggle, beautiful interior features and stained-glass windows of the church were removed. The Coalition to Save the Met then filed a motion to block demolition or any interior destruction. Ultimately, the late Reverend Leon D. Finney, Jr. stepped forward with his existing congregation to purchase and preserve the church.
The Swift Mansion, several blocks away at 4500 S. Michigan Avenue may be fortunate. In 2018, the owners of the 37-room Swift Mansion put it up for sale for $1.3 million after struggling to pay rising maintenance costs and repairs of the 118-year-old building.
A funeral home operated out of the mansion before the Chicago Urban League used it as its headquarters for decades before moving next door, to 4510 S. Michigan, in 1984. The mansion has been threatened with demolition twice, once under the current ownership of Maurice Perkins and his wife Christine who operate their non-profit Inner-City Youth and Adult Foundation in the building. It was later taken off the market but remains an endangered historic site.
The Swift Mansion was once a popular site for sightseeing tours. Groups would arrive in bus loads to roam the mansion and marvel at its lavish oak interiors and grand staircase. But since 2009, the Swift Mansion building has failed building code inspections four times and has been cited for numerous code violations, city records show.
Peter Strazzabosco, deputy commissioner of community development, said there was a suggestion to designate the Swift Mansion as a Chicago Landmark on November 20, 2012, but no formal request or application was submitted. The owners disagreed and said an application was submitted. After the story was published, Alderman Pat Dowell said the building had too many code violations to be reviewed for consideration as a Chicago Landmark.
Among the 72 official Black Chicago Landmarks, only one, the King Drive residence of civil rights advocate Ida B. Wells is also a National Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. Located at 3624 S. King Drive, the building was the home of Wells and her husband Ferdinand L. Barnett from 1919 to 1930.
The list of Chicago Landmarks also incorporates sites of Chicago tragedies and the sites of demolished important properties. They encompass such sites as the Haymarket Tragedy in 1886, the site of the origin of the Chicago Fire of 1871, and the site of the demolished Sauganash Hotel/Wigwam, at the Southeast corner of Lake St. and Wacker Dr., thought to be the first hotel in Chicago,
However, the list does not include the site of the E2 Night club tragedy in the 2300 block of S. Michigan in 2003, nor the vacant site of the predominately Black Provident Hospital.
In deciding whether to designate a property as a Chicago landmark, city officials use criteria outlined in the Rules and Regulations of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks handbook that helps the city “preserve the character and vitality of the neighborhoods.”
The guide outlines seven criteria for sites to be considered a Chicago landmark. Among the criteria:
1) the property must be an example of the architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social, or other aspect of the heritage of the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, or the United States.
2) Its location is a site of a significant historic event which may or may not have taken place within or involved the use of any existing improvements.
3) Its identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social, or other aspect of the development of the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, or the United States.
4) Its representation of an architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social, or other theme expressed through distinctive areas, districts, places, buildings, structures, works of art, or other objects that may or may not be contiguous.
After researching, gathering input and holding meetings on landmarks request, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks makes its recommendation to the City Council as to whether to designate a property a historic landmark.
The Council then votes and gives its final approval. If approved, a plaque is placed on the property, informing visitors of the structure or event’s history and significance. New owners of the property cannot alter or demolish the property without special permission from the Department of Planning and Development. However, developers can change the interior for a new purpose.
The Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks was created in 1957 by the City Council. It served primarily as an advisory board, whose principal purpose was to compile a list of significant buildings.
In 1968, the City Council adopted a landmarks ordinance that gave the Commission the responsibility of recommending to the Council which specific landmarks should be protected by law. The ordinance also gave the Commission the authority to review building permits for landmarks, to ensure that any proposed alterations would not negatively affect the character of the landmark.
For decades after the Chicago Landmarks ordinance was passed, Black historic sites were neglected and overlooked by a city where tourism fueled a disproportionally higher number of Chicago Landmarks into downtown and the North Side, promoting buildings designed by prominent white architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham. As skyscrapers dotted tourism maps and brochures, Black historic sites suffered, and were given little attention by the city’s convention and tourism offices, and visitors.
But when Mayor Richard M. Daley took office in 1989, the number of designated Chicago Landmarks in the Black community grew dramatically. Under Daley, 56 historic Black sites became Chicago Landmarks, city data show.
Under Mayor Michael Bilandic, who served from 1976 to 1979, only four Black Chicago Landmarks were designated. Mayor Jane Byrne’s administration produced just one and Rahm Emanuel’s administration had five that includes the Johnson Publishing Company building.
So far under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, three Chicago Landmarks have been designated in the Black community. In addition to the Till home they include Bronzeville’s Blackwell-Israel Samuel A.M.E. Zion and Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, which was featured in the 2018 movie “Widows” with Oscar winner Viola Davis.
Lightfoot in 2019 made history when she appointed Maurice Cox, a Black man, to serve as commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development. Cox, a Harvard graduate and architect, is charged with leading economic development, planning and zoning functions while fostering community-improvement initiatives throughout the city.
While his primary focus is under-invested neighborhoods on the South and West sides, Cox has the influence to bring attention to more Black historic sites that are reviewed by a division in his department.
Ward Miller, executive director for Preservation Chicago, has been campaigning for years to preserve Black historic sites on the city’s South and West Sides. Miller told the Crusader that in the past 20 years, unprotected Black sites have been threatened with demolition more than ever. He said the support of aldermen is critical to the success of getting a Black historic site designated as a Chicago Landmark.
Miller also said unlike in the past, the city is more willing to review requests to landmark Black historic sites that have building and code violations.
“I think we are experiencing a new vision and new day with these Black sites,” Miller said. “We are growing more aware of these places and it’s about time.”
That is good news to Sherry Williams, the president and founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society who said she had been trying to get the home of Eugene Williams in Bronzeville designated as Chicago Landmark.
Williams was teenager whose death in 1919 sparked the infamous Chicago Riots where 34 Blacks were killed by an angry white mob. Williams was buried in an unmarked grave at Lincoln Cemetery for 100 years before residents raised funds to place a headstone on his final resting place. His home remains an unprotected historic site.
Some Black historic sites like the former home of Louis Armstrong and the Robert S. Abbott Mansion have Chicago Tribute Markers of Distinction, but Sherry Williams said they lead residents to believe that the sites are Chicago Landmarks, which they are not.
Since the program started in 1997, founded by a coalition of foundations, 80 markers have been placed on historic sites throughout the city. But the Chicago Tribute Marker of Distinction designation does not protect important structures from alterations and demolitions.
To promote awareness, Williams said a group she put together has been rehearsing to host Black historic trolley tours which she plans to hold after the coronavirus pandemic ends. She hopes the tours will help generate interest in designating more Black historic sites as landmarks.
“If people see and learn about these places, they will help try to save it,” Williams said.
Despite the efforts of Preservation Chicago, Alderman Taylor said more advocacy is needed to bring attention and raise awareness about overlooked Black historical sites that are deteriorating.
“What we need is a Black organization that is specifically committed to advocating and preserving these important Black places that hold our history and identity,” she said.
Taylor said she has been having conversations about the Phyllis Wheatley House and other historic Black sites with Alderman Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward.
On March 16, a Cook County Judge will decide whether to issue an order to demolish Wheatley’s building, the three-story dilapidated vacant house that offered shelter and resources to young Black women who moved north during the Great Migration. The structure is named after Phyllis Wheatly, America’s first Black poet who was also a slave during her lifetime. The house is currently owned by Dr. JoAnn Tate, who lived there with her family for 30 years. She did not know about the home’s history until preservationists told her about it.
On Wednesday, February 24, Preservation Chicago placed the Phyllis Wheatly House on its latest list of Chicago’s most endangered historic buildings. Preservationists estimate that it will costs at least $1 million to rehabilitate the historic home.
But to Blacks and preservationists, the value of homes, churches, and other structures being designated Chicago Landmark status could be priceless.
Taylor said while Black Chicago Landmarks are important, she remains concerned about their upkeep after seeing the poor condition of the Washington Park home of the late Playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author of “Raisin in the Sun.” The play is based on her experiences of racial tensions from white neighbors after her family moved into Washington Park during the second wave of the Great Migration.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Taylor said. “That’s one of my projects before I end my first term in office.