Candidates and preservationists rally to save crumbling Washington Park National Bank building
By Erick Johnson
It sits in the middle of a Woodlawn neighborhood that’s on the verge of an urban transformation.
As new developments blossomed and property values increased, the Woodlawn National Bank remained a crumbling relic from a bygone era. For decades, it stood empty at the corner of 63rd and Cottage Grove. Built when Woodlawn was predominantly white, the neoclassical building is a significant piece of the neighborhood history. Now an eyesore, the 95-year-old building’s days may soon be numbered.
On March 15, the Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) approved the demolition of the landmark, setting off an intense battle between activists and a developer who wants to build a mixed-use affordable housing development at the site, 6300 S. Cottage Grove.
With the future of Woodlawn’s identity at stake, the battle has pulled in two political candidates seeking to become the next alderman of the 20th Ward and who will have the daunting task of steering the neighborhood during an economic boom that threatens Woodlawn’s historic identity and longtime residents.
For years, the building sat neglected and vacant under its owner, Reverend Leon Finney of the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church of Christ.
In 2017, the CCLBA acquired the property after paying $3.7 million in taxes the building had accumulated as it sat neglected and empty for at least 25 years. The move was part of the CCLBA purpose and mission, which buys and sells vacant structures to prevent urban blight. After acquiring the property, the CCLBA held three community meetings where a string of developers gave presentations that showed what they planned to do on the site.
Of three proposals, the CCLBA selected Revive 6300, a joint venture between DL3 Realty, LP and Greenlining Realty USA.
Revive 6300 was the only candidate whose plans included demolishing the ornate structure and building an ordinary, new three-to-five-story, mixed-use structure designed by FitzGerald Associates and Brook Architecture. The new structure may include a University of Chicago tenant, a bank, co-working space, and a cafe, according to Miller.
However, activists and preservationists question why the CCLBA approved the demolition despite CCLBA’s original intention to redevelop and save the Washington National Bank building.
In the “objectives” section of the request for proposals, the land authority said it recognized “the sustainability benefits of adaptive reuse and historic preservation.” A structural assessment report on the building found “the existing framing system of the building is structurally sound, intact and still in good condition.” The report also noted that the building is salvageable and can be repaired to restore its full structural integrity.
In 2016, Preservation Chicago—a non-profit organization—listed the property as one of the city’s most endangered buildings. CCLBA Executive Director Rob Rose said in January that “the fate of the building eventually would have been demolition.” But questions remain as to why the building still faces demolition, despite intervention. Meanwhile, activists and preservationists have vowed to stop the wrecking ball from destroying a piece of history.
“I won’t approve the permit for demolition,” said Jeanette Taylor, on condition that she wins a runoff for alderman of the 20th Ward. “They need to be transparent. I’m going to bring the city and the community back to the table.”
Taylor’s opponent, Nicole Johnson, said in a statement, “I consider this yet another ‘bait & switch’ maneuver to push something down our throats.”
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, tweeted, “Awful! I think Chicago can do much better in 2019! Hoping that the Chair Bridget Gainer and Executive Director Rob Rose of the Cook County Land Bank can correct these missteps, looking to the future!”
The winning team is headed by two Black men. They are Leon Walker, head of DL3 Realty LP, and Lamell McMorris, founder of Greenlining Realty USA. Both men were reportedly raised on the South Side.
In a press release announcing the partnership, McMorris said, “It is the goal that this project will continue the revitalization efforts of the community and restore the vitality of the neighborhoods we knew as kids.”
Amid suspicions, Rose denies any trickery was involved in the CCLBA’s decision to approve the demolition. “Changes were made to all proposals after the RFP to respond to a request from the selection committee,” Rose told the Sun-Times in a written response.
Built in 1924, the Washington Park National Bank building was one of many ornate, neoclassical bank buildings that were erected in Chicago before the Great Depression. Many have since been demolished. Constructed with Bedford or Indiana limestone, the building was erected more than two decades after the Cottage Grove Green Line station was built for the Chicago World’s Fair.
One historical document shows that the Washington Park National Bank building was originally planned to replace a smaller structure at 63rd and Evans. That site was then occupied by Skeeles-Biddle Funeral Home, which in 1938, handled the funeral arrangements of Clarence Darrow, the Chicago attorney who represented the notorious Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb. During the “Trial of the Century,” the two wealthy students were convicted of kidnapping and brutally murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Hyde Park.
At 63rd and Evans, a much larger and grand building was planned with a façade that looks similar to the Field Museum in Grant Park. The plan was scrapped when funding dried up. In 1923, a smaller building was erected and completed in 1924. The final building was basically the top half of the original design.
The bank opened at a time when Woodlawn was predominantly white, and Blacks were restricted to living on the west side of Cottage Grove. Saul Alinsky, considered the “Founder of Community Organizing,” used the building as headquarters of The Woodlawn Organization.
Woodlawn began to change in the 1940s as Blacks began to move in during the Great Migration. The neighborhood became a prominent location for Jazz-era clubs and an entertainment and shopping mecca. At one point, 63rd and Cottage Grove was the busiest shopping district in Chicago south of the Loop.
Today, the Washington National Bank remains a deteriorating relic from a bygone era. In the last several years, the area has experienced resurgence in new developments. In 2016, the historic 104-year-old Strand Hotel was reopened as an affordable housing complex. Another nearby structure, the 92-year-old Grand Ballroom is humming after being restored in 2000.
On the north end, earlier this month after 127 years, Daley’s—the city’s oldest restaurant—moved into its new space across 63rd Street and Cottage Grove. It’s now part of the Woodlawn Station, a $30 million mixed-use affordable housing development. Two weeks ago, Jewel opened a full service supermarket at 61st and Cottage Grove. In addition to plans for a multi-million renovation of the Green Line Station, residents are bracing for construction of the $500 million library in Jackson Park.
With the impending demolition of the Washington Park National Bank building, concerns grow about preserving the history and identity of Woodlawn.
“Three public meetings and 25 years waiting for a plan to consider reuse of the building, only to be let down by the agency formed to assist in a positive redevelopment and reuse plan!” said Miller. “This is a tragic outcome for Washington Park National Bank.”