By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The grand staircase where many debutantes once roamed became a meeting place for inner city youth looking for a job. The carved oak mantel on the wood burning fireplace where the well-heeled cuddled on frigid nights for years, held flyers promoting drug treatment programs.
For decades, it was known as the historic Swift Mansion, but contrary to what many believe, the house that was around before the neighborhood became known as Brownzeville, is not officially a Chicago landmark.
It is a relic that once served a bygone era of Chicago’s privileged before it became a welcome refuge for poor and unemployed Black residents on the South side. Now the Swift Mansion faces an uncertain future, as does the social services program that has called the mansion home for more than 20 years.
On February 13 the founders of the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation put the 114-year-old structure up for sale. The asking price is $1.3 million.
For that amount, the buyer of the massive 10,200 square foot gray stone mansion will enjoy 37 rooms, a chef’s kitchen and a 1,500 square foot ballroom. There is also a three-story coach house in the rear of the property. If developers have their way, the mansion could be demolished. It is not protected by the Chicago Landmarks Commission.
It would be a double whammy for the Bronzeville neighborhood if both the mansion and the Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation become extinct. When the home is sold, for founders Maurice Perkins and his wife, Christine, there are no other options.
After years of assisting youth and former inmates live productive lives, the couple is retiring and will no longer need the aging mansion at 4500 S. Michigan Avenue in Bronzeville, which houses their social services program.
It’s also a time for the couple to say goodbye to the program they founded when they bought the mansion in 1995 after hearing that it might meet the wrecking ball. Rising infrastructure repairs and the state’s budget crisis have taken its toll on the couple who have acted as surrogate parents to thousands of youth in the community for 22 years.
“It’s a lot of work that we would have liked to get done, but we’re selling it (the mansion) so we can retire,” said Christine.
Christine said they plan to continue helping youth in some capacity, but traveling and relaxing are a big part of the couple’s future. It’s uncertain who will run the Inner City Youth and Foundation once the Swift Mansion is sold.
The Perkins’ have hosted forums, workshops, and community barbeques at the Swift mansion. As part of the Transitional Living Life Skills Program, the Perkins help non-violent inmates from a facility in Sheridan, IL make a smooth transition into the job market. Hundreds of youth have obtained jobs through the Perkins’ program.
In the center of it all was the Swift Mansion.
It was built in 1893 before the Great Migration brought thousands of Blacks to Chicago from the South. Back then Bronzeville was called Grand Douglas, and was a predominately white neighborhood, with rows of mansions lining Michigan Avenue.
Gustavo Swift, a prominent, wealthy meatpacker, built the mansion for his daughter Helen as a wedding gift. Helen and her husband, Edward lived in the mansion until 1904 when it was occupied by several more family members. A funeral home operated out of the mansion before the Chicago Urban League used it as its headquarters for decades until it moved next door, to 4510 S. Michigan, in 1984. The mansion languished vacant for a decade before the Perkins’ bought it in 1996 for $101,000, according to public records with the Cook County Recorder of Deeds.
During an interview with the Crusader, Christine said she was in an elevator when she overheard that the building was going to be demolished. It was the second time the Swift Mansion was threatened with the wrecking ball. Earlier, in 1951, plans to demolish the mansion were stopped after one owner announced plans to remodel the structure, according to the Chicago Sunday Tribune.
Today, the Swift Mansion remains vulnerable to the wrecking ball once again, as developers consider purchasing the decaying house. According to the Chicago Landmarks Commission, the mansion is not designated as an official Chicago landmark, which protects structures from demolition. Christine told the Crusader that her husband twice tried to obtain Chicago landmark designation for the mansion, but grew discouraged from the application process.
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 mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), but that designation does not protect historic structures from being torn down. The Swift Mansion, with its crumbling facilities and decrepit infrastructure may be too expensive to repair.
The Swift Mansion is coded orange on the NRHP. It means that should a buyer wants to tear down the Swift Mansion, he must wait 90 days while the department reviews the request to demolish the property. But several structures in Chicago neighborhoods have met their fate despite being on the NRHP.
“We’re hopeful that someone will come along, fix the place and take over the work,” Christine said.