Saturday, March 7, 2015

Carl Sandburg Village
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Carl Sandburg Village (1963-1971) Solomon Cordwell & Associates, architects / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 64 A.D. the Subura neighborhood at the base of the Equiline and Viminal Hills in Rome was packed wall to wall with substandard unsafe housing. Once the home of patrician Roman families like the Julians - where a young Gaius Julius Caesar had romped around - by the time of Nero, the upper classes had fled the area for greener pastures up on the Palatine Hill, and the Subura became home to some of the city's poorest residents. Property owners and landlords squeezed as many people as possible into dilapidated buildings collecting rents by the day or week, while offering their tenants little more than a collapsing roof over their heads. Over the millennia, the Subura came to be known as one of Rome's most notorious "slums," a word that showed-up in  A Vocabulary of the Flash Language at the beginning of the 19th century.

  [Carl Sandburg Village, Division Street to North Avenue; Clark Street to La Salle Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

By the early 1950s many urban communities in the United States had come to be officially identified as 20th century slums. On Chicago's Near North Side, an aging neighborhood of overcrowded, unsafe housing was identified as such by city planners. Rows of four-story townhouses lining the east side of La Salle Street from Division to North Avenue, built as single family residences for upper income dwellers, now housed as many as five or six working class families on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. To the east of La Salle, many of Clark Street's ground floor store fronts were topped with single family apartments that had been divvied-up and offered rooms for rent by the day or week. Some of Chicago's poorest citizens were clustered in crumbling buildings without indoor toilet facilities and overrun with rats. The heads of the Chicago Land Clearance Commission, Ted Aschman and John Cordwell identified the 16 acre parcel as part of a larger slum area that needed to be cleared.

  [Carl Sandburg Village, Gold Coast, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Unlike the nearby Cabrini Homes which was a public housing project, the proposal for the North La Salle project would be a public/private partnership of sorts. The city would clear the land through eminent domain, put up for bid, and sell to private developers for the construction of market rate housing. John Cordwell called this "The Pebble in the Pool," theory in an oral history conducted by the Art Institute in 1993. The premise was that like concentric rings emanating from a pebble thrown into a pool of still water, the project at the center of this pool would send out circles of stabilization to "the whole of Lincoln Park." And to Chicago's historically elite Gold Coast neighborhood. Just to the east of Clark stood what had once been the city's wealthiest and most socially connected neighborhood. But times were changing, and more and more of the old mansions were being converted into rooming houses, and, as Cordwell pointed out, houses of ill repute. Similar to a military operation, city officials were hoping that the projectile tossed into this basin of blight would stem the tide of advancing deterioration. On October 8, 1957 the Chicago Tribune announced that the city council was being urged to approve a plan to clear 223 structures from 31.9 acres of land inhabited by 3,871 people, 83 percent of who lived in housing considered blighted and unsafe.

  [Carl Sandburg Village, Near North Side / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

By this time John Cordwell, who had come to Chicago from England after serving in the Second World War and surviving incarceration in a German prisoner of war camp, was working with Lou Solomon, a well connected contractor and sometime architect. Solomon and his brother Irving had designed and built a number of large apartments buildings on Lake Shore Drive and friends of Chicago real estate mogul Arthur Rubloff. In the summer of 1961, as the city began clearing 16 acres of Gold Coast adjacent land, the parcel was put out for bid, and the Rubloff team - which included Solomon and Cordwell as equity partners and as the architects for Carl Sandburg Center - offered $9.17 per square foot, more that $3.00 above the next highest bid. The offer was accepted and the team handed the city a check for $6,411,000. Cordwell designed a group of 25 and 23 story towers above a cluster of low rise townhouses connected by a pedestrian mall complete with a moat and bridges. Rubloff saw the idea as a liability nightmare, "What if someone gets drunk and walks across one of those bridges and drowns in the moat?" Cordwell got rid of the moat and bridge concept, but he did put all of the parking underground. The urban planner didn't want the project surrounded by islands of parking lots that removed the complex from city street life - that was best left out in the suburbs. And in April 1963 the first tenants began moving into their Carl Sandburg Village apartments paying $125 per month for a studio, to $300 a month for a two bedroom, two bath unit.

  [Carl Sandburg Village, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

For decades after, Sandburg Village would be examined and re-examined as urban renewal gone wrong - or right. Thousands of low income people were displaced and many had a hard time finding landlords who would rent to large families accustomed to paying by the week rather than by the month. Critics said that the true motivation for Sandburg was to save the Gold Coast. But the irascible Mr. Cordwell had another view of the elite residential district. He said that at the time the great old houses along Astor, State and Dearborn were mostly rooming houses, flop houses, or worse, and that Sandburg helped stem an inevitable tide that was turning the entire area around the southern border of Lincoln Park into a future slum. Today Sandburg is a village of condominiums and the Gold Coast's multi-unit rooming houses have been converted back to their original large single family dwelling purpose. The Lincoln Park neighborhood is one of the premiere residential communities in the city, and nearly the entire Cabrini Green public housing project has been demolished and replaced with a mixture of market rate and subsidized housing. The pebble has rung.

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