The Soul of a New Building: The Salvation Army’s new South Side community center building

Backed by the Kroc family fortune, the Salvation Army planned to build a huge, glorious community center here. A star-studded design competition, a dose of Chicago politics, and several injections of reality later, something quite different is about to go up

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Salvation Army's new community center
ENDGAME: A rendering of the building that’s expected to break ground in 2010

 

Chicago has always inspired high expectations in architects. And so it did in 2005, when representatives from eight firms met in Chicago to compete for a major new design commission, the Salvation Army’s Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. They traveled from as far away as Germany to learn about the mammoth facility, which was an exciting project for any architect, not just for its size but for the ambition of the client.

When the visitors arrived that morning at the Harold Washington Cultural Center on Martin Luther King Drive, the Salvation Army’s Chicago commander, Lt. Col. David Grindle, offered them uplifting words of welcome. The lieutenant colonel, like all Salvation Army officers, is an ordained minister, and the Army, he explained, is an evangelical denomination of the Christian faith. Grindle told the architects that the Kroc Center would do many things, but nothing more important than “giving hope to someone who is hopeless, giving strength to someone who is weak.”

Others spoke at the meeting, including representatives from city hall, who said they were pleased to see the site, 24 acres of former public housing land in Bronzeville, restored to good use. Then the alderman, Dorothy Tillman, got up. This was her ward. Not so fast, she said. She was shocked that there were so few African Americans in this audience. How would this group like it if her people charged into their communities? She was disappointed, very disappointed, that black architects weren’t better represented, and she wanted to know what was going to be done about it.

“It was tense,” says Gracia Shiffrin, then Mayor Daley’s deputy chief of staff for planning and development. But she acknowledges that Tillman got the architects’ attention.

Anyone familiar with Dorothy Tillman knows she has made a political career by keeping opponents off balance, attracting attention with outlandish hats and public scoldings. But in this case, she reminded all those present of what they might have forgotten: that architecture is more than brick and budgets. It also embodies history and aspiration. “This project had a soul. It had a life to it,” says José Sánchez, a senior associate with Antoine Predock Architect of New Mexico, one of the competitors.

“It was an opportunity to merge work and faith,” says Scott Pratt, who was a principal architect at Murphy/Jahn of Chicago, which was among the world-class firms getting ready to start drawing.

Now, four years later, the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center will break ground in spring 2010—not in Bronzeville, but in West Pullman on the Far South Side. The project has faced adversity, more so than most developments its size. Its fundraising has slowed. At least two architects selected for the project have withdrawn, and the result is that a more modest building than originally planned will go up.

Through stops and starts, with good intentions and sharp travails, the only constant has been the building’s purpose: to serve the young people in a dangerous neighborhood. When complete, its swimming pools, gyms, and classrooms will compose the largest community center in Chicago. Only time will tell if the building—created in the midst of a recession and in a community that suffers undeniable economic depression—will be the lasting symbol of hope that everyone involved has envisioned from the beginning.

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Illustration: Clare Mallison

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