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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The Salvation Army has at least 26 community centers either complete or in planning stages for some of the roughest neighborhoods in the United States. These projects are the conception of the late Joan Kroc, widow of the McDonald’s empire builder Ray Kroc, who in the late 1990s was seeking the most effective way to disburse her fortune. She lived in San Diego at that time, and she asked her friend, Mayor Maureen O’Connor, what she could do to change people’s lives.

O’Connor replied that the Salvation Army was the best conduit she knew for getting resources to the needy. And in many ways this was the right answer, partly because Ray Kroc, even as a fast-food king, had been a Salvation Army volunteer. In the 1950s, when Kroc was growing his empire from its Chicago base, he began his personal Christmastime tradition of delivering hot coffee and hamburgers to bell ringers along Michigan Avenue. He did a fair share of bell ringing himself.

Kroc died in 1984. Eighteen years later, in 2002, the first Kroc Center went up on the east side of San Diego: a $54-million facility in a gang-infested neighborhood, with three pools, spacious gyms, a performing arts theatre, classrooms, and a skating rink. (Joan Kroc had been a figure skater as a child in Minnesota.)

It was an instant success, and its mission to aid the dispossessed lined up perfectly with the Salvation Army’s overall purpose—except in one respect: architecture. The Salvation Army is frugal, its buildings utilitarian if not ugly. The San Diego center became an exception. Somewhere along the way, Joan Kroc told the San Diego–based design firm Austin Veum Robbins (now AVRP Studios) that she had no intention of putting her name on a stripped-down box. When features such as a symbolic tower, a sun-filled rotunda, and airy, trellised walkways collided with the budget, Joan Kroc raised the ante and said do it all. “She wanted to provide inspiration, she wanted to deliver dignity,” says Doug Austin, a principal with the firm. The center—spacious inside and out—boasts a style that Austin describes as a blend of California mission-revival and glassy modern architecture.

“From the beginning, it was important that this facility make an architectural statement,” says Steve Bireley, the business director of the San Diego Kroc Center. Bireley says the center has done more than help the people attracted to it; it has also stimulated other developments in a rough neighborhood.

With the San Diego center complete, Joan Kroc devised a plan for a national chain of Kroc centers, each a shining light for its community. Before she died in 2003, she arranged to leave about $1.5 billion, the bulk of her estate, for the purpose. Unwritten, but clear to all who knew her, was that she expected a major Kroc Center to go up in Chicago. So in 2005 the Chicago Metropolitan District of the Salvation Army launched a campaign to raise 25 percent of funds for what was planned as the largest Kroc Center in the country. (Local fundraising is stipulated in the bequest.) A total of $60 million was budgeted to the building, and another $60 million was budgeted for the operating endowment. Of this $120 million, $90 million would come from the Kroc fund and $30 million from local sources.

This was a big deal, and news of it naturally filtered to Mayor Daley, who promptly arranged for the center to go on land that the city could sell advantageously. In April 2004, the Salvation Army had announced that Chicago’s Kroc Center would go on 24 acres touching 47th and State streets, where a section of the Robert Taylor Homes was being demolished. As agreements were made—the Army would buy the land and the city would remediate it—Daley asked about the architecture. Army officials replied that Joan Kroc intended that her money would be used to make architectural statements. Having just presided over the construction of Millennium Park, Daley said he knew something about architectural statements.

“The mayor knew that the way to promote a great city is through great architecture,” says Gracia Shiffrin. And knowing that great architects are attracted to Chicago, Daley suggested an international competition.

The Salvation Army had never done such a thing. But the Army was eager to assume a more modern image, and a high-design competition seemed to Lt. Col. Grindle like a good way to raise the center’s profile. And so it was announced. “The city can build infrastructure, but we can’t save souls,” Grindle heard the mayor say.

Open architectural competitions can be controversial. In hard times, they frighten local architects as out-of-towners move in on their turf. That grievance was less important in 2004 when many Chicago firms were going great guns. Another complaint, less cyclical, is that competition entries usually amount to visionary dreams, meant to impress juries, but without meaningful interaction with the client.

Most condemnatory, perhaps, is the charge that many competitions lead to frustrating results. As a prominent local example, the architect Jeanne Gang won the commission for the Ford Calumet Environmental Center in 2004. But the city-state partnership behind the center, which is envisioned for the South Side near Calumet Harbor, has postponed construction until who knows when. Several recent competitions for public housing and for Lake Shore Drive overpasses have come to nothing concrete.

Still, the Salvation Army made no little plans for its project. It found an anonymous donor to pay more than $100,000 for the process. (Four finalists would get $25,000 each to present preliminary drawings.) The Army hired Donald Stastny, a Portland, Oregon, architect and well-regarded competition adviser, who had recently organized a contest for a yet-to-be-built new Alaska State Capitol.

Stastny had been around long enough to take grandiose visions with a grain of salt, and he didn’t mind saying so. He knew that the Kroc Center, as rich as it seemed, would have to economize in some respect if all of the gyms, pools, and music rooms were going to be built with a mere $60-million construction budget. Yet the ambitions of the Salvation Army alloyed with those of a powerful politician made Stastny hopeful that a world-class architect could make it succeed.

Stastny advertised the project in the architectural press and notified major architects he knew. “They [the Army and the city] wanted an iconic piece of architecture,” Stastny recalls. This meant an opportunity for architects to follow the muse of something creative and new. So despite the good times that large firms were having—especially with Middle Eastern and Asian clients—49 legitimate contenders decided to vie for consideration.

By mid-2005 this list was pared to eight, who were invited to bring teams to interview for the commission. Then, a few weeks later, an outside jury (assembled by Stastny with no voting members of the Salvation Army on it) chose four finalists.

Of the finalists, two came from Chicago and had reputations well beyond. Murphy/Jahn, best known here for the 1985 James R. Thompson Center, has since built commercial centers, hotels, and airports all over the world. Carol Ross Barney, also of Chicago, designed the Oklahoma City Federal Building (completed in 2004 after winning the job in competition). Rounding out the field were Behnisch Architekten of Germany, which Chicago architects knew mostly as a contender for large-scale Asian projects; and Antoine Predock, a New Mexico–based designer of modern museums and homes, and perhaps the most artistically daring of the finalists.

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