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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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It was very much in the Salvation Army’s character that those in the organization saw this event as a blessing. In fact, something was changing in Bronzeville, with luxury condominium development on the north end and rents going up all around. The area surrounding 47th and State was still vacant. “But we were concerned about gentrification,” Grindle says, “concerned that we had the right building and the right programs in the wrong neighborhood.”

The Army located its new site relatively quickly. By February 2006, leaders identified 33 acres of city-owned property at 119th and Loomis streets in West Pullman. The area was in tough shape, as once middle-class neighborhoods were filling up with families turned out of public housing. Gangs waged turf battles; drugs and gun violence were a constant threat.

So it was a logical destination for the Salvation Army, but Alderman Carrie Austin of the 34th Ward was still amazed. She was long accustomed to being passed over for social programs and services, despite real need. “We’re the forgotten South Side,” Austin told Salvation Army personnel who came to scout the neighborhood. “Usually the money that comes from downtown doesn’t get any farther than 95th Street.”

The Jahn design was readapted with relative ease, largely because it was modular and “corresponded with the Chicago grid” as Scott Thomas puts it. Major elements, such as the open air cathedral and ubiquitous transparency, were retained and were as striking as before.

But construction costs would soon cause another twist in the road. By early 2008, they were too high. Some said this wasn’t surprising, given the typical Helmut Jahn design: Structural elements like glass and steel are largely exposed and expensive to work with. Yet the Army was militant about holding to its $60-million budget, and estimates came in at least 20 percent over that figure.

As this news unfolded, architects worked hard to squeeze costs out of the plans. But Jahn eventually concluded that further modifications would take the design far from anything he intended. So he reluctantly left the project. While Jahn prefers not to discuss the subject, he acknowledges that the estimating process, which involved the Army’s contractor and “too many consultants,” did not go well. “Architecture is a tough thing, especially when you don’t have a lot of money,” Jahn says, describing the give-and-take among everyone involved. “The pain necessary to implement that building, the client simply couldn’t deal with.”

This forced Scott Thomas to go out for an entirely new architect. But now there was another snippet of bad news: Fundraising was not going as well in late 2008 as it had previously.

A new international competition was out of the question. Instead Thomas and his colleagues limited the search to local architects, and, by that, they meant extremely local. Partly to ease the political and permits process, “we wanted a firm with a Chicago address,” says Thomas, who admits that there was a sense of “frustration and fatigue” setting in. Simply getting the thing done had risen to the top of the architectural priorities.

* * *

Four good local architects were invited for in-depth interviews. Antunovich Associates was chosen. The firm was noted for a variety of shopping center and residential work around the country and for the Ray Meyer Fitness and Recreation Center at DePaul. The latter project certainly helped Joe Antunovich, a longtime Chicago architect who was born in New Zealand, get the job. So did the fact that his firm had worked extensively with the Army’s general contractor, W. E. O’Neill. “They knew we could deliver the building within budget and within schedule,” Antunovich says.

Meanwhile, other aspects of the project continued to move forward. Major David Harvey and his wife, Major Darlene Harvey, both ordained ministers in the Salvation Army, had been assigned to direct the Kroc Center project and to start building programs and bonds in the community. Initially the Harveys were in Bronzeville, but, by 2006, they had a presence in West Pullman.

The ministers quickly examined the community’s needs, which ran deep. David Harvey acknowledged that shootings were frequent, and he said that even the gang members he knew were interested in the Kroc Center to get their brothers and sisters off the streets. Harvey also got to know the public schools in the area, which were strained and needed help. “The Johnnie Colemon Arts Academy [one of the area’s public schools] doesn’t even have a music program,” he said. “And we’re the Salvation Army. Bands are what we do!”

The Kroc Center that’s now on the drawing boards and on the verge of breaking ground in spring 2010, may be more modest than originally envisioned. It will also be done in three phases, as local money is raised to match the Kroc grant. To Harvey, whose father was a Salvation Army officer who opened a mission and treatment center at Monroe Street and Ashland Avenue nearly 40 years ago, working within budgets is okay. He repeats one of the Army’s gentle doctrines: “We don’t want to lose any other services in the city because of the new center.”

The architect Joe Antunovich insists that he took the Kroc Center as a “labor of love.” “It’s designed from the inside out,” he says, describing an exterior that will have more plain masonry than previous designs and include fewer striking details. Flat walls are, after all, the most economical way to enclose a building. Nevertheless, the dazzling transparency of the Jahn scheme clearly inspired Antunovich. A glass wall will make a huge aquatic center visible from the street. And with interior glass separating many spaces inside, “a youngster playing in the gym will be able to see his sister in a music room, practicing Chopin,” says Antunovich.

There’s still more to be thrilled about, though some things are less visible than others. Harvey describes many sustainable features in the building, including solar panels that can heat the pool and variable-speed motors that slow down the pumps when no one is swimming. There will be automatic light dimmers and green roofs where things can be grown. This feeds into the Salvation Army’s age-old thriftiness, certainly, but also its newer taste for advanced architecture.

Maybe, after all, that’s the message of the building: Innovation and sustainability—big themes in modern design today—are messages that people in poor neighborhoods can take home, too. The simple, transparent face will be solid, with the roofline sweeping up into a stylized steeple, and animated, with activities such as swimming attracting people even on bleak winter days. “Architecture can bring different sounds, different textures, different rhythms to a community,” says Melinda Palmore of 3D Design Studio, one of the few predominantly African American firms in the city. An associate architect brought into the project by Antunovich, she hopes the many features designed into the Kroc Center will add up to “an embrace of the community.”

The way that Alderman Carrie Austin sees it, Helmut Jahn’s design would have been “a showpiece.” She laughs: “You know we don’t have many tourist attractions on the South Side, not even for South Siders.” The Antunovich building may not make it onto a Chicago architecture tour, but she loves its “community look, a neighborhood look.” What she means is that in a world full of extravagant plans and good intentions, a new, if more modest, stake in the community is just what West Pullman needs.

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