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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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If it was surprising that the finalist from New Mexico won, it was only the first of many surprises that the Kroc Center would spring on Chicago. Predock did what successful architects often do to get jobs, and that was to speak of an unbuilt building with irresistible passion and charm. He presented attractive, if abstract, drawings of what he might build, but the architect was most impressive in what he said about the roots of the Bronzeville site. Predock recalled the neighborhood’s proud past and what it once represented to African Americans—a commercial and entertainment district so vibrant that Time magazine called it the center of black business in 1938. Restaurants, haberdashers, and the once dominant Binga Bank lined 47th Street. Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway played at the nearby Regal Theatre at the corner of King Drive. Predock actually reached farther into the past, to the mid-1800s, when the Underground Railroad spirited freed slaves to Canada via a nearby house.

How history figures into architecture is not an exact science, but echoing old culture in new ways is what the best contemporary architects do. The Los Angeles architect Michael Rotundi, a member of the Kroc jury, expressed the objective with deceptive simplicity: “We wanted architecture that would give people a reason to come together.” In fact, Predock’s winning composition was jarringly novel, with cubes and triangles in brick, glass, and limestone scaled like storefronts on the once-inviting street. Jury members also liked the ambitious idea of an atrium that would bring patterns of light inside to resemble a quilt.

The design evoked other ideas as well. The juror Anne Biebel, a preservation planner from Wisconsin, said she saw something of Frank Lloyd Wright in the winning design, especially his churches, which was appropriate because the center would have a chapel. Lest there be doubt that it was entirely modern, drawings showed roofs sloped to the ground and planted with grass. The green roof remains a holy grail of sustainable architecture today; this one looked emphatic, and, compared with vacant lots all around, like a paradise.

The competition was close. Someone familiar with the jury proceedings said it took until late into the last night of deliberations for the group to decide between Predock’s design and the glassy palace proposed by Helmut Jahn. In fact, some Salvation Army officers, including Grindle, said they preferred Jahn’s design.

Scott Thomas, the Salvation Army’s director of architectural services for the Central Territory, says ambivalence had nothing to do with the trouble that the Army had making a contract with Predock. Rather it was the fee. Because of the obvious complexity of the building, the Army was willing to figure higher than its customary 7 percent of construction costs. But Predock, says Thomas, began by asking for as high as 16 percent—which he justified by the need for a local associate and for specialists in pools, gyms, and the like. The Army offered 11 percent. Predock suggested that 14 percent would do it.

“I was not going to be able to sell that to my board,” says Thomas. So the Salvation Army went to second-place Jahn.

Jahn agreed to a fee of just under 10 percent, but it was in no way for a toned-down design. Renderings from his office showed an enormous, glimmering glass box, with a plaza called an “open air cathedral” dominating the corner of 47th and State. The design showed a tower visible from many blocks away and columns of light shooting into the sky through ceilings of glass.

Getting any project from extravagant design to a real building is difficult. And already, this Kroc Center had caused more than its share of problems. But the next one “blew us out of the water,” says Grindle.

Dorothy Tillman said no. Chicago aldermen are traditionally entitled to veto any building in their ward that involves special planning or zoning changes. In November 2005, Tillman exercised that right, saying she wanted a shopping center on the site, not a community center. Even Tillman’s detractors say she had a point, because a commercial development could generate more permanent jobs and sales tax revenue. But her decision came at an unconscionably late point. The Army’s divisional headquarters were obligated to submit detailed plans in three months’ time or potentially risk losing the Kroc money. Now they needed to almost start over. They asked for an extension from national headquarters, which was granted, but time was definitely wasting. (The ward, by the way, never got the shopping center, and Tillman was voted out of office in 2007.)

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