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Call them the best of the 21st century if you’d like. These innovative new buildings illustrate Chicago’s enduring power to attract great design.
BY JAY PRIDMORE
GARY COMER YOUTH CENTER (2006)
John Ronan Architects
7200 South Ingleside Avenue
Restless capitalists built Chicago. They’ve also had a strong hand in designing it. But no one recently put entrepreneurial vision to architecture like Gary Comer, the late founder of Lands’ End. Before he died in 2006, and with his fortune made, Comer embarked on a last venture: to transform Grand Crossing, the South Side neighborhood where he grew up. To say the area is tough dignifies it, but that didn’t stop the billionaire from wandering the streets in search of something with promise to nurture. He found it in the South Shore Drill Team, a precision marching unit that kept a lot of kids out of trouble. He decided to build a practice facility for them.
Comer liked John Ronan from the start, largely because the architect was hands-on. Every time they met, Comer imagined more functions for the building—sports, cooking, video production. Too much? Comer would ask. No problem, Ronan would reply. What he meant was that fitting all of these elements together under one roof presented an interesting problem.
Frankly, all these programs and all Comer’s money—ultimately $30 million—could have made an elaborate mess. But Ronan believes that impressive spaces are, above all, efficient. So the “heart of the building,” as Ronan calls the gym, was designed to function also as a theatre with a hidden stage and seats that slide out of a wall. The “green roof” that insulates the building can provide victuals for cooking class.
Comer, who lived to see the project completed, wanted above all a place that would comfort the youngsters who used it. When Ronan asked them what it should look like, the answer was a stunner: “No windows.” This was anathema to a modernist—but sensible in a neighborhood of drive-bys.
“But I didn’t want to design a bunker,” Ronan says. So he created an interior of interlocking one-, two-, and three-story spaces, separated by glass, with light transmitted throughout from large windows above street level.
Admittedly, the center lacks overt architectural expression. It doesn’t, at first glance, identify the client as a great patron or the architect as some kind of genius. But its colors brighten the street. It’s secure and inviting. Most of all, it has helped transform a neighborhood for the better. There isn’t much more you can say for a building than that.