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


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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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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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.

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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.