I have run into my share of serious photographers who come to Chicago in order to photograph the City’s architecture. High on the list is Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City, located on the terminal branch of the Chicago River. If these photographers ride the Chicago Water Taxi to Chinatown, they will pass Goldberg’s River City on the south branch of the river just north of Roosevelt Boulevard.
What even the most dedicated photographers may miss is Goldberg’s venture into Chicago pubic housing. Opening in 1966, the Raymond Hilliard Homes was comprised of two 16-story round towers and two 18-story curved towers. Interestingly, Goldberg’s website refers to 18-story towers, while several other sites (including the CHA’s) and articles refer to those buildings as 22-story towers. The complex is built in an area that once was known as the Levee. It was the center of prostituion in Chicago until it was shutdown in 1910 (or thereabouts). By the early Sixties, it was still a “grubby” area, in the words of the Chicago Daily News.
The round towers were for the elderly and the curved ones for low-income tenants. Together, the four buildings included 756 units when the complex first opened. Hilliard Homes is the last high-rise public housing project built in Chicago. Many of the earlier projects, including the Robert Taylor Homes and Cabrini-Green, were torn down, as the first head of the Chicago Housing Authority, Elizabeth Wood, predicted would happen. During her 17-year tenure (1937-1954), she tried to integrate public housing and make the buildings more than warehouses or what someone termed “filing cabinets” for the poor. She failed in her efforts, resulting in a 1969 federal court decree ordering the CHA to stop honoring aldermanic demands that public housing not be built in certain wards. The judge also limited public housing buildings to three stories and required that the housing be placed in predominatnly white neighborhoods. In the end, Hilliard escaped the wrecking ball largely because of its architectural significance.
Unlike Goldberg’s Marina City, the Hilliard Homes towers were supported by their exterior structures rather than their cores. The concrete curves play an important role in supporting the structures. Goldberg took this approach because he wanted the center core in the two 16-story towers that were reserved for the elderly to include usable common space. The 18-story buildings reserved for families also rely on the curved exterior walls for structural support, but there is no central core with usable common space, hence the semi-circular shape. Goldberg used this same approach in his design for Prentice Women’s Hospital in Streeterville, which Northwestern University regrettably tore down about a decade ago.
Floor plans for the units set aside for the elderly depict the pie-slice wedge that is associated with Marina City—the unit is widest at the windows and tapers off as the flow moves back toward the unit’s entrance. The original complex also included a sunken amphitheater that seated 800, a bike path so kids could race their bikes, a playground, and animal sculptures.
In 2002, the complex underwent a $98 million renovation that was completed in 2007. It is now a mixed-income housing project, with a total of 654 rental units. One hundred eighty eight units are set aside for the elderly. The community building now contains a computer lab, exercise facilities, and meeting rooms, as well as a management office. Since 1966, the trees surrounding the complex have matured, as my images aptly demonstrate.
That renovation was completed by Peter Holstein, a private developer who acquired the buildings on December 31, 1999 from the CHA, which did not have the funds necessary to rehabilitate the complex. The CHA still owns the land, leasing it to Holstein under a 99-year lease. According to the Chicago Reader, Holstein Management oversees the property, using a well-thought out process to attract low-income tenants who will not pose problems for those residing in the complex— as of 2016, prospective tenants underwent criminal background checks and were screened for money judgments, and tenants underwent annual drug testing. I don’t know whether those screens and tests are still in place. The project is still listed as a CHA project, so I assume the CHA has some sort of contractual arrangement with Holstein Management.
Apparently, Goldberg’s concept worked, at least in part. Hilliard Homes was the only CHA high-rise project that never had a uniformed police force assigned to it. The application process was designed to screen out potential troublemakers. Unlike Robert Taylor Homes, which was comprised to 28 16-story buildings arranged in a horseshoe pattern, Hilliard Homes was designed for smaller families and couples. Toward the end of its existence, it used no screening to keep potential troublemakers out. It had a reputation for crime, with the police assigned to patrol the complex afraid for own their safety.
Despite its efforts, crime could be an issue at Hilliard before the renovation. In 1988, an eight-year-old boy was found hanging in a stairwell, with his legs and arms bound. Yet, one long-term residence told the Chicago Reader hat the complex never had a serious gang problem, but he indicated drugs were an issue.
Hilliard Homes was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.
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What people who come to Chicago want to photograph:
Those willing to move beyond downtown and the riverwalk might be surprised with the photographic opportunities that they find.