Chatham's modernist housing legacy

July 15, 2011

I took a trip through the Chatham neighborhood earlier this week, half-expecting it to be a gang warzone what with all the news about the community I've been reading as of late. I'm happy to report the neighborhood is still intact.

Which isn't to give short shift to the negative changes that have come to Chatham in recent years. In decades past, Chatham had been the well-manicured centerpiece of a sprawling set of middle-class black South Side neighborhoods largely between the Dan Ryan expressway and the lake. Today it grapples with an aging population, unemployment and new arrivals contributing to a sharp uptick in crime--even murder--and poverty rate at an astounding 22 percent. As Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell said last month in her excellent series Changing Chatham, the neighborhood "is no longer the haven for the black middle class that it was not so long ago."

Despite all this, most of Chatham is still beautiful. And though pre-World War II houses and apartment buildings dominate the area, the neighborhood has an unheralded collection of mid-century modern homes, partly due to the fact that large tracts of Chatham were platted but undeveloped as late as 1952. Many of these contemporary and modern new homes were built by the middle-class African Americans who began moving into the neighborhood in the late 1950s.

Chatham's modernist housing legacy beckoned me to the neighborhood earlier this week. With the neighborhood changing, how was this unique subset of the areas housing stock holding up, I wondered. Fortunately, the home in the above photo pretty much answered my question. Built in 1961, the modernist multi-level home on the northeast corner of 85th and Michigan looks as good as new. And man, dig the topiary!

There's more where that came from, like this curvy blonde on 87th and Michigan. It's a beauty, built 43 years ago for black medical researcher and dermatologist Dr. Theodore K. Lawless:

Here's a home on a tight lot. Living space is elevated over a front-facing garage. The 1960s house kind of reminds me of Keck & Keck's 12-sided House of Tomorrow built for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Just with eight fewer sides. And no biplane:

It's weatherbeaten, but I like this one: the Ephphatha Lutheran Church of the Deaf at 80th and King Drive.

Architect George Siegwart's remarkable space-age Pride Cleaners at 79th and St. Lawrence:

And a perfect place to eat after a day of scouting midcentury Chatham architecture--Lem's BBQ on East 75th in the neighboring Park Manor community:

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