One for the money: The modernist architecture of Illinois Service Federal Bank

January 17, 2012

With only $7,000 in hand, a group of black leaders started Illinois Federal Savings & Loan in a Bronzeville kitchen-turned-office during the Great Depression.

But by 1961, Illinois Federal was the second-largest black-owned S&L in the country with $12 million in assets. And its officers celebrated this feat--achieved in an era of withering racial prejudice and when 55 percent of black people nationally lived below the poverty line--by building a new facility that remains one of the city's most exuberant and well-executed examples of commercial midcentury modernism.

Jet magazine called the design "futuristic" when reporting in 1961 on plans to construct the $1 million building. Illinois Federal's president, the Rev. Archibald Carey Jr., called the building "our testimonial of faith in the community." The bank was completed in 1962.

The S&L is now Illinois Service Federal Bank. The modernist two-story concrete, steel, glass and brick beauty at 4619 S. King Drive is looking fine at 50; a Space Age show stopper on a boulevard largely built before the airplane was invented and clearly a future city landmark. Let's have a look around:

These triangular windows are great. They're fatter at the bottom to allow natural light into the banking floor. But they narrow-up on top where the offices are:

The rhythm here....

...reminds me of the late Walter Netsch of SOM's stellar U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, CO--which was completed a year after the bank, but had been in construction since 1959:

Illinois Service Federal is still black-owned and today has $147 million in assets and a second Chicago location. But who designed the bank's striking flagship at 46th and King Drive? It's a mystery--to me, at least--for the moment. I did find architectural renderings in two online archives, but no mention of the designer. When I find out more, I'll report it here.