CHA's Lathrop Homes: Once under the threat of demolition, now in line for a National Register listing?

December 2, 2010

The Julia C. Lathrop Homes, an historic 35-acre public housing development near Diversey and the Chicago River, could take a step toward being listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places under a vote being taken today by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

At a meeting this afternoon at City Hall, the commission will decide whether to recommend the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council list the 75-year-old housing complex on the National Register. The 15-member state council which decides what Illinois sites are named to the National Register, would take up the Lathrop listing at its meeting next week.

The National Register listing could mark a stunning change of fortune for Lathrop. The low-rise, 30-building complex in a park-like setting was slated for demolition as recently as 2006.  Since then--and after lengthy talks with residents, neighbors and preservationists includling Landmarks Illinois, the city now seeks to redevelop Lathop in a way other than totally demolishing what's there. Earlier this year, the CHA named a Lathrop redevelopment team that included blue-chip architectural talent such as Studio/Gang, UrbanWorks, Farr & Associates, Brininstool Kerwin Lynch and preservatation consultant Vince L. Michael.  A spot on the National Register would also bring preservation tax credits that could offset 20 percent of the cost of preserving and redeveloping the original Lathrop buildings--an amount that could be worth tens of millions.

Chicago has more than 300 National Register listings, including Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, the Adler Planetarium and the Mies van der Rohe--designed 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive. The list also includes Humbodlt Park, Lou Mitchell's Restaurant and the K-Town Historic District which made the register in September, honoring a district of West Side graystones bounded by Cullerton, Cermak, Kostner and Pulaski.

While scores of Chicago Housing Authority developments demolished over the past 15 years were bleak foreboding Postwar towers (think Robert Taylor Homes, Stateway Garden and the now-falling Cabrini-Green), Lathrop belonged to a humane, earlier generation of federally-built housing. Built in 1937, Lathrop was given sweeping green spaces, gardens and a riverside location. Buildings were clad in warm brick with decorative stone trim. The Public Works Administration assembled an all-star team to design Lathrop, led by Robert DeGoyler with a supporting cast that included Hubert Burnham (Daniel's son); Hugh M.G. Garden; Tallmadge & Watson, E.E. Roberts and others. Jens Jensen did the landscape.

What they designed is pretty much what you see today. Let's look around:

 

 In addition to Lathrop, the Landmarks Commission will also weigh National Register recommendations for artist Roger Brown's home and studio, 1926 N. Halsted; and an overlooked but dazzling collection of terra cotta-clad buildings on and around 79th & Cottage Grove and 75th & Cottage Grove.