NORTH LAWNDALE — For 40 years, the historic Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog printing building sat vacant, crumbling into a state of decay ever since the retail giant moved its headquarters Downtown.
But after being revived into an affordable housing complex and keeping its industrial aesthetic, the building now known as the Lofts on Arthington was granted the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award from Landmarks Illinois.
The award recognizes the exemplary rehabilitation work done on the 111-year-old national landmark at 3301 W. Arthington St. to allow the building to once again serve as a valuable asset to the neighborhood.
In its heyday, the Sears campus employed about 22,000 people, many of them Lawndale residents. But after phasing out its warehouses and offices beginning in 1974, the area fell into a state of disinvestment, not only taking away jobs but leaving behind a handful of empty, old buildings in its wake.
The complex of massive buildings with red brick exteriors, ornate limestone portico entrances and carved marble columns grew to symbolize all the things lost from Lawndale. For decades the vacant campus embodied the jobs whisked away from the West Side, a reminder that this was a place where economic stability and safety and opportunity used to be but had long gone.
“It kind of became a part of what people saw as the tragedy of North Lawndale that happened from ’68 kind of onwards,” said Mark Angelini, president of Mercy Housing Lakefront which redeveloped the site. “And actually, it started in the ’50s, right as the community was being disinvested, and redlining and panic peddling kind of worked against the benefits and the needs of the population that was living there.”
Partnerships between the city and private developers began in 1994 as some of the old buildings began to be restored. Eventually, the Sears Power House would be reworked into Charles H. Shaw Technology and Learning Center at 929 S. Homan Ave., while the Sears Merchandise Building Tower at 906 S. Homan Ave. would be turned into Nichols Tower, which is now the home to several neighborhood organizations.
The redevelopment helped commerce to return the area, which would come to be known as Homan Square, a community built on the foundations laid a century earlier by Sears.
Still, the old printing house would go unused until Mercy Housing Lakefront began redeveloping the site in 2015.
With the building’s deep roots in the history of Lawndale, Angelini said the preservation of the site wasn’t just about holding onto the industrial architecture in the building. It was more so about preserving the unique cultural heritage that the building had contributed to the residents who had spent their whole lives in the area.
“It was great to be able to contribute to preserving something … not only historical from an architectural point of view but also from a cultural and city history point of view,” Angelini said.
The building was converted into 181 apartments that take advantage of the large windows and 16- to 18-foot ceilings in the warehouse. But despite the spacious and airy loft-style designs, the apartments are still maintained at affordable prices. The rehab also restored the front lobby with its original floors and marble baseboards.
Angelini said the catalog building was an ideal location for affordable housing units because it sits in a commercial corridor ripe with opportunities to support lower-income residents. The building is just blocks away from the Kedzie-Homan Blue Line station, grocery stores and a strip mall along Roosevelt Avenue. It also has several public, private and charter schools within walking distance including DRW College Prep next door.
Mercy Housing Lakefront also supports residents with amenities like job training, neonatal health care and pre-K education programs on-site. The building also has laundry facilities, a gym and a computer room for tenants.
According to Illinois Landmark CEO Bonnie McDonald, the special attention that developers gave towards offering support services while keeping the apartments affordable played a major role in awarding the preservation award to the Lofts on Arthington.
“We’re trying to change the narrative about preservation because it’s about far more than bricks and mortar. In fact, the reason that we preserve places is for people,” McDonald said. “We do it because we want to provide a needed resource in that community.”
She said the most important contribution of the efforts to preserve and rehab the old catalog printing building is that it was converted into apartments that would keep the neighborhood affordable while giving people a new way to engage with the heritage Sears campus. According to McDonald, some of the families in the building have been in Lawndale for generations, with some tenants having parents and grandparents who once worked in the very same building when it housed the printing presses for the iconic Sears catalog.
“It’s knitting together the future, the present and the past, in a way that provides supportive, affordable living units,” McDonald said.
The work done to rehab the warehouse sets a high bar for the value of preservation not only in the city of Chicago, but all across the state, McDonald said.
Even with the help of historic rehabilitation tax credits and Chicago Housing Authority funding, restoring a historic property is far from easy, especially while keeping rents low. But had the property been left unused or even torn down like so many other historic buildings in Lawndale, the impact on the neighborhood and the residents would be tremendous, McDonald said.
“Demolishing a property really says that the community is not valued. … I think that using this historic building, which is building of great quality, tells the residents that they are valued, that they deserve this quality, they deserve a place that has stood the test of time.”
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Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.