GRAND BOULEVARD — A year after buying the Lu and Jorja Palmer mansion, the owner is still waiting to move forward with an ambitious renovation — and she blames Ald. Sophia King (4th) for the holdup.
Bronzeville native Angela Ford took over the 133-year-old mansion at 3654 S. King Drive in April 2021 with the aim of converting it into a coworking and community space. It would also house the records of The Obsidian Collection, a nonprofit that archives Black media.
The local block club and other influential figures back the project, but Ford said King is refusing to bring it to City Council for necessary approvals. King, who last year introduced an unsuccessful ordinance to restrict projects like the Palmer House renovation, denied trying to block Ford. But she said the proposal has ballooned into much more than a house museum.
King said her office has helped Ford even though she worries about a large business being on a residential block, saying it would be like having “a Soho House next to your home.”
After a war of words on Facebook, the two met privately Tuesday. Ford said the alderperson has pledged to schedule a public meeting about the project soon.
“I look at this project as a way to honor the past and inspire the future,” Ford said. “The responses to my Facebook post show me that residents really want this, and we’re going to make it happen.”
‘We Want It To Be Open And Thriving’
Lu Palmer was a reporter, columnist and radio talent who made stops at the Defender, the Daily News, WVON and other Chicago outlets. Jorja and Lu Palmer and others — including Timuel and Zenobia Black — oversaw the voter registration drive that swept Harold Washington into office as Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983.
The mansion was built in 1888 for Justice D. Harry Hammer, according to Preservation Chicago. The Palmers bought it in 1976 and lived there until Lu Palmer’s death in 2004. Jorja Palmer died in December 2005. The home was vacant for years and landed on Preservation Chicago’s most endangered list.
It took Ford two years to close on the property with grants from the Chicago Community Trust, plus the organization’s help in securing a $1.25 million home loan. Ford estimates the total costs — including buying the home, extensively renovating the decaying building and creating community programs — at $3.8 million.
Several influential figures have backed Ford’s efforts. Some of Palmer’s contemporaries, including Chuck Bowen, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s former assistant, previously said preserving the space would “honor its illustrious past.”
Ford presented her vision last year to the Greater King Drive Block Club, whose president is Delmarie Cobb, a political strategist whose ties to the community date back 50 years. Though Ford did not know the full history of the area — other Black journalism giants, including Claude Barnett, Ida B. Wells and John H. Johnson, lived or launched publications along that stretch of King Drive — the group felt Ford’s project was “a perfect fit,” Cobb wrote in a letter to the alderperson’s office in March 2021.
“The Greater King Block Club supports The Obsidian Collection, and we look forward to it being a wonderful compliment to the history of this block that will add value to the investment residents have made and continue to make in their respective properties,” Cobb wrote.
That same month, King introduced then withdrew the unpopular ordinance that would restrict home museums from opening in most residential neighborhoods.
Then a year passed with little communication from King about how to move the mansion plans forward, leading Ford to go public with her concerns through a Facebook post, she said.
“Getting to speak to her personally has been very difficult, like trying to talk to the Wizard of Oz,” Ford said. “I started reaching out in August 2020 and didn’t speak to her until that November. And then I spoke to her again in October 2021. Prior to that, I was communicating with her chief of staff, Prentice Butler, and it would be like, ‘Try next month, too busy now.’ And when we do talk, it’s brief. … She’s very terse.”
Ford also said the delays have cost her another $100,000 in attorneys fees and consultants.
“It feels personal. I don’t know [King]. I have no idea why it’s taking so long. Even my attorneys said that the timeline is highly unusual,” Ford said.
In an 1,100-word statement King provided to Block Club and later posted on Facebook in response to Ford, the alderperson said the entrepreneur had already received approval for a house museum but has since requested other permits for the project.
Those include a zoning change from residential to commercial — “a very rare request,” King said — a license to allow private parties and serve alcohol, a special use permit for a community center, exceptions for parking and retail space and permissions to lease out residential units in the home.
“And any one of these requests is exceptional in a residential community,” King said. “Ms. Ford’s proposal can be likened to the Soho House for context. I have visited the Soho House and think it’s very nice. In isolation, there would be no issue. However, Ms. Ford wants to do this in a residential community. Imagine Soho House next to your home? The question is whether this is the best location for something like this.”
King said Ford is lobbying for a house museum “with the same type of misinformation and accusations leveled” in her Facebook post, and the expenses Ford complained about had nothing to do with her office. King said her office has helped Ford by bringing in zoning experts and the liquor commissioner to help her move through the council’s approval process “as a professional courtesy.”
“Just because Ms. Ford is a Black woman doesn’t mean that what she is proposing for our community — of which she is not a resident — is best for the community,” King said. “There have been many Black people that have sold our community a bad bill of goods. I’m not saying that’s the case here, but her premise of our office slowing her project down because she is a Black woman is false, insulting, and frankly without merit.
“We will continue to work with Ms. Ford in good faith as we have done so far. And ultimately the community will weigh in and we will do whats best for the community.”
Cobb wrote in her letter she and neighbors were concerned about the home becoming an events space, but they felt Ford’s plan would not involve “attracting hundreds of rowdy visitors to her location.” She told Block Club she still supports Obsidian House and believes it will be a net positive for the community.
Cobb also said she wonders what is behind the delay.
“We want [the mansion] to be open and thriving,” Cobb said. “When Gallery Guichard was on the block, it went from a gallery to an event space and had parties every other day until 2 or 3 a.m. … I’d be the first to object if I thought that would happen again, which is why I say in the letter that we want to have a working relationship with Obsidian, because we want to avoid that.”
After reaching a compromise about a public meeting Tuesday, Ford said she’s looking forward to presenting her plans to neighbors.
“She told me she supports the project, and I’m going to believe her,” Ford said. “We made progress, so I’m optimistic. What we are building will be for all of us.”
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