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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Bronzeville’s Obsidian Collection Faces The Public As It Pushes To Turn Palmer Mansion Into Its New Home

After a year of delays, the team behind the Palmer Mansion renovation unveiled their plan to residents at a spirited public meeting.

Angela Ford, executive director of The Obsidian Collection, poses for a picture Tuesday morning in front of the Lu and Jorja Palmer Mansion, 3654 S. King Drive.
Alberta Dean
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GRAND BOULEVARD — An ambitious Black-led digital archive center planned for the King Drive corridor won support from residents at a meeting last week, but the group may need to find some parking nearby to win the alderman’s support.

Obsidian Collection, the team behind the much-anticipated renovation of the Lu Palmer mansion at 3654 S. King Drive, shared their vision for the project at a June 30 public meeting as they push to get the property rezoned for commercial use.

With parking already a hassle on the major thoroughfare, some neighbors worried the plan doesn’t include a way to handle additional traffic created by the center.

To address this, the Obsidian team tapped Kinley Horn, a transportation and engineering firm, to conduct a study on community impact.

The study found that 45 percent of the 310 parking spaces in the area would be available during peak hours of operation. Kinley Horn engineer Emma Alvers told the group the mansion’s proximity to public transit would have “a negligible impact” on traffic.

Angie Ford bought the mansion in April 2021 in hopes of having a mid-2022 grand opening. But she struggled to get a hearing with the zoning board to change the property’s designation from residential to commercial, and accused Ald. Sophia King (4th) of holding up progress.

But the alderwoman countered that the zoning change was “very rare,” adding that it would be similar to “moving Soho House next to your home.”

The two women briefly clashed during the 90-minute virtual meeting after King addressed the reasons for the delay.

Credit: Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
Photos of Lu and Jorja Palmer hang inside the Chicago Black United Communites and Black Independent Political Organization headquarters, located in the coach house behind the Palmers’ former mansion at 37th Street and King Drive.

“I’ve never seen zoning take five days let alone five months, but I think every process is different. Most zoning requests from our office are for one, perhaps two items of change but with this [project] there are several things being considered here,” said King.

A frustrated Ford responded by saying that vision never changed but the opportunity to present the vision didn’t happen.

“It’s been ‘Please can I get a meeting? Please can you follow up on this?’ There needs to be a published process to show what you need to go through,” Ford said. “Had I ever been given a chance to just present this, you would’ve seen the continuity. My vision for Obsidian House hasn’t changed in this two-year journey at all.”

That vision calls for a private, members-only space similar to The Wing, where creatives can share a co-working space or gather for meetings and events while enjoying an onsite cafe with small bites and nonalcoholic beverages. Two apartments would be available for visiting scholars and artists.

The mansion would also serve as a physical home for Obsidian’s Black media archives, a venture Ford and her team launched in 2017. The nonprofit got its start by organizing images from the Chicago Defender’s archives.

Though the meeting ended before all questions were addressed, King said she’d talk with Ford soon to discuss next steps once she’s had “time to reflect.”

The Bronzeville mansion was completed in 1888 for Justice D. Harry Hammer, according to Preservation Chicago. The group listed the home on its list of Chicago’s “most endangered” buildings three years ago, citing its vacancy and disrepair.

Lu and Jorja English Palmer purchased the home in 1976 and lived there until Lu Palmer’s death in 2004. They worked to boost political participation among Black Chicagoans during their three decades in the home, founding Chicago Black United Communities in 1980 and the Black Independent Political Organization in 1984.

Lu Palmer was a reporter, columnist and radio talent who made stops at the Defender, the Daily News, WVON and other Chicago outlets. A powerful organizer, he “was the glue that connected the community” during Washington’s campaign, Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Tribune upon Palmer’s death.

Along with her husband, Timuel and Zenobia Black, and other community leaders, Jorja oversaw the voter registration drive that swept Harold Washington into office as Chicago’s first Black mayor in 1983. She died in December 2005.

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