While restoring Chicago’s Viceroy Hotel, workers sandblasted a XXX-movie advertisement from the building’s eastern facade, revealing a brick-pattern architectural embellishment from the West Loop structure’s better days. The art deco building had fallen into disrepair, mirroring the misfortune of its clientele, many of whom struggled to pay the single-room occupancy’s rate of $20 per night.
And like the building itself, the new tenants of 1519 West Warren Boulevard are making the most of a second chance.
Built in the 1930s as the Union Park Hotel, the six-story structure is on the National Register of Historic Places. Chicago’s Landon Bone Baker Architects, working with First Baptist Congregational church and Heartland Housing, did not stop at restoration—they reinvented the building as Harvest Commons, a sustainable low-income housing community.
A solar-thermal hot water system and geothermal heating help cut the building’s energy use 33 percent. Composting, on-site food production, and a green roof helped the project secure Enterprise Green Communities certification.
The city signed off on $3.8 million in tax increment financing dollars for the project, with an additional $3.2 million in the form of federal Historic Preservation tax credits. To get those tax credits, the project’s architects agreed to restore the building’s historic plasterwork and sculpted terracotta tiles.
“As we uncovered some of the lobby elements,” said Hume An, Heartland’s director of real estate development, “it was great to see a lot of the motifs were plants—ears of corn, flowers—that fit with some of the things we were doing elsewhere.”
Bamboo flooring conceals the original lobby floor, which was ruined over years of misuse. Original tile work survives in the entryway, however, and Heartland is working to replicate its ruddy earth tones for a full restoration of the area around the building’s two elevators.
Heartland wanted larger rooms than the SRO arrangement afforded, so it expanded the units. In the process it brought down the capacity from 150 to 89. Historic preservation provisions, however, required the architects to maintain much of the existing look, so dummy doors dot the hallways. Eighteen units are specifically reserved for women who have recently left the Illinois prison system.
Toney Evans moved in at the beginning of August, just five months after being released from jail, where she spent 13 years for aggravated battery. Like many residents, the 38-year-old makes regular visits to the nearby Michael Barlow Center, a program of St. Leonard’s Ministries, which has helped former felons find jobs since the 1950s. Evans is apprenticing in culinary arts. It’s a skill she’ll apply as a barista in Harvest Commons’ own café—Gracie’s, a “social enterprise café” built as part of an addition to the original building. “I’ll have no reason to be late,” Evans joked.
The addition also features a commercial-grade teaching kitchen, where Heartland plans to employ a dietician to run cooking workshops for residents.
“I’m eager to get back on my feet. I’ve always wanted to learn more about cooking. So when the opportunity presented itself I just took it,” Evans said. “It gives a person like me a chance to be productive… It makes me feel like a part of society.”
A triangular garden seems more like an urban farm at 10,405 square feet, with its small grove for fruit trees, herbs, and vegetables, and plans for a solar-powered chicken coop. Three days per week, Heartland has the services of farmer Dave Snyder, whose local urban agriculture resume includes Uncommon Ground, Ginkgo Organic Gardens, and the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project.
“We want this to be a resident-centered thing,” Snyder said. During a tour of the building, he peered down from a studio unit and asked if the building’s addition had roof access. A small space tucked into one of the H-shaped building’s recesses could fit a few honeybee hives.
Compared to some other projects he has worked on, Snyder said, “[Harvest Commons] is unique because it’s so tied to the residential experience.” The garden, easily visible from the street, also meets the surrounding community in a patio space that could host a public farmers market if its sliding door is opened to Warren Boulevard.