Banking on the South Side

Banking on the South Side

A long-vacant monument on the South Side of Chicago may soon be the pride of the neighborhood once again. A quintessential community bank for nearly half a century, the Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank hasn’t cashed any checks since the early 1980s. But beginning this month, the Classical Revival-style building will boast a different type of wealth: Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation have transformed the bank into a hub for arts on the South Side.

Following an opening gala on September 19, the space will officially open to the public on the first day of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, October 3. But the project got its start years before the city volunteered to showcase local art and architecture for the world stage. Gates bought the 17,000-square-foot building for $1 from the City of Chicago in 2012, building off the momentum of his Dorchester Projects nearby. That two-year, design-build project concluded in 2009, with Gates renovating several abandoned properties on South Dorchester Avenue into community spaces, including a Listening Room housing the final inventory from defunct Hyde Park music shop Dr. Wax Records.

The bank might be seen as a continuation of that work, but it is his most ambitious project to date. Both ruminate on the past, present, and future of Gates’ South Side neighborhoods through architectural restoration work and community programming. But renovating a 1923 bank with fluted columns and crumbling terra cotta is a tall order. And the scope of the artist’s vision for the bank’s future is loftier, too. The Dorchester Projects brought artists to the neighborhoods south of Jackson Park, but few amenities. In a video about the project from 2012, Gates said the space could eventually house a number of community destinations: a soul food restaurant, a project space for emerging neighborhood artists, or an incubator for small arts organizations.

“The bank is my stab at deeply investing in the place where I live.” Gates said in the video. “In some ways the restoration of the bank alone feels like a work of art.”

Although Gates may salvage materials from the renovation to use in his own work, the space itself is primarily intended to foster other people’s work.

“There are so many elements that we will preserve in the bank as an act of critical preservation. But then there are things that will be extracted,” said Gates. “The bank in a way already has a capacity to be generous because there’s so much excess material.”

For now the foundation has invited artists Carlos Bunga and Frida Escobedo to exhibit work in the space, working closely with the co-artistic directors of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, Sarah Herda and Joseph Grima. Bunga’s installation will follow from his previous work, according to Rebuild Foundation CEO Ken Stewart, centering on fragile volumes of cardboard intended to last only briefly. Escobedo has been tapped to design a courtyard project, “a new public sanctuary,” said Stewart, “using the materials of another neighborhood sanctuary that stood for 113 years only to be torn down in 2014: the St. Laurence [Parish] at 72nd Street and Dorchester.”

Stewart said the bank will house the editorial and research libraries for Johnson Publishing—the African-American lifestyle publisher behind Ebony and Jet.

“It’s difficult to anticipate how the programs at the Bank will grow over, say, the first 10 years, but at the outset our goals are to provide community access to the collections of books, manuscripts, vinyl records, and other objects Theaster and Rebuild have acquired over the past several years, and to give support to artists, academics, and archivists who want to do projects with them,” said Stewart. “The gallery on the first floor will, we hope, grow into an ambitious exhibition program featuring contemporary art from all over the U.S. and the world.”

Greater Grand Crossing, named for its role as a 19th century rail hub, is home to 40,000 predominantly African-American Chicagoans, more than 40 percent of whom live in poverty. Gates’ project is a welcome intervention, but it’s only a start—there are nearly 350 vacant, city-owned properties in Greater Grand Crossing alone.

Reviving the derelict bank, with all its encouraging symbolism and practical use as an arts hub, may also help bring much-needed attention to the South Side during Chicago’s turn on the world stage for architecture and design.

“We do not view the Biennial as a kind of exception to what we would be doing otherwise,” said Stewart. But, he said, “our future will grow out of what happens between October and January.”