NORTH LAWNDALE — For seven decades, the 14-story Sears Tower on the massive Sears, Roebuck and Co. campus was a symbol of pride and hard work in North Lawndale. At its height, 22,000 Sears employees worked there every day.
But when Sears decided to move its headquarters to the Loop in 1974, those jobs began to leave North Lawndale. Then the distribution facility closed altogether in 1987 and the 3.3 million-square-foot building attached to the tower was later demolished.
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), who grew up in the ward he now represents, was just a kid when the Sears campus in North Lawndale started to dismantle around the tower.
"And I [would] ask my father, 'Why is this building here, and why is everything kind of coming down around it? He explained to me it was symbol for what North Lawndale was,'" he said.
On Tuesday, North Lawndale leaders announced the tower will once again become a symbol for hope and opportunity in the neighborhood. Renamed Nichols Tower, for John D. and Alexandra C. Nichols, Art Institute donors who helped fund the building's substantial renovation, the tower will now become a community hub for arts education, workforce development and economic enterprise.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Scott were joined by community leaders to celebrate the reopening of historic tower at 906 S. Homan Ave. Tuesday.
"Today, it's a symbol for what North Lawndale is and will become," Scott said.
Over the next few months, eight non-profit groups will move into the building: The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the North Lawndale Employment Network, Free Spirit Media, the Lawndale Business Renaissance Association, Neighborhood Housing Service of Chicago, The Foundation for Homan Square, Turning the Page and UCAN.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (center) were joined by leaders to celebrate the reopening of historic Sears, Roebuck and Co. Tower in North Lawndale. The tower, at 906 S. Homan Ave., will serve as a community hub to drive revitalization in the neighborhood. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
While some renovation work is still ongoing in the tower, the non-profit groups will move into the building in phases over the next few months. Scheherazade Tillet, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago artist-in-residence, will move into the tower in December and the school will start offering courses early next year.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago has made a long-term commitment to providing education art programming in the new tower, said Walter Massey, president of the school. In the spring semester, Tillet will lead an art therapy course, and in fall, Cheryl Pope, a faculty member of the school's Fashion Department, will lead a course.
The school will also team up with other non-profits in the tower to lead three pilot courses: "Management Studio," an art-in-culture management project geared toward those ages 18-24 living in the community; "Inside Innovative Minds," an eight-week afterschool program for about a dozen students from North Lawndale charter schools; and "That Reminds Me of a Time," a storytelling class focused on writing, live presentation and digital archiving for students ages 12 and up.
"As the oldest art and design college in the city, [the School of the Art Institute] has a long history of civic engagement and connecting our students, faculty, staff and alumni to the diverse communities in and around Chicago," Massey said.
The old Sears, Roebuck and Co. Tower's observation deck in summer 2015 when renovation work began. Non-profit tenants will move into the building in the next few months. [Darris Lee Harris]
Brenda Palms Barber, executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network, said the tower brings partners together under one roof "where collaboration can flourish." The agency was previously headquartered at 3726 W. Flournoy St.
"We are pursuing an agenda of equity, where all people have the ability and right to earn an income and care for their families, experience the arts, grow as individuals and feel hopeful about the future," Barber said.
In addition to art courses, artist-in-residency programs and job training programs, non-profits in the tower will offer training in community journalism for youths and adults, mentoring for at-risk youths, support services for area youths and families who have experienced trauma, literacy-based child mentoring, summer learning programs, new homeowner education, fixed-rate mortgage lending and foreclosure prevention services.
Plans for the tower's next life were 25 years in the making. After the distribution facility closed in 1987, the city recruited a development entity to help determine how it would be used in the future, according to city records. In 1995, the non-profit Foundation for Homan Square was formed to oversee the redevelopment plan.
The opening of Nichols Tower marks the culmination of a decades-long project to revitalize Homan Square. Today, the Homan Square campus includes a community center, technology and learning center, child development center, Holy Family School and nearly 400 units of affordable housing.
Nichols Tower is managed by The Foundation for Homan Square.
First opened in 1906, the former Sears Tower in North Lawndale anchored the Sears, Roebuck and Co. mail-order warehouse and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
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