BRONZEVILLE — Developers and city leaders cut the ribbon Friday afternoon on the reopened Rosenwald Court Apartments, once the home of Nat “King” Cole, Gwendolyn Brooks and other legends in Chicago’s African-American community.
The $132 million restoration of the building that takes up the entire block between Michigan and Wabash avenues north of 47th Street has been in the works for more than four years.
The building is composed of 239 apartments and 40,000 square feet of retail around a massive interior courtyard, where the mayor, alderman and descendants of the building’s original developer, Sears and Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald, gathered Friday to celebrate the project.
“I’ve done a lot of ribbon-cuttings, and this is a big turnout,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “You’re not here for bricks and mortar, you’re here because there is something special here about Chicago.”
The building was a hub of activity in Bronzeville when restrictive covenants limited where African-Americans could live in the city. Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, musician Quincy Jones and many of the neighborhood's prominent doctors, lawyers and dentists once lived at the site.
The project to reopen the building, which closed in 1999, has been the largest for 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell during her two terms in office.
She said the financing was the most difficult part of the project.
Originally expected to cost $109 million, it is now budgeted to cost $132 million, as the final phase of construction is completed. More than a dozen financing sources came together to fund the project, including a second bond from the city for $8.5 million when the owners discovered the building was much more seriously damaged than they thought.
Now that much of the construction is done, retail tenants are starting to build on 47th Street.
Julian Rosenwald’s grandson, Peter Ascoli, said he was excited to see some original tenants coming back, like Illinois Service Federal Bank.
Ascoli said his mother was once a teacher’s aide in the Rosenwald's day care center his grandfather opened, and he was excited to see a day care in the building again.
Rosenwald, who lived in Kenwood when the apartment building was built for $2.7 million in 1929, never intended it to be part of philanthropic work, according to Ascoli. Rosenwald is often best remembered for his efforts to build 5,000 schools for African-American children across the South.
Ascoli said Rosenwald expected that he could build something in Bronzeville that reminded him of his trips to Vienna and still make a 5 percent return on his investment. He said the Great Depression ruined that return, but the building remained a vital spot in the community.
“I think he would be incredibly proud to see what a fantastic job has been done here,” Ascoli said.
Other business owners planning to move to the Rosenwald include Trez Pugh III, who will open a third location for his coffee shop, Sip and Savor, and a small grocery store.
Shawn Michelle’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream, which currently has a Boystown location, is also expected to open an outpost in the development.
Developers announced popular Lincoln Park breakfast spot Batter and Berries would move into the development, but the restaurant said Oct. 4 it had no plans to open a new location in the Rosenwald.
Some retail stores are expected to have outdoor patio areas that will allow access to the interior courtyard that is normally just for residents.
The building is a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing, with 120 of the units for CHA senior residents, 105 rented as affordable units and six rented at market rate. The remaining eight units are reserved for on-site employees.
The building was designed by Rosenwald’s nephew Ernest Grunsfield Jr., architect of the Adler Planetarium.
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