Monday, September 7, 2015

Unity Hall gets a new lease on life

Unity Hall today (courtesy Alderman Pat Dowell)

The recent news that the Chicago landmarked Unity Hall at 3140 S. Indiana Avenue has been remodeled for student housing is good news for all those with an interest in Chicago history and architecture.  The fate of the building, which played an important role in both the Jewish and African-American communities, was uncertain in recent years, leading to its listing on Preservation Chicago’s Most Threatened List in 2012.

The Lakeside Club was organized in 1884 as a Jewish social club for young men living south of Twenty-Second Street.  The club initially occupied a pair of houses at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Thirtieth Street, but as membership grew, the necessity of a larger facility became apparent.  Architect L. B. Dixon was commissioned to design a building to cost $40,000 and a lot was secured on the 3100 block of South Indiana Avenue.

The club officially opened on December 31, 1887 with an elaborate New Year’s Eve banquet and ball.  The Chicago Tribune covered the festivities:

“The Lakeside Club opened its new club-building last night with much pomp and festivity.  There was a grand banquet, a little speech-making, a full dress ball, a splendid orchestra, an abundance of pretty girls, plenty of wine, plenty of flowers, and everything else that man or woman could desire for a New-Year’s Eve jollification.”

The journalist covering the event apparently felt compelled to explain why a Jewish club would choose to hold their opening activities on a Saturday.  He went on to note:

“A Hebrew club that has a ball and banquet Saturday evening may be presumed to not be particularly observant of the Jewish Sabbath.  The fact is, 99 percent of the members of the Hebrew clubs do not belong to the orthodox Jewish synagogues.  The great bulk of them belong to independent Hebrew congregations – congregations that worship Sunday and observe Sunday in a general way as the Sabbath, and that have thrown aside all the old trammels of Jewish ceremonialism and identified themselves with methods and forms in keeping with modern times and customs.”

The building was constructed of pressed brick with brownstone and terra cotta trim, set above a basement faced in rusticated stone.  The Tribune article described the interior:

“The finish, furnishings, and decorations are exceedingly pretentious.  The interior work is mostly in antique oak.  The large front room to the left is the ladies’ parlor, furnished with modern French art furniture and a grand piano.  The front room on the right is the library and reading-room.  Between these rooms and the dancing-hall in the rear are the reception and cloak rooms.  The portiere at the end opens into the assembly-hall, with a dancing floor 47’ x 94’.  The hall has a series of high arched trestles of antique oak pattern.  The general design is Gothic; and, with the clusters of gasoliers and hundreds of lights, the place is strikingly brilliant. 

“The basement comprises the billiard-room, with three tables, a bowling alley, a small dining-room, barroom, kitchen, carving room, and the main dining-room.  The second floor has half a dozen or so card and recreation rooms.  The third floor is used for storerooms and servants’ quarters.”

The clubhouse was the scene of many prominent social events in the Jewish community, including the 50th anniversary of the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv (KAM) congregation in 1897.  Their iconic synagogue building, designed by Adler and Sullivan, stood just 1-1/2 blocks to the south.

The building is best known for its second owner/occupant, the Peoples Movement Club, founded in 1917 by Oscar Stanton De Priest.  De Priest was the first African-American to be elected to the Chicago City Council, serving as alderman of the 2nd Ward from 1915 to 1917.  The Peoples Movement Club was organized to give voice to the African-American community politically, and it became one of the best organized political groups in Chicago’s Black Metropolis neighborhood.  

Oscar Stanton De Priest

In 1928, when Republican congressman Martin B. Madden died, Mayor Thompson chose De Priest to replace him on the ballot, and he went on to serve three consecutive terms in the U.S. Congress representing the 1st  Congressional District covering the Loop and part of the South Side.  De Priest was the first African-American elected to Congress from a northern state, and the first in the 20th century.

After the Peoples Movement Club left the building, it became the political headquarters for William L. Dawson.  Dawson, like De Priest, served as alderman of the 2nd Ward, and then served in the U.S. House for 27 years until his death in 1970.  From the mid-1950s onward, the building was occupied by various churches, and it slowly deteriorated from deferred maintenance.  

Photo by Frederick J. Nachman

It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and was designated a Chicago landmark on September 9, 1998, one of nine buildings included in the Black Metropolis-Bronzeville Historic District. 

By 2012, the building was sitting vacant and for sale, the upper windows boarded up, and scaffolding erected across the fa├žade.  Although protected from demolition as a city landmark, there was widespread concern that the deferred maintenance and exposure to the elements could cause its demolition by neglect.  

Photo by Andrew Jameson

The small congregation that owned the building had moved out due to building code violations and could not afford the repairs needed.  That year, Preservation Chicago listed the building as one of their “7 Most Threatened Buildings” in the city.

Recently, an extensive restoration has returned the exterior of the building to its original 1880s appearance.  The interior has been dramatically transformed into modern student housing, a successful example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

The architect of the building, L. B. Dixon, is not a well-known name today, but in his time, was a well-respected and prolific architect in Chicago.  Dixon was born Laban Beecher Dixon on January 16, 1834 in Boston.  He was orphaned at a young age and placed under the guardianship of Ammi B. Young, a prominent Boston architect.  In 1851, Dixon accompanied his guardian to Washington, D.C. where Young had received an appointment as the first Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department.  In that position, Young designed numerous custom houses, post offices, hospitals, and courthouses across the country in styles ranging from Greek Revival to Neo-Renaissance, all utilizing fire-proof construction methods.  From 1854 to 1864, Dixon served in the Department of Construction for the U.S. Government in Washington, D.C.  

Dixon was a member of the National Rifles, who offered their services on the first call for volunteers at the onset of the Civil War.  He was mustered in on April 15, 1861 for three months service and was present at the Second Battle of Bull Run, serving in the ambulance corps under Gen. McDowell.  He married in 1862, and in December 1864 moved to Chicago where he opened his architectural practice.  He and his wife Ella joined the socially prominent Second Presbyterian Church in 1867, and for many years they resided at 3212 S. Calumet Avenue, just two blocks from the site of the Lakeside Club.  His projects were many and varied, from the Cook County Asylum for the Insane in Jefferson Township to several business blocks in downtown, and from the Lakeside Club to numerous residences throughout the city. 

Among his residential commissions were two houses on Prairie Avenue.  The first of these, constructed in 1870 for Daniel Thompson at 1936 S. Prairie Avenue, received a great deal attention for being the first house in the south part of the city to cost $100,000 to construct.  

The building dominated the avenue with its soaring tower rising more than 70 feet into the air.  Later owned by meatpacker and banker Samuel Allerton, it was razed in 1915.

The second residence on Prairie Avenue was built for O. R. Keith in 1882 at 1901 S. Prairie Avenue, immediately to the north of the Marshall Field mansion.  Within a few years, Keith sold the Second Empire style house to Norman B. Ream.  It was demolished in 1929. 

Among Dixon’s buildings that survive today are a pair of red sandstone Romanesque row houses at 1224 and 1228 N. Dearborn Street, and two houses at 3736 and 3740 S. Michigan Avenue. 

Lichstern House, 3736 S. Michigan Avenue
Photo by Frederick J. Nachman

Dixon practiced architecture until his retirement in 1896 due to ill health, after which time  he focused on the management of his real estate.  He died on June 28, 1912 in Riverside, California. 

Note:  There is some inconsistency regarding Dixon’s first name.  During his lifetime, he was referred to simply as L. B. Dixon.  A. T. Andreas, in his 1885 History of Chicago, and Frank Randall, in his 1949 History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago, both refer to him as Lavall B. Dixon, however, research has confirmed that his first name was Laban.

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