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Altgeld Gardens commercial building needs love — or a new owner

The building would be among the city’s handsomest commercial structures, and a plus for the Far South Side, were it not for its current condition.

A 1948 article featuring the Altgeld Gardens Essential Services Building designed by Keck & Keck
A 1948 article featuring the Altgeld Gardens Essential Services Building designed by Keck & Keck
Chicago Housing Authority

We’re happy to see some good things happening at Altgeld Gardens, a public housing developments on the city’s far southern edge that is out-of-sight and out-of-mind for many Chicagoans.

The CTA’s Red Line might very well stop at transit-starved Altgeld Gardens’ doorstep sometime in the next decade as part of a $2.3 billion plan to extend the train line to 130th Street from its current 95th Street terminus.

And the community has the new $7.5 million Altgeld Family Resource Center at 131st Street and Ellis Avenue, containing a public library, a day care facility, a community center and bright, enclosed play areas.

But we’re concerned about a prowling, curved, single-story structure just east of the family center.

Built in 1946 and designed by the noted Chicago architects Keck & Keck, the building once contained an array of stores and services for Altgeld Gardens’ residents. And it would be among the city’s handsomest commercial structures were it not for its current condition.

With all the positive things happening at the development, here’s one more for the list: Restore and reactivate the Altgeld Gardens Commercial Center.

‘Help create the full community’

Completed in 1945 — and a decade or two before the rise of south suburban shopping centers — Altgeld Gardens was more than 3 miles from the Roseland neighborhood, where the nearest major commercial strip was located.

Given Altgeld’s remoteness, it would make sense that a shopping center would be part of the development’s original plan. When it opened, the commercial center featured a grocery store, beauty and barbershops, a laundry, a doctors office, a pharmacy — even a delicatessen.

“This building was then planned — to be privately owned and financed — for the prominent location in the project, to house these essentials and help create the full community,” a 1948 article in Progressive Architecture said.

Architects George Fred Keck and his brother William designed a long, graceful curved brick and glass building. Its overhanging curved roof has the panache of a 1940s hat.

But over the years, shops and services left the the center, and the building’s private owners haven’t done much to keep the structure in good repair or lure new tenants. Most of its floor-to-ceiling glass windows have been sealed up or removed. The building looks every bit of its 75 years — and then some.

Altgeld residents deserve far better. But for once, the CHA isn’t at fault. The shopping center, built to be privately owned, remains that way. And it’s a problem.

“We agree that the current condition of the building is an eyesore and unfair to the community,” the CHA told us in a statement. “We strongly encourage the owner to fulfill his obligations as a property owner to improve the situation.”

The CHA acknowledges the building has “significantly deteriorated” in recent years, but the agency said it lacks the money to step in and buy a non-residential structure.

“And acquiring and renovating a commercial building does not fit within our mission,” the CHA statement says.

Altgeld on National Register?

The CHA is working to get Altgeld Gardens and the neighboring Murray Homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If listed, the designation can unlock federal tax credits that could help underwrite the costs of restoring the 157-acre campus.

Until then, here’s hoping the CHA and the city can bring in a new owner for the commercial center or force the current one — listed in the housing authority’s files as Garden Bldg LLC — to step up and do right by the building, and Altgeld residents.

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