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Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home among Chicago’s ‘7 Most Endangered Buildings’

The historic Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home in Bronzeville was an early 20th century settlement house established by suffragettes to aid African American women coming from the South during the Great Migration.

The historic Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home at 5128 S. Michigan Ave., an early 20th century settlement house established by suffragettes in the early 1900s, to aid African-American women coming from Down South during the Great Migration, made Preservation Chicago’s list of the city’s “7 Most Endangered Buildings” on Thursday. Supporters are fighting to save the home poised to be torn down.
The historic Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home at 5128 S. Michigan Ave., an early 20th century settlement house established by suffragettes in the early 1900s, to aid African-American women coming from Down South during the Great Migration, made Preservation Chicago’s list of the city’s “7 Most Endangered Buildings” on Thursday. Supporters are fighting to save the home that’s poised to be torn down.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home, a historic settlement house in Bronzeville established by Black suffragettes in the early 1900s to aid African American women coming from the South during the Great Migration, was named one of Chicago’s most endangered buildings Wednesday by Preservation Chicago.

Currently uninhabitable and in Buildings court, the 125-year-old home at 5128 S. Michigan Ave. is facing potential demolition. In need of significant structural repairs to a rear wall and its roof, it is back up in court on March 16. A judge could potentially issue a tear-down order.

“This would be a tragic loss to both Black and Women’s History, not only locally in Chicago, but nationally. This home is a rare gem, a surviving site tied to Black women’s settlement houses and the Black suffragettes of the early years of the 20th century,” Preservation Chicago said in a statement.

“As the city of Chicago works to become a more equitable place, it is important to honor and elevate Black history sites and stories like the Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home.”

In 1918, the residents of one of the previously demolished Phyllis Wheatley Homes, pictured with their “superintendent,” or house mother. Women and girls who resided in the homes were known as “Wheatley Girls.”
In 1918, the residents of one of the previously demolished Phyllis Wheatley Homes, pictured with their “superintendent,” or house mother. Women and girls who resided in the homes were known as “Wheatley Girls.”
Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

Named for the former slave who at age 20 became the first African American ever to publish a book of poetry, and the second American woman to do so, the home is an offshoot of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs founded in 1896 by iconic Black women activists like Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell and Chicagoan Ida B. Wells.

The building was among the rare settlement homes founded for African American women at a time when well-known ones like the famed Jane Addams Hull-House and the YWCA were segregated, closed to women of color, according to Preservation Chicago research.

Illustration of Phyllis Wheatley
Illustration of Phyllis Wheatley
Courtesy of Chicago History Museum

“Chicago is known around the world as a city of architecture, for its historic built environment, and both its revolutionary architectural and engineering innovations,” said Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller.

“These attributes are a great source of continued interest among its residents and heritage tourism. Yet, we as a city continue to lose important structures to demolition — buildings that other cities could only dream of building, of honoring and repurposing. We also want to address quality-of-life issues, human scale, and important stories and events as we strive to seek a better Chicago.”

Since 2003, the annual Chicago 7 Most Endangered Buildings list has sounded the alarm on imminently threatened historic buildings and public assets in Chicago. The 20-year-old nonprofit works with residents, business owners, and stakeholders to protect and revitalize architecture, neighborhoods and urban spaces.

Other properties on Preservation Chicago’s 2021 list of the city’s most endangered and why:

The Chicago Lakefront: These public lands and spaces are often looked upon by some as vacant lands expendable for private development when indeed these are developed lands as public places and recreational environments.

Cornell Store and Flats: The Cornell Store & Flats, 1230-32 E. 75th St., is located on once-bustling East 75th Street near its intersection with South Chicago Avenue in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. Designed by world-renowned architect Walter Burley Griffin, it is considered to be one of the most significant buildings in Chicago.

Roman Catholic Churches: This year, for a second time, Preservation Chicago spotlights Archdiocese of Chicago churches as it accelerates the pace of decisions to consolidate or close parishes and churches.

South Chicago Masonic Temple: This grand Masonic-order building at 2939 E. 91st St. was designed in 1916 by the same architect as the recently demolished South Side Masonic Temple in Englewood. And despite a decade of vacancy, this historic structure on the corner of 91st and Exchange remains an extraordinary opportunity for adaptive reuse.

Central Manufacturing District – Original East District: An area roughly bounded by Morgan Street and Ashland Avenue and 35th Street to Pershing Road was selected after last year’s spotlight on the district’s Pershing Road complex. This grouping of buildings and its original vision of a shared industrial complex is an irreplaceable artifact of industrial/manufacturing history and design both in Chicago and the United States

West Loop Industrial Buildings: Chicago has a rich history of industrial loft buildings surrounding its central business district. These buildings are increasingly facing threats of demolition and replacement with large commercial and residential high-rise and mid-rise structures.