On April 22, Angela Ford of The Obsidian Collection closed on a $1.25 million loan to become new owner of Bronzeville’s long vacant, historic Lu Palmer Mansion.
The nonprofit seeks to establish a museum, library and archive within the 12,000-square-foot building once owned by the late famed journalist and his wife. It also wants to offer community meeting space for rent and modest retail, such as coffee and T-shirts.
Ford is free under Chicago ordinance to do the former. But she has become frustrated trying to obtain from the alderman the zoning change needed for the latter.
Ford complains the alderman stopped responding to her ever-more-urgent requests for help as she sought to close a loan that was predicated on the zoning change.
The mansion at 3654-3656 S. King Drive is in the 4th Ward of Ald. Sophia King, who earlier this year sparked controversy with her proposed “House Museums” ordinance that failed.
“We’re still being blocked,” Ford alleged.
“I reached out to her before we went under contract. She told me in a Zoom call in November she would tentatively support it as long as we make sure there’s community support. Well, we’ve gotten the community support, and still, nothing.”
The nonprofit met with the Greater King Drive Block Club representing its block to present the project. The block club gave its support, sending the alderman a letter urging approval.
“As you know, the building has sat vacant for more than a decade, to the chagrin of residents on the block,” wrote Delmarie Cobb, a resident and the block club president.
“Given the African American history of the block, we believe The Obsidian Collection is a perfect fit. While we did express our concerns about a former art gallery that became an events space on the block, we believe Ms. Ford’s business model will not depend on attracting hundreds of rowdy visitors to her location.”
King responds that the Lu Palmer Mansion amendment has nothing to do with the “House Museums” controversy, and Obsidian Collection is naive about how long the process takes.
A staunch advocate for community input — as she maintained in her controversial proposal to limit house museums — King says the ward must first schedule a community meeting where residents from more than just the impacted block can provide feedback.
Additionally, she says The Obsidian Collection is among dozens of zoning amendment requests in queue, and the process does not change based on an entity’s financial constraints.
“We have always said we wanted a community process, even at the meeting in November with Ms. Ford. Even then, Ms. Ford called everyone to contact me to try to usurp this process,” King said Wednesday.
“I am currently in a community meeting with the developer for 1000M on Michigan Avenue that also wants a zoning change. They also have support letters. They’ve been waiting even longer than Ms. Ford. Process and community engagement take time.”
She was referring to 1000M, the 74-story, condos tower planned for 1000 S. Michigan Ave.
Founded in 2017, The Obsidian Collection grew out of a visit by Ford to the Chicago Defender, looking for an article on her grandmother, Edna McClain Murray.
Murray came to Chicago from Oklahoma in the Great Migration in 1936, settling in what was then the Black Belt. In the ’50s, she operated a charm school at 63rd Street & Dorchester Avenue, now called Woodlawn, and was frequently covered by the Chicago Defender.
Discovering 110 years of newspapers and photographs inaccessible to the public and yet to be archived, Ford, of Washington Park, who has run her own real estate consulting and property management firm for 20 years, and a related nonprofit, began the journey to organize a national archive of digitized images of African-American history, arts and culture.
What started with the Defender has expanded to include the Black press nationwide, private nonprofit collectors, Black photographers, and other individuals.
“When we talk community support, who are we talking about? My family’s been in Bronzeville since 1936. We’ve never left the community,” Ford complained.
“It’s just crazy when there’s no other pathway for a small business owner except through the alderman’s approval. It shouldn’t be this difficult trying to just invest in your community.”
The Lutrelle “Lu” Palmer and Jorja English Palmer Mansion has been on Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago 7 Most Endangered” list. Built in 1888 for Justice D. Harry Hammer, it was bought in 1976 by the renowned community organizing couple.
When Ford went under contract in December, her loan was predicated on gaining the zoning change. With earnest money and the loan at risk, she had to switch to a house museum model and awaits movement on the zoning change that will bring a revenue stream to repay the loan.
“People keep saying ‘Congrats,’” Ford said. “I’m like, ‘On what? I’m still dealing with the alderman.’ There’s no celebration until I know how we’re going to pay this back. I’m fighting to preserve this building. It would be nice if the alderman would support it.”