Redeveloping a Piece of Chicago History

Rooted in the history of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood sits Rosenwald Courts, a 239-unit affordable housing community featuring one-and-two-bedroom apartment homes for families and seniors with low income. Originally built in 1929 by Sears, Roebuck, and Company’s part-owner and Presidenulius Rosenwald, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1981) and covers an entire city block between 46th and 47th and Wabash and Michigan Avenues.

“The Black Metropolis”

Known as the “Black Metropolis,” and “The Black Belt,” the Bronzeville neighborhood sits on Chicago’s southside, just 10 minutes from downtown. Some of the greatest musicians, artists, and writers in the world grew up here, including Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Bessie Coleman, the first African American, and woman pilot, along with writer, and activist Ida B. Wells also hailed from Bronzeville.

Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington

Not only was Julius Rosenwald the President of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, but he was also a prominent and generous philanthropist. It was through his friendship with Goldman Sachs’s senior partner, Paul J. Sachs, that he was introduced to two educators and fierce proponents of African-American education, William H. Baldwin, and Booker T. Washington. He and Washington developed a close friendship.

Julius Rosenwald with good friend, Booker T. Washington

At the urging of Washington to create affordable housing with amenities in what was then a segregated community, Rosenwald financed one of the largest housing developments in Chicago – the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments. It was one of the first housing developments in the United States to mix residential and commercial space with social uses. The apartment homes were full of lively, Black working families from Chicago. Bustling street-level retail storefronts were anchors of the building. If you listened closely enough, you might have heard notes being played and songs being sung by future Jazz and Blues greats including, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. In fact, Jones’s mother was the building’s property manager, and his father was its carpenter.

The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments – 1930s.
Duke Ellington once called The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments “home.”

The last major project for Mr. Rosenwald prior to his death, The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments were the central hub for activity in Bronzeville. It was not only home to musicians, but for many doctors and lawyers too. 4-Time Olympian Jesse Owens and boxing champion, Joe Lewis also lived here.

Due to the lack of upkeep and overall deterioration, The Michigan Boulevard Apartments closed in 1999. The building would remain vacant until 2016 when it reopened to residents as “The Rosenwald Courts.”

Fun Fact: Mercy Housing’s Lofts on Arthington was a redevelopment on the site of the original Sears campus. And The Rosenwald was originally conceived and developed by Julius Rosenwald, who was the first chairman of Sears, Roebuck, and Company.

Redeveloping History in Bronzeville

At the end of 2014, the City of Chicago issued permits to begin work on The Rosenwald Court Apartments. By the end of 2016, the new community was complete and fully occupied.

The Rosenwald Court Apartments today

Today, the award-winning Rosenwald Courts still maintains pieces of its storied history, including the entire main apartment building and the interiors of three-flat buildings at the northeast corner of the block, originally built in 1905. The courtyard’s historic pathways have remained in place, and are now surrounded by a playground, benches, a dog run, and bike racks. Most importantly, The Rosenwald Courts continue to serve as a community anchor in the Bronzeville neighborhood, celebrating its past, while embracing today. You never know who might be crafting a future bestselling book of poems, creating the next Grammy Award-winning album, or who is dreaming about becoming a future community leader. Inside these walls, past seeds have been planted and the future awaits to bloom.

*Mercy Housing has managed The Rosenwald Court Apartments since 2016.