CHA preserves iconic architecture in Chicago's public housing

Tearing down the bleak high rises that symbolized the oppression and isolation of poverty is one of the most visible parts of the Chicago Housing Authority's plan to revitalize public housing, supporters agree.

But now officials at CHA are starting to get recognition for another project - plans to preserve and protect architectural gems among the city's stock of public housing.

The Chicago Architectural Foundation recently presented CHA with the Patron of the Year award for their redevelopment of Hilliard Towers, a public housing development just south of the Loop near Chinatown. The project is part of CHA's effort to preserve and protect unique buildings and structures that are part of its history.

"We're always looking at what we're starting with and using what can be saved," says Tim Veenstra, senior vice president of mixed income developments for CHA. "It's our goal to have properties in the city that anyone can appreciate and use."

Built in 1966, Hilliard Towers was designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg, who also created other important additions to Chicago's skyline, including Marina Towers and River City.

Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman, who was part of the committee that gave out the awards, says that Hilliard is an important part of city's architectural history.

"The Hilliard homes was, at the time it was done, one of the best public housing projects in Chicago," says Tigerman. "It's probably the best project that Goldberg designed."

Known for their space age, modernist design, the homes had fallen into disrepair by the early 1990s. Holsten Real Estate, who was included in the Patron of the Year award, spearheaded the redevelopment and took extensive measures to preserve Goldberg's original design.

Housing authority leaders say redevelopment was always the plan for the two crescent shaped family buildings and the two cylindrical senior towers that make up Hilliard.

"We weren't really inclined to demolish a buildings that were so iconic to the city," says Veenstra.

The entire building was coated with a special concrete membrane that looks and feels like the original concrete design. Holsten preserved the unique oval-shaped windows that were part of the original building, moving them closer to the bottom where people could see them, and replacing the upper windows with newer models.

Holsten also preserved and rehabbed the practical amenities that Goldberg included in Hilliard's design - a large community amphitheatre and extensive green space for residents to enjoy.

The total cost of Hilliard's rehabilitation was $100 million and was paid for with funds from CHA, along with low-income housing and historic preservation tax credits.

Tigerman says preserving the aesthetic beauty and history of Hilliard is important, both for the city and for public housing, and it's something he hopes continues.

"It's a great model for public housing redevelopment. It's a very intelligent paradigm, and one that I hope is used more often," says Tigerman.

CHA is looking to preserve a few more important pieces in its stock, including the Britton Budd building in the Lakeview neighborhood and the unique animal statues at the ABLA homes on the near West side. Britton Budd, a senior housing building and a prime example of the Spanish revival style, is currently under construction and will begin leasing sometime in 2009.

Veenstra says he thinks it’s important to emphasize the good in CHA's history and preserve those elements.

"We're constantly evaluating our portfolio of properties and looking maximize the value for the future," says Veenstra.

The Chicago Architectural Foundation presented the award for Hilliard's redevelopment to CHA and Holsten on Wednesday, Nov. 12. The redevelopment has also been recognized by other organizations in the past. It also received recognition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Housing and Urban Development Secretary's Award in 2007.