Dorothy Barry says that she moved in to the Margot and Harold Schiff Residences on a “blue-sky, ain’t-nowhere-I’d-rather-be-than-Chicago” kind of day back in the summer of 2007. She says you can’t do much better than this sleek, new Helmut Jahn–designed building on the north side of the city: She gets a millionaire’s view of the skyline and is just a short ride from downtown and the beaches of Lake Michigan.
At Division Street and Clybourn Avenue, though, she’s also within blocks of the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing. Those towers are mostly torn down, replaced by mixed-income residential towers and townhouses—but their shells remind Chicagoans to do better when it comes to housing the less well-off.
Neighbors call the one-year-old stainless-steel Schiff Residences “the train,” and it does indeed resemble a polished railroad car cruising through the neighborhood. Its walls angle out as they rise up five stories, curving back over to form a roof before sliding down the other side. In a practical city raised on railroads this residential railcar is romantic. Strips of dark windows punctuate the walls, staggered to evoke forward momentum. In the ground-floor lobby, sunlight pours through great panes of floor-to-ceiling glass. Prada or Barneys could set up shop on the ground floor and no one would be the wiser.
But the Schiff Residences are permanent supportive-housing, with onsite case managers and other voluntary services. All of the 96 units are single-occupancy studio apartments. Residents here have struggled with physical and mental illness, substance abuse, and limited education. At the Schiff, you can stay as long as you follow the rules. It opened in March 2007, and already 300 people have expressed interest in moving in.
Resident Dorothy Barry, 58, sports golden hoop earrings, and her short black hair is pulled back. I ask her if she has any children and she answers, “Not yet.” Barry is soft-spoken and slow to smile. She relays that she recently separated from her husband. They had a multiroom house on the south side; she never thought she’d end up in supportive housing.
Units here average 300 square feet—enough room for a bed, a desk, a coffee table, and not much more. Yet this new building does provide her with joy. “This is Chicago,” she says. “Most of us like modern architecture.”
Barry graduated from Chicago’s Roosevelt University and taught in the public schools. A few years ago she developed a condition. “My teeth started popping out,” she says. “My husband put me out of the house. I used to walk around in front of it but he wouldn’t have me back. It’s nice here, but I don’t want to stay here forever. I want more room.”
Before Barry moved in to the Schiff, her sister took her on a tour of other Helmut Jahn–designed buildings in Chicago. “I’d like to tell him how much I like his buildings and how seeing the sunlight in my room does brighten my day.” What she won’t tell him is that it also gets too hot in the summer, so the windows should slide all the way open, rather than swinging out at the bottom. “I have to live in air-conditioning and pull my shades down, so what good are the windows?” She has yet to meet Jahn, but she does see his name on a plaque in the lobby. “Everything is changing all around us,” Barry says. “There’s so much new building going on and everything is different. I like being a part of what’s new.”
And she is a part of it. Above Barry’s fifth-floor bedroom, 48 solar panels tilt towards the sun. The Chicago firm Solargenix developed these to heat water for the building. Rainwater is used for outdoor landscaping, and the Schiff features a graywater-recycling system. It collects water from the sinks and showers, filters it and hits it with UV rays, and reuses that water for the toilets. After a year, the system is still being tweaked: The management is on its third attempt to find suitable filtration after the first systems clogged easily and were too expensive to maintain. Today, the water in the toilets is sometimes gray—but odorless. People living there say they don’t mind.
Near the rooftop solar panels, sixteen wind turbines, organized into eight pairs, span the apex of the slightly curved roof. They comprise the world’s first urban installation of a horizontal, battery-free wind turbine system. They also look like a coil of barbed wire—unfortunate, due to the proximity to Cabrini-Green. Matthias Schuler, a managing director of the climate-engineering firm Transsolar, worked on the calculations for where to put the turbine system, itself developed by Chicago-based Aerotecture International. Schuler works on megaprojects around the world with Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and others, but he says that this little project in Chicago is an important prototype for determining how much energy wind turbines can produce in dense urban areas.
Of course, Helmut Jahn’s firm, Murphy/Jahn, has designed other and larger buildings with minimal energy needs, but Jahn and his team put all of their previous sustainable ideas together in the Schiff. “We learned the depth of what we set out to prove: that affordable housing need not be of a lower standard or lesser quality,” Jahn says. “By designing an uplifting space, not just a shelter, you break the idea that comfort is connected to wealth.”
On the ground floor of the Schiff, the lounge is loaded with natural light, right-angled couches, and ottomans. The crack of dominoes smacked on a lounge table rings out and reverberates off the exposed concrete and glass walls. One of the Schiff’s original residents, Ernest Gladney, has just defeated, three games to two, a fellow resident. The other man, tall and dark, toothpick in his mouth, gets up to leave the lounge. “I normally beat Ernest,” he mutters, but Gladney just smiles and shakes his head. When the glass door shuts again he tells me, “No one here likes to lose.”
Gladney’s scarred nose looks like it has been cut by a knife; his watch hangs loosely on his wrist and glows aqua. He is now 50 years old. He grew up in this neighborhood, in Cabrini-Green. He remembers that if you walked on the grass they’d write you up and charge five dollars to your rent bill. Gladney’s dad was a minister at the nearby Eternal King Baptist Church. His five siblings did well, but he was a problem child. He explains that when Cabrini went downhill in the 1960s, so did he. He stands up and plants his right foot firmly on the concrete floor. “Do you feel that?” Gladney asks. “Do you feel that penitentiary-ness? This hard floor is good. It reminds you that you don’t want to go there. To the penitentiary.” He then invites me to see his room.
Waiting for the elevator we meet Oliver Thompson, who has lived here since it opened and is proud of the place. The only things he’d change would be to add balconies, because he wants to barbecue, and to improve the natural ventilation. He also points out that the corrugated-steel siding collects all the dirt from the construction sites in the neighborhood. Neither he nor Gladney likes the landscaping: In modernist style, it’s spare. Gravel paths alternate with 18-inch-high prairie grasses. “Who wants weeds?” they ask. We take the elevator up to the second floor, where we walk past vertical tubes of lighting embedded in the walls behind frosted glass. At the ends of the hallways, windows provide even more natural light as well as stunning views of the city.
In his unit Gladney uses houseplants to divide the entrance from where he sits. One wall is maroon—each room is colored according to a four-color palette—and Gladney has hung paintings of aqua-blue seascapes and a pastel-colored artwork of ballerina’s shoes. Above a leopard-skin throw on the sofa, the window opens onto Clybourn Avenue. Cars whiz by. The noise doesn’t bother him. “I used to sleep under the El tracks,” he says. I ask him where he slept when he was homeless. He smiles: “Abando-miniums!”
Back in 2003, as Chicago was demolishing the Cabrini-Green towers, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced a supportive-housing initiative, part of a ten-year “Plan to End Homelessness.” The city sought to “facilitate the development of affordable, permanent housing with on-site social services,” issuing an RFP for the Clybourn site near Cabrini. Lakefront Supportive Housing, as it was then known, responded and won the competitive application process. The City of Chicago sold the land for one dollar.
It’s a visible—and very valuable—site near neighborhoods of wealth and power, so why not work with a high-profile architect? If all went well they’d get a good building and lots of press. One of Lakefront’s longtime board members, Harold Schiff, had worked with Jahn before, so Schiff recommended him for the job. But in Chicago, there is always one guy to have on your team—and that’s Mayor Daley. Daley met with Jahn and agreed that he was the right man for the job.
The Schiff cost approximately $18 million. The president of Mercy Housing, Cindy Holler, estimates that it cost about 20 percent more than comparable buildings. But, she says, “people who tour it ask questions about community development, homelessness, supportive housing, and green design—-and people ask for tours every day. They walk away with new insights. It was worth the investment.” The green features added about $1 million to the cost. Although they reduce operating expenses, it’s not yet known by how much. They do get press for Mercy’s work, however, and they also please Mayor Daley, who is making efforts to green Chicago.
Ernest Gladney is just glad to have a lease and his name on a mailbox. But he wants to move out of the Schiff eventually to give someone else a chance. He wants to buy an abandoned house like the ones he used to sleep in. He says he would fix it up. And though he’s lived in modernism for a year already, the house he’ll pour his sweat into will not look like this.
He draws a picture of what he’d like. “I ain’t no artist—-no great architect like Helmut Jahn—-but this is what I want.” Then he signs it: Ernest Gladney.
In between finishing a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard and beginning an Annen-berg Fellowship at the University of Southern California, Edward Lifson took a tour of “the train,” Chicago’s Margot and Harold Schiff Residences. Lifson, a former Chicago Public Radio host, likes to write stories about modern architecture’s use of light, space, and materials, but what he found at the Helmut Jahn project trumped all of that: people just grateful to be given a chance to have a home.