Building/Blocks: Architecture of Chicago's South Side premieres on WTTW Monday, February 6 at 9:00 pm and will be available to stream via the PBS Video App.
Chicago is a city that loves architecture—but how often is the architecture that is celebrated and discussed located on the South Side? “This is a city that does pay attention to its architecture, but often the architecture of the South Side—and I’d argue the West Side as well—is ignored,” says Lee Bey, the host of the new documentary Building/Blocks: Architecture of Chicago’s South Side (Bey is also an occasional contributor to WTTW). Outstanding buildings such as the bold Pride Cleaners, sleek Jovita Idár Elementary School, or historic Rosenwald Courts Apartments have “not been welcomed into the canon,” Bey says. “You don’t get that kind of depth and sweep of information about many of these great buildings.”
Bey knows about the lack of information well, having photographed and written about many of these places in his book Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side. “It was like making a quilt: you had to find dates and details and all these kinds of things from various sources,” he says. Even big-name architects whose work is lauded elsewhere in the city have their South Side buildings overlooked. Did you know that Jeanne Gang designed a community center in Auburn Gresham right before her acclaimed Aqua Tower opened? Or that there are eight Frank Lloyd Wright houses on the South Side, in addition to the famous Robie? Eero Saarinen, of Dulles International Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, has a law library at the University of Chicago that isn’t listed on the National Register and was left out of an American Masters documentary on the architect.
Then there are the skilled architects who never gained as large a reputation. Some lesser-known architects have outstanding work on the South Side that is virtually unknown: John Moutoussamy, responsible for the Johnson Publishing Building on Michigan Avenue, designed a home for himself in Chatham; a modernist house by Roger Margerum, who studied under Mies van der Rohe, came on the market in 2017 for the stunningly low sum of $150,000.
Margerum isn’t the only one whose homes are going for cheap: a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in West Pullman was “the cheapest Frank Lloyd Wright listing in America” at $180,000 in 2018, Bey reports in Southern Exposure. As Bey notes, properties across the South Side, which is predominantly Black, are valued less than those on the North Side due to decades of redlining and disinvestment that drove segregation; a 2018 Brookings Institute study he cites in his book found that the same house would be worth $37,000 more in a white Chicago-area neighborhood than a Black one. That matters because it prevents the accumulation and maintenance of wealth, both within families and within communities.
“Racism extends its ugly hand into the reasons why these parts of the city aren’t as well-known and aren’t as well-celebrated,” he says. “These are places that, civically, we’ve been taught to ignore. I’m old enough to remember when tourist maps wouldn’t show the South Side. Maybe a good one would show Hyde Park; maybe an exceptional one would show Beverly. But the rest of the South Side would be literally painted black, like, don’t even try to go here. And that’s despite the fact that the South Side is huge: somewhere around half the city’s landmass.” (The South Side is the size of Philadelphia, geographically.)
In Building/Blocks, Bey acts as tour guide to just a few of the sites within that sprawling landmass. There’s the laid-back cool of the First Church of Deliverance, which was converted from a hat factory. The quiet lagoon of Winneconna Parkway is a true hidden gem. Chicago Vocational High School—Bey’s alma mater—“is just a tour de force of size and beauty and detail,” says Bey. “You will not find a better Art Deco building that’s not a skyscraper in all of Chicago.”
Bey wants to celebrate these buildings and places not just to draw attention to them from outside the South Side, but even more so to inspire pride in the South Siders who actually live near them. “It’s great that people from outside the South Side are using [Southern Exposure] to come down and see the cool stuff,” he says. “But it’s also important to me that with all the things—gentrification, and crime, and other things that can be happening here on the South Side—that South Siders see something that reinforces their own faith in the beauty and sustainability and value of these communities.”