Back to the Future

The update of Chicago’s Hilliard Center is a reminder that affordable high-rise housing can work.

In recent years the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) has been leveling its troubled high-rise projects and replacing them with low-rise neighborhoods. The CHA’s broad-based demolition plan has only one exception: the Hilliard Center, a four-building complex of Modernist towers on the edge of Chinatown. Built in 1966, Hilliard still looks remarkably futuristic.

In 1998 an officer of the Holsten Real Estate Development Corporation, a developer of low- and moderate-income housing, happened to ride her bike by the striking complex and the push to preserve Hilliard began. With historic preservation tax credits, the company figured, renovation rather than demolition would be viable. Holsten convinced the public housing authority to spare the wrecking ball, and the next year the CHA-nominated Hilliard Center—renamed Hilliard Tower Apartments—was added to the National Register of Historic Places. With the historic designation in place, the CHA (working in collaboration with Holsten) embarked on a mission it had failed at for decades: making a high-rise housing project livable.

Designed by noted Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg—best known for Marina City, the so-called corncob towers just north of the Loop—Hilliard’s scallop-shaped facades echo those of Marina City, as do the organic daisy- and crescent-shaped buildings. The architect considered Hilliard one of his proudest accomplishments. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard, Goldberg traveled to Germany in 1932 to study at the Bauhaus, where he imbibed the founders’ philosophy that Modernist architecture could be harnessed for humanitarian aims—a vision that he was able to express in Hilliard more than 30 years later.

Not everyone shared this vision. In the 1960s, when Goldberg presented his designs to HUD officials in Washington, they told him his plans were “too good for the poor.” The project was built only after much wrangling and name-calling.

While it was always considered one of the CHA’s best projects, Hilliard still had its share of problems. In the past “the buildings were basically open to anybody wanting to hang out in the hallways,” says Tim Veenstra, CHA’s development manager for Hilliard. With renovations completed on two of the four buildings, it’s clear that adding a security system provided a new sense of safety. Electronic swipe cards and a video buzz-in system for guests keep the renovated project free of outsiders. “Now it’s a regular apartment building—only residents or their guests are there,” Veenstra says. “It may seem normal, but it’s new.”

Yet in some ways the historic designation has tied the redevelopers’ hands. Like many CHA high-rises, Hilliard includes “breezeways,” or halls open to the elements, from the elevators to the apartments. Although they are pleasant places to enjoy a summer breeze coming in off the lake, they are less idyllic during a Chicago blizzard. “You actually get snow from the hallway blowing into your apartment,” Veenstra says. Holsten hoped to insulate the breezeway with a glass curtain wall, but due to preservation considerations and later financial considerations, had to scrap plans to enclose the space.

“I hope that people who will live in these units will not feel that because they are poor they are being punished,” Goldberg told an interviewer five years before his death in 1997. If the renovations—scheduled to be completed in 2006—are successful, perhaps American politicians will concur and Hilliard will be seen as a model rather than an anomaly: futuristic in concept, not merely design.

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