The Gary Comer Youth Center: Chicago’s Most Transformative Building?

Gary Comer and John Ronan create a stunning citadel of hope on Chicago’s troubled South Side.

If you meander southward from the glittering architectural trophy case that is the Chicago lakefront, you pass by (and under) the vast steel rectangles of McCormick Place and the Ionic columns of the Field Museum. Farther south you come upon the domed nineteenth-century Beaux Arts palace housing the Museum of Science and Industry. Turn west and the landscape quickly becomes a low-rise wasteland of crime and shabby retail. Stores promise easy credit for ghastly furniture. Carryout food is prepared behind thick panels of bulletproof glass. Every street has a liquor store. Vacant lots punctuate an alarming streetscape of poorly constructed box residences and the occasional brownstone holdout. A multifamily building on 72nd Street South stands blackened and vacant from a recent fire. The bitter smell of burnt plastic still lingers in the air, and the building’s exterior vinyl siding has been warped into the sagging signature of old Venetian blinds.

As you pass the fortress of Paul Revere Elementary School, where a man was recently arrested for child abduction and public indecency, the view abruptly changes: 72nd Street appears to dead-end into a wall mosaic of colored panels. Surrounded by grim warehouses and a couple of solo boarded-up buildings with moats of weeds and garbage stands a three-story apparition of whimsical-looking bricks that might have been conjured by some child daydreaming of Lego blocks. An 80-foot tower with a moving LED display spells out messages in colored lights. As you get close you can see slitlike recessed windows, but it’s difficult to tell what is going on inside until you enter the double doors, check in with tough but friendly Sam at the security desk, and take a few steps into a multitiered atrium of absolute magic.

Nothing can quite prepare you for a visit to the Gary Comer Youth Center, named for the man who paid for its construction, the billionaire founder of catalog retailer Lands’ End. The center opened this summer on the site of an abandoned warehouse at the corner of 72nd Street South, Ingleside, and South Chicago Avenue. Designed by local architect John Ronan, the building is an arresting, alluring mystery by day. (Taxis frequently stop to ask pedestrians, “What the hell is this thing?”) By night it’s a warmly lit gathering place for a neighborhood that for decades has known only fear after dark. The facility is so beyond any familiar notion of a “youth center,” YMCA, or Boys’ Club, that it takes some getting used to. It is discreetly secure, as bulletproof as any neighborhood mini-mart, but this is no bunker. As modern as a contemporary art museum, it still manages to retain a casual human scale.

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Its structure is formidable, built for constant use, not occasional visits. A steel frame holds massive trusses that allow high ceilings all around and support large skylights and a freestanding roof garden with more than 18 inches of soil and a full irrigation system. The structure is concealed behind walls and exterior surfaces decorated with festive and sophisticated graphics—but make no mistake, this building is designed to do battle with the forces of neglect and vandalism much in evidence on these streets. So far it seems to be winning: there is not a spot of graffiti anywhere. Perhaps the most amazing quality of the building is how radical it is on every level. It is the only new construction of any kind for years in this part of Chicago.

No timid trial-balloon seed development, the $30 million facility boldly announces its intention to be here a century from now. This neighborhood, called Grand Crossing, was in January the largest in Chicago without a public library. Today it boasts an architectural landmark as distinct in its own way as Sears Tower.

Comer attended Paul Revere Elementary School 70 years ago, when the neighborhood was a polyglot immigrant community whose labor fueled Chi-cago’s industrial expansion and was hit hard by the Great Depression. After the success of Lands’ End, he became one of Chicago’s biggest local philanthropists, focusing his resources on the streets and parks where he once played without any thought of bullets or gangs. Comer’s three giant gifts, totaling more than $84 million, to the nearby University of Chicago Medical Center established a children’s hospital, a specialty-care facility, and a mobile pediatric unit for the neighborhood, but he yearned to get closer to the streets of his childhood. He walked them alone back in the late 1990s to get a feel for the needs of Grand Crossing, which then had a 55 percent dropout rate and one of the highest levels of violent crime in the city. With the quiet expertise of a retailer observing his customers, Comer studied the area until a plan began to form. One afternoon in 2003 this newly street-smart entrepreneur of change took his then modest plan to an architect.

Ronan can clearly recall the day when an unassuming elderly man stopped by his firm’s hip offices in Chicago’s River North. “He was just a nice guy with an idea for a building,” he says. “I was on the phone when he came in and made him wait for about five minutes, and I never do that. I had no idea who he was. He was wearing a sweater and khakis from Lands’ End, but I didn’t put anything together.” Eventually Ronan did, but he’s still reeling with amazement over what the project became. Although he has a solid portfolio of buildings under way around the world, the architect comes close to matching Comer’s unassuming style. He even quickly disavows a widely reported story that Comer was attracted to him because, unlike other big-name architects, Ronan answers his own phones. “That’s just a rumor,” he says with a twisted modesty. “I answer my own phones, but that’s not why Gary picked me.”

Modest or not, the collaboration between Comer and Ronan has produced what Chicago architect Brad Lynch calls the most transformative building to be constructed in the city in at least a decade. “The center does everything superior architecture is supposed to do,” Lynch says. “And it’s not because of some dazzling Koolhaas- or Gehry-style design elements. It has already changed lives. You go down to that urban war zone and spend time in that building, and it goes bang. It’s that powerful.”

The idea that Comer originally brought to Ronan was much more humble than the multiuse complex standing at 72nd and Ingleside. The original plan was to make a practice facility for the 26-year-old South Shore Drill Team, a precision parade team famous for its steely discipline and spectacular synchronized rifle throws and spins. The team was founded by local educator Arthur Robertson to keep his brother from dropping out of school. Robertson’s kids are taught to pursue goals and stick together, and are required to maintain a C average. The award-winning drill team has performed all over the world—the Indy 500 Parade, gubernatorial inaugurations—but it had never had a home. Robertson had been scrounging for space for his expanding group for years.

“We sat down with them and said, ‘Hey, what do you want in this building? Because you can have anything you want,’ ” Ronan recalls. “They asked for really basic things like ‘a building with heat—that would be good.’ ” Comer kept asking Ronan to go beyond the basics, and the idea of a full-fledged youth center began to take shape. “One week it was a health clinic and then it was a preschool, and then that went out the window. It had this make-believe quality to it.” Three months into the project Ronan made up a laundry list, trying to pin Comer down, including some easy things like arts and crafts, a game room, and a library for homework. He also put in some things that were more out there, such as a recording studio, a computer lab, a fully wired lecture hall capable of broadcasting onto the Internet, a workout space, and a dance studio. Ronan gave the list to Comer and expected him to look it over and give him some feedback. Instead Comer decided on the spot to do it all.

“Usually somebody comes to you with a site and a program, and a budget way too small to do the program,” Ronan says. “Here we had no program. We could make it up ourselves. We could pick any site we wanted because Gary had basically bought up the whole neighborhood. Money was not an issue, ever. I mean it was like a school project or something. It was a dream.”

Comer’s dream was going to have some severe design limitations. An early mock-up with lots of exterior glass was unveiled before a community group and flopped. “Basically they told us they wanted no glass at all,” Ronan says. “‘Glass is impossible down here,’ they said.” So he devised thick concrete walls with colored panels, to keep the building from looking like a bunker. Ronan quietly added recessed windows of bulletproof glass and lots of skylights and interior glass to capture and diffuse all available daylight. Halfway into the design process Comer abruptly demanded a third floor to the building. Each addition increased Comer’s and Ronan’s passion for the project.

But there was something else driving this endeavor that Ronan discovered long after his first encounter with Comer. Midway through the project, the philanthropist was stricken with a recurrence of bone-marrow cancer. Ronan says he could feel the importance of the project to Comer as the months passed and construction began. Although Comer never would explicitly say it, this project represented his legacy. “He gave a lot more money to the hospitals,” Ronan says. “But there it was just hand over a check and the doctors did the rest. Here Gary had a hand in all of it. His heart was really into this center.”

Comer created an endowment for the building to be maintained long after his death, and there is a long list of Chicago institutions eager to carry out programming and activities there. Pamela Bozeman-Evans, senior program director, left a job with the rising political star Senator Barak Obama to join the center. She says this is her first community-service job where fund-raising is not the primary responsibility. “This building is already a major player in the revitalization of the neighborhood. Just look around.”

When the building was dedicated in May, Comer was in a wheelchair, too weak to walk. “Isn’t this going to be the greatest thing for the kids?” he whispered to one of the local reporters who covered the event. Ronan says Comer had his hands in the critical details right up to the end. “I remember we showed him the color tiles for the outside not knowing what he would think, if he would even like them at all,” Ronan recalls wistfully. “He of course told us to make them brighter, bolder.”

On an October afternoon, kids begin wandering in from nearby schools to do homework at the clean tables in the cafeteria, where others are ­getting a hot meal at the line up front. Above, windows all around reveal rooms for one-on-one tutoring, art classes, a library, a dance studio, workout equipment, a recording studio, and a computer lab. Through a wall of glass, visitors peer down into the building’s centerpiece, a beautiful gymnasium (which converts with the push of a button into a 640-seat theater), and watch three groups of boys and girls playing basketball. On the roof the working garden is still producing some late crops destined for a culinary-arts class. Everywhere is color, warmth, smiles, and laughter. The multilevel see-through interior seems to create an infectious ­factory of work and play where anything could happen. As I look around only boredom seems an implausible activity here.

“This place is clean and fun, and you can do activities here, not just sit around and watch TV,” 11-year-old Marc Franklin says, munching on some chicken while explaining that his favorite activities involve the game room and homework help. A crowd gathers. Everyone is eager to explain to a stranger what this building means to them. “It’s clean and nice and important-­looking—that’s why nobody puts graffiti here,” 12-year-old Tyrenza Stevenson explains, until Marc suddenly interrupts her: “It’s like you don’t worry about getting shot over here. That’s the main thing.” He’s stocky and a little sensitive about his weight, which he blames partly on spending too much time in his house, off the dangerous streets. “I plan to slim down,” Marc says. “They have treadmills and all kinds of weights and things for exercising.”

The subject shifts to what people want to be when they grow up. They all chatter at once, but there’s no boastful thuggery, no references to video games and hip-hop celebrities, or other typical preteen acting out. The talk around these tables ranges far and wide, as though the building has quietly given them permission, as though it’s suddenly OK to dream. The kids are excited but not overawed by this place. They speak of it as something they deserve to have, not some outlandish, intimidating piece of good fortune. A member of the drill team says, “This building is here because we were so determined, and that’s what got us noticed.” It’s an attitude that suggests that the center will be around for a long time. Every kid knows about the man who made it possible. “We love Mr. Comer,” they say, even though none of them has the faintest idea what Lands’ End might be. “Mr. Gary Comer used to live around here and wanted to do something to make the neighborhood better,” Tyrenza says. “He sure enough did that,” Marc says confidently. “If I was really rich I would put a youth center in every neighborhood.”

Comer died in early October at the age of 78. Ronan says one of his last appearances was in September by video link to a live performance of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion in the center’s theater. “You should have seen it,” Ronan says. “Kid volunteers were parking cars. The drill team was fantastic.” It was a thrilling experience to see a building that he designed so alive and bringing people from all over the city to a neighborhood they never knew existed. He speaks reverently of the client who walked into his office out of the blue and changed his life. “I consider myself lucky to have found Gary Comer, but he lucked out to get me,” the architect says quietly with a fierce emotional pride. “He trusted me, and he was right.” Outside as night falls, the interior lights of the youth center spill warmth out onto what were very recently mean streets. On the tower above the center the lights spell out a somber message: “Thank you Gary Comer.” This newest detail on Chicago’s skyline can be seen for miles.

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