exterior view of the new North Lawndale Employment Network campus which occupies a former bank building.

The North Lawndale Employment Network Sees Through Employment Barriers for the Formerly Incarcerated

Designed by Wheeler Kearns Architects, the center makes use of a former bank that now holds sweeter treasure—honey.

Even from outside the new North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) building on Chicago’s West Side, where approximately half of residents live in poverty and the neighborhood’s many architectural treasures suffer from brutal disinvestment, passersby can see through two layers of glass into the heart of the building, where formerly incarcerated neighbors learn new job skills on the production floor of Sweet Beginnings. Sweet Beginnings makes honey and honey-derived beauty products in North Lawndale and is one tool NLEN uses to re-integrate justice system–impacted community members into their neighborhood with job training and financial literacy skills. The visual transparency here is a way to demonstrate that there’s a place and a way forward for the people who have churned through an intensely unequal justice system. The poverty rate that stalks North Lawndale is largely a function of its high rate of formerly incarcerated community members, says NLEN’s founder Brenda Palms Barber; 57 percent when she started her organization in 1999. With the non-profit’s new home, designed by Wheeler Kearns Architects, Palms Barber hopes to serve 5,000 more people annually, and create 100 new transitional jobs over five years.

“This campus was our first real footprint in the neighborhood, [It’s] a love-letter to the community.”

Brenda Palms Barber, founder of the North Lawndale Employment Network
workers preparing honey products
Workers prepare honey products in the NLEN’s new production area, which occupies the center of the building.

Located in the former Community Bank of Lawndale (the first Black-owned bank in a neighborhood populated almost exclusively by Black people) this 1982 building designed by Ben Weese was something of an inauspicious beginning for NLEN. With its brick-bunker form and near absence of windows most notably defied by second-floor arched half-moons that nod absentmindedly in the direction of Postmodernism and Louis Sullivan’s National Farmer’s Bank, it didn’t appear particularly welcoming. The bank was “built like a fortress,” says Emmanuel Garcia, project architect at Wheeler Kearns, futilely attempting to ward away the poverty and precarity that surrounded it. But a fortress-like appearance doesn’t always guarantee stability, and Garcia and his team had to apply several structural fixes, repairing concrete masonry units and adding structural steel to exterior walls, even on one section of the building where the original bank vault was. (For his part, Weese eventually regretted the tossed-off Sullivan quotes, and that the building was built “crudely,” which he blamed on the contractor, according to the Chicago Architects Oral History Project.)

cafe interior
The center’s Bee Love Café connects the surrounding community to NLEN’s new headquarters, and serves as the building’s focal point.
workers scraping honeycomb
Honey is processed in the facility’s new commercial kitchen.

The most obvious change is the glass pavilion café—“The Bee Love Café”—added onto the building’s long western facade, where a thematic motif, the honeycomb hexagon, asserts itself in lighting installations and colorful decals. “It’s a quick and recognizable artifact, says Garcia. Here, Wheeler Kearns cut ground floor windows into the red-brick wall, as well as a pandemic-friendly pick-up window.

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The building’s previous interior was organized as a large, open bank hall, but Wheeler Kearns’ adaptive reuse carefully subdivides the building to make space for many different functions. First and foremost is the Sweet Beginnings production space at its center. Around it huddles training and reception space, and a WinTrust bank branch. Windows in several of these satellite spaces look in on the production floor. “Where the bank hid its treasures away, NLEN celebrates their most important treasure—their clients,” says Garcia. Upstairs, there are office spaces, conference rooms, and informal meeting spaces.

lounge space interior
At each end of the top floor, a reception and lounge area is painted a calming dark green and filled with potted plants and smoothly geometric furniture (Gary Lee Partners selected the furniture and furnishings) that look out through the signature arched windows.
Martin Luther King Jr. Hallway
Through a double-loaded corridor, a photo mural documenting Martin Luther King, Jr’s pivotal time in North Lawndale in 1966 lines the wall, and gold paint covers threshold apertures of offices and meeting spaces, which gives a soft glow with understated lighting arrays in the ceiling.

Beyond its new administrative spaces, the most important elements of the Wheeler Kearns renovation make NLEN’s wider public mission legible to the community. In addition to a front courtyard, a walled peace garden adjacent to the building’s events center gives North Lawndale neighbors a soothing space to remember people lost to gun violence. Designed by Site Design Group, it features memorial plaques and pavers amid seating, shrubs, and trees. “We’ve lost so many people, and we wanted to create a place where people could just honor loved ones and have a quiet place where they could sit and reflect,” says Palms Barber. Before moving into the new NLEN headquarters, the organization was spread across five different sites. “This campus was our first real footprint in the neighborhood,” she says. “[It’s] a love-letter to the community.”

Peace garden exterior
A walled peace garden serves as a memorial to those lost to gun violence—and a serene place to enjoy coffee and treats from the café.

These added public spaces make NLEN more than just a place to learn new skills. They’re a step toward making a venue for rebinding people into the social fabric of the neighborhood. That’s been the experience of Joseph Smith, who’s been working at NLEN for nine years after being incarcerated because of a drug conspiracy charge. From his first beginning there, “it was like going to church,” he says. And today, “[it’s] my second home.” Wheeler Kearns’ NLEN is a clear-eyed assessment that intensely securitized design (even in places with relatively high crime) doesn’t do much but keep a building’s constituents at arm’s length. But this adaptive reuse makes it apparent that stability and support start with an open door and a way in.

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