Without Fuss or Feathers: Bertrand Goldberg, Hilliard Homes, and Architecture for the Poor, Part 2

This is the second part in a 2-part series on Bertrand Goldberg’s Hilliard Homes by guest author Susannah Ribstein

Last time we read about the design for Hilliard Homes and Bertrand Goldberg’s radical idea that cutting-edge architecture might be able to soothe some of the pains of poverty. This time we’ll take a look at how Hilliard Homes got built and how it’s doing today.

Source: BertrandGoldberg.org

Goldberg was vocal about the resistance he received from the housing authorities to almost every aspect of the Hilliard project. According to him they initially objected to the buildings’ unusual design on the grounds that the taxpayers could not afford such expensive avant-garde architecture. When Goldberg explained that the poured concrete design was in fact very cost-effective, he claims that they responded simply: “It’s too good for these people.” Goldberg was heartbroken and enraged by the callous and unrealistic attitudes towards the poor maintained by the very government agencies responsible for their housing. Decisions seemed to be made based on the short-sighted idea that if government housing was uncomfortable and drab its residents would be propelled into self-sufficiency by their desire to get away from it. Good, beautiful, functional housing projects would be to blame for residents becoming “satisfied with being poor.”

Goldberg had to fight against these attitudes in order to get Hilliard built. After a late-night appeal to CHA head Charles Swibel (fueled by one too many cocktails, according to Goldberg’s oral history), Goldberg was granted permission to proceed with his original design. He constructed full-scale models of individual units and invited thousands of potential tenants from surrounding housing projects to offer their opinions on the apartments’ petal-shaped rooms and elliptical windows. Everyone approved and, perhaps more interestingly, few of those polled even noticed anything radically different about the petal-shaped rooms. They just thought they seemed nice. Even the first Mayor Daley visited and commented approvingly: “This is how people ought to live.”

Hilliard Homes opened in 1966 and tenants were moved in even as some of the buildings were still being completed. Since the project was relatively small and well regarded for its architecture, competition for units was settled by admitting only tenants that came recommended for good behavior from their current homes. The project’s location near Chinatown and the Loop made it relatively diverse, including white and Chinese families in addition to the black majority that occupied most of the city’s public housing. Goldberg bragged that in Hilliard’s early years, the elderly and young tenants lived in harmony, and it was the only housing project that didn’t need constant police supervision. In his oral history he reflected:

“I think [this] is simply because the architecture gave a message that we were building a community, we respected a humanism which that community wanted or deserved, we simply weren’t storing people.”

Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1967.

When asked how he figured out how to design for poor people Goldberg answered that he just had to remove the word “poor.” He was designing for people: a simple, civilized way of living without a lot of “fuss or feathers.” Newspaper archives show that, at least in Hilliard’s early years, some of the creative social programming for which Goldberg advocated was put into effect, including a millinery class at the senior center and an arts and crafts fair.

As the years went on, Goldberg’s lack of faith in the government’s ability to provide quality homes for the poor would be borne out at Hilliard and at other housing projects across the country. Cash-strapped cities like Chicago were unable to provide competent management or even basic upkeep of their low-income housing projects. At Hilliard, as at so many other communities, the buildings fell apart; the concrete wasn’t cleaned, the security was lax, and the building’s intercom systems stopped working. By the 1990s Chicago had begun shifting management of these buildings to private companies, and in 1996 Hilliard was turned over to a Minneapolis-based management firm.

Demolition of the Ickes Homes, with Hilliard in the background. Photo by David Schalliol, 2009

By this time, the tide of both public and expert opinion had turned decisively against high-rise architecture’s suitability for low-income housing. Chicago was home to thousands upon thousands of units of neglected and wasted high-rise housing projects, and the city pursued these buildings’ demolition with the same eagerness it had shown for their construction just a few decades earlier. In large part because of its unusual architecture, Hilliard’s fate was different. Rather than demolish it, the CHA granted local developer Peter Holsten a 99-year lease on the buildings and the freedom to renovate the entire complex into a mixed-income community. 45% of the units were preserved for CHA residents and the rest re-rented at a mix of market-rate and subsidized levels.

While the city helped smooth this transition with $33 million in capital improvement funds from the CHA, various other tax credits, and approving it as a beneficiary of tax-increment financing, Hilliard’s historic status also enabled it to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and qualify for $10 million in historic tax credits. In addition to this financial motivation, Holsten also appreciated the project’s unusual architecture as a marketing tool. Hilliard’s design has timeless appeal. Just as Goldberg sold potential residents on the project in the 1960s by showing them its round windows and curving walls in his full-scale model apartment, so did Holsten 40-odd years later by renovating the existing buildings in all their modernist glory.

Photo by David Schalliol, 2009.

When Hilliard was first built, Goldberg bragged that its design was the key to its relatively safe community. Although it seems likely that whatever stability Hilliard enjoyed in the 1960s probably came more from the careful selection of its tenants than from its architecture alone, its continued existence so many years later as a viable high-density neighborhood does come directly from its design. Hilliard would probably not still be standing today without Goldberg’s willingness to apply an avant-garde design sensibility to the thankless job of low-income housing. Its unusual appearance has endeared it to generations of Chicagoans, including its eventual re-developer, and its architectural significance literally enabled its renovation in the form of $10 million in historic tax credits. Goldberg’s idea that chance-taking design can serve the poor is now an accepted practice; in Chicago we have Stanley Tigerman’s Pacific Garden Mission and Helmut Jahn’s Near North SRO, and similar projects dot the rest of the country. Hilliard Homes is the grandfather of these contemporary developments, and the best kind of historic building: one that continues to serve its intended purpose long after its era has passed.

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