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Harvest Commons Apartments Offer More Than Just a Room of One’s Own

Landon Bone Baker’s renovated SRO affordable housing project gives recently homeless residents access to supportive services and urban agriculture.

By Leigh Franke

A roof over your head is a crucial first step to getting back on your feet, but too often, supportive housing does not aspire much beyond that. The west side of Chicago’s 89-unit Harvest Commons Apartments, however, does just that and more.

Landon Bone Baker Architects recent single-room occupancy (SRO) conversion took the historic but blighted Viceroy Hotel (“for transient guests,” as advertised out front) and turned it into a permanent home for those who need it most: the recently homeless. Today, the Art Deco terra cotta building has been restored to its full architectural glory—and with a program the neighborhood can be proud of. Inside the Viceroy, the architects restored the original arched ceilings and column layout, refinished the terrazzo at the stairwell, and recreated historic tile. To reconstruct the historic façade, over 20 terra cotta pieces were replaced after an extensive search for the right manufacturer. Rather than replace historic ornamentation with real brass that might be attractive to thieves, LBB used aluminum.

In 2010, Heartland Housing, a branch of the Chicago-based anti-poverty organization Heartland Alliance, won the contract from the City of Chicago to develop the building into affordable housing. But the group knew it wanted to offer more than just an apartment to call one’s own, explains Nadia Underhill, associate director of real estate development for Heartland Alliance. “It’s been an interest of folks on staff for a long time to really push the envelope on what we consider green living,” says Underhill.

In addition to traditional support services, Harvest Commons boasts a community garden, test kitchen, chicken coop, and an on-site cafe as well as a full-time nutritionist and gardener to work with residents. “It’s definitely not something most people would have expected when they were moving through the social systems that got them to the building,” says Underhill.

Making it happen

The real challenge to including innovative programs in affordable housing happens once cost comes into play. Landon Bone Baker (LBB) knew that it would have to get creative to make the $22 million Harvest Commons renovation possible. LBB senior associate Jack Schroeder, AIA, says that sacrificing programs for pricier design choices was not an option. “The urban farm and kitchen piece—we’ve heard [of] those things presented in other projects, and they tend to go by the wayside,” he says. “But [Heartland] just had a really singular focus on making sure that it happened.”

And it was fun. To design the project, LBB had to learn about food infrastructure in ways that that most architects don’t. “We got to design a chicken coop and learn about beehives,” says Schroeder. “We’ve gotten to become experts on compost. Every piece of it was exciting,”

Affordable green design

In terms of sustainability features, the building has low-flow water fixtures, a green roof tray system, gypsum board, recycled-content carpet, a 13-well geo-exchange system for heating and cooling, and an eight-panel solar heating system for water.

Incorporating these green design items and progressive supportive programing into a historic building for subsidized housing was not without challenges. The Art Deco Viceroy earned National Historic Landmark status during the design process (it was built in 1930), a designation that meant extra funding but added a layer of complexity to the job. “We had to prove that the solar panels weren’t visible from the front,” says Schroeder. “The city departments have worked with us knowing it’s historic. They allowed us to keep one of the stairs that doesn’t quite meet code because we created a fire separation of the floors. It’s really just a beautiful old building, so it’s been really fun to bring it back.”

LBB is currently working on a similar affordable housing SRO conversion, the Diplomat, built in 1929. The building will also have a community garden on the rooftop rather than adjacent to the building, as well as some of the same green features. Similar to many SRO buildings, the Diplomat and the Viceroy had become the backdrop for some seedy urban lore, its own renovation deserving of a look back at its history of grimy, decaying Taxi Driver urbanism. But today these buildings are being transformed into socially conscious housing that gives back to the community. “All these buildings have stories, and we’re creating and enhancing the narrative that informs some of the stuff,” says Jeff Bone, AIA, principal at LBB.

A vision for the future

Heartland expects Harvest Commons to be fully leased in September, but the residents already are taking full advantage of its programs. Verlena Simms heard about Harvest Commons through the Chicago Housing Authority. “To me it’s really different because we have the case manager on site, so if there’s anything that we need personally or professionally, we can just go downstairs and talk to someone,” says Simms. “But the biggest thing is the garden. I’m from the city, so we don’t have a lot of space in an urban area like this to just go and garden. I had never ever gardened in my life. All I have to do is go downstairs and the garden is right there.”

Residents (with the help of a staff gardener) will help grow some of the vegetables used in the on-site cafe. Though Simms previously wasn’t interested in developing a green thumb, she has begun taking the classes hosted by the staff gardener and recognized the opportunity to get involved. “[It’s] right here, so I thought, ‘Learn as much as you can, take it from start to finish, because it will benefit you in the end,’” she says. She hopes to get more experience with the garden, and eventually pursue gardening professionally. And as for the just-installed chicken coop: “It’s going to be a while before we can work with the chickens,” she says, “but I intend to be a part of that too.”

Indeed, the ongoing transformation of the Viceroy has attracted much interest from the community and potential residents, explains Bone. “To actually see that this building wasn’t just demolished and torn down, but was restored to its original former glory—” says Bone, “it’s really meaningful for the neighborhood.” One day when he was visiting the building after construction, “I was talking to the security guard and he said, ‘You know, this building is like [Rip Van Winkle]—it was asleep for all these years, and now it’s awake.’”


Harvest Commons in Chicago is an 89-unit affordable housing development for the recently homeless. Image courtesy of Wayne Cable.

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This formerly blighted SRO hotel features delicate Art Deco detailing. Image courtesy of Wayne Cable.

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Harvest Common’s urban garden is staffed by a full-time gardener who work with residents. Image courtesy of Shane Welch.

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A teaching kitchen is one of the supportive social services housed in the building. Image courtesy of Shane Welch.

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The Viceroy, before Landon Bone Baker’s restoration. Image courtesy of David Schalliol.

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Recent Related:

Catherine Baker, AIA: Linking the Social and Spatial with Community Outreach Architecture

AIA/HUD Secretary’s Housing Award: Design for All


Back to AIArchitect September 13, 2013

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