The George Sollitt Construction Co. – Rosenwald Courts

George SollittA joint venture is restoring a historic rental complex in Chicago from the Roaring ‘20s into a mixed-use development.

By Russ Gager

In the days before the Civil Rights movement promoted integration, African-Americans were confined to their own neighborhoods in most cities, including those in the North. In Chicago, one of the early owners of Sears Roebuck and Co., Julius Rosenwald, which was headquartered in Chicago, devoted himself to philanthropy.

One of his developments, the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, was built in 1929 in a dynamic African-American neighborhood in Chicago named Bronzeville. The building included retail shops on the first floor and was designed to provide affordable housing for working African-American families. It was an early home to many people who later became famous and accomplished individuals.George Sollitt info box

It is with this pedigree and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places that the development is being restored by a joint venture of The George Sollitt Construction Co., Powers and Sons Construction Co., Brown and Momen Inc. and Rosenwald Courts Developer LLC. Now named Rosenwald Courts, the development consists of a total of 340,000-square-foot, five-story apartment building with a courtyard and nearly 50,000 square feet of retail and commercial rental space. The three-story apartment buildings provide an additional 45,000 square foot of living space.

All the buildings – the last of which was vacated in 1999 – are being completely gutted, and many of their historic features are being preserved. These include decorative bricks, cast stone and ornamental and decorative metals. The 206 apartments in the five-story building will be a completely different size than the original apartments, which numbered more than 400 when the structure was first built. The three-story buildings total an additional 33 units and are larger than the five-story units.

The east side of the five-story apartment building will include 120 apartments designated for senior citizens. On the west side will be 86 units designated for families. On the senior side, 60 of the units are designated as subsidized housing. Five units in the north wing of the building will be restored to the historic original apartment layout and leased. “The doors will be really small and the corridors tighter,” the joint venture’s Senior Project Manager Michael Polacheck says. “They will be cozy little units.”

The three-flats will have similar layouts to the original apartments and will restore many of their architectural features, such as the demising walls, floor joists, wood trim and doors, which are being stripped and reused. Powers and Son Construction is handling much of the work on the three-flats, while all three joint partners are working on the five-story building. The development also will include three parking lots that surround the buildings.

New Elevators

The original five-story apartment building had no elevators, but the restored one will. Unfortunately, as with many historical buildings, surprises were discovered as the interior was gutted. “We found some unsuitable soil where the elevator was supposed to go,” Polacheck relates. “We didn’t know the soil conditions until we took the slab up and started excavating for the elevator pits.” This required an alternate structural system as well as shoring up the outside foundation walls nearby. The entire basement work had to be completed with only eight feet of headroom and multiple ramps leading down to the lower level for access.

Similar challenges were experienced tying in to the building’s sewer connections, eight or 10 of which either were not where the plans indicated they were supposed to be or were broken. “So we had to install new connections or replace broken parts,” Polacheck says. Lead abatement and asbestos removal was required in the entire building during demolition.

The need for structural work was uncovered as the five-story building’s gutting proceeded. “Your No. 1 fear is what you are going to uncover once you’ve taken everything apart,” Polacheck concedes. In this case, once the plaster walls were removed, the structural columns of the concrete building were not in the places they were assumed to be.

“That caused us to have to survey the whole building to make sure that this wouldn’t conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements or the apartment layouts,” Polacheck relates. Additionally, some of the beams and columns required restoration – their interior steel reinforcing was visible. “You could take a hammer, tap the steel bars and break them away, just brittle old concrete,” Polacheck recalls.

Every other concrete joist reinforcing the clay tile floors also had to be replaced. “We didn’t figure as much for structural repairs, and they substantially added time to our schedule,” Polacheck remembers. “So we had two contractors onboard to try to give ourselves a boost on the schedule demolishing the concrete, reinforcing it and then spraying shotcrete to establish ‘like-new’ support of the floors.”

Stairs Rebuilt

The Rosenwald Courts originally had eight metal staircases from the basement to the roof. “We were just supposed to repair them as necessary, but once we started demolishing the walls and uncovering the structural elements of these stairs, it was deemed they weren’t safe to walk on,” Polacheck says. “They were completely corroded. So we ended up having to fully replace them.”

The staircases were completely disassembled. “We saved what we could reuse and cleaned up some of the old steel, sandblasted and repainted it, and incorporated those elements into the new stairs,” Polacheck says. “So you’ve got a mix of new and old materials, but it matches what they were – you can’t tell any difference.” Approximately one-third of the wood banisters on top of the staircases’ railings were stripped, refinished and reused, while the rest was recreated from new wood.

The roofs of all the buildings were completely replaced. “Surprisingly, the roof wasn’t in as bad a shape as we thought it would be,” Polacheck says. “You had instances where you did get water in, but the roof must have been replaced late in the building’s life. I kept the original roof on for a while.” The new roof is an insulated, single-ply membrane.

The original building was steam-heated with a central boiler room. The new design utilizes unit heat pump/ductwork systems in each of the units with a central mechanical room on each side. The heat pumps are being used in the restoration on floors with only seven-and-a-half-foot ceilings. “That doesn’t leave you a lot of room to lower the ceiling enough to fit the mechanical, electrical and fire protection in that little space,” Polacheck points out.

“Roberts Environmental Control provided design/build assistance by working closely with the engineers to come up with an economical mechanical system for this extensive remodeling,” Polacheck remarks. “The old mechanical system was completely unusable and inoperable. They have been a good working partner and have provided great value to the project.”

Sequencing the work so it can be done in order without delays also has been challenging. “If one guy gets out of tune or a week off, it throws everybody off,” he notes.

Team Effort

The joint venture is self-performing rough carpentry, blocking and window installation on the five-story building, rear-porch construction on the three-flats and miscellaneous carpentry projects throughout all the buildings, such as the banisters on the stairs and general cleanup and labor. Polacheck estimates up to 60 subcontractors will work on the project. The architect for the five-story apartment building is Hooker DeJong Inc., and for the three-flats, it is John Joyce Architects Inc.

The parking lots and civil work were engineered by Eriksson Engineering. The owner’s team led by owner’s representatives Solis Russel has been paramount in coordinating with the city of Chicago, the alderman’s office and many of the consultants.

The three-flats are scheduled for completion in July and August, and the five-story will start turnover in July and be completed in November. Construction of the project began in January 2015. The buildings will meet the Department of Energy’s energy-efficiency requirements by having high-efficiency HVAC, low-flow plumbing and energy-efficient lighting, appliances and insulation thicknesses in the roofs and exterior walls.

Such a massive project encompassing an entire city block requires a battalion of workers. “I’ve got four great superintendents, two working on the three-flats and two on the five-story,” Polacheck says. “They are all running approximately 150 workers on the project every day. My superintendents have done an excellent job of keeping the flow of work moving smoothly. They have done a fabulous job on both buildings.”

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