Black Cinema House

Over the last two weeks, I've shifted from the ReBuild Foundation shop down to a couple of houses on the south side, on Dorchester Avenue.  Theaster Gates lived on Dorchester Avenue for some time, and has gradually acquired a couple of pieces of property up and down the street.  The main project right now is the Black Cinema House, a two-story brick building, with generous basement, at the corner of Dorchester and 69th St.  

Front of the Black Cinema House. 
Corner, with sweet overhanging second-story bay.
Developed by the ReBuild Foundation architectural design team, it is going to be a place for the study and scholarship of black films, with space for screenings; a large kitchen; an office for archivists, students, and scholars; open programming room for events and classes; and living space for artists on the second floor.  Funded largely with an NEA Creative Placemaking grant, the project has been chronicled over at ArtPlace America.  Films, scholarly support, and collaboration will occur with the Chicago Film Archives and South Side Projections.

Gorgeous round window on first floor.
From the rear.

According to real estate records available online, the property was built in 1890.  Records for the whole block show a spurt of construction in the twenty years following, as the neighborhood bricked in.  Early settlers were German, Irish, and Scottish, colonizing cheap real estate south of the city, made newly accessible by commuter rail line.  Growth exploded in the area around the time of the Columbian Exposition, in 1893, preceded by the annexation of Hyde Park by the City of Chicago in 1889, largely to access better sewage services.  

Speaking of morbid history, discovered this huge raccoon Thursday morning.  My running CSI theory is he was looking for food in the dumpster, got caught in the pallet, and, struggling to free himself, fell to his death.  Note struggle marks in the dust in upper right.
It is in a bit of an urban non-place; just east of the massive Oak Woods cemetery, just south of the University of Chicago, and just west of the Jackson Park Highlands district, it is nestled in what is generally considered the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.  Greater Grand Crossing has a morbid history, as it is named after a rail intersection accident that killed 18 people in 1853.  Future Chicago mayor Roswell Mason, working for Illinois Central Railroad, secretly laid tracks that intersected an existing Lake Shore and Southern Michigan Railroad line.  This practice, known as a "frog war", was common in the early, cutthroat days of railroading.  Competing rail companies, racing to lay track and monopolize lines, would cross one another's tracks without permission by cover of night, leading to accidents and precedent disputes.  

Main space downstairs, with bundled kitchen pieces everywhere.  Round window to right.
The neighborhood just to the north, Woodlawn, is famous for being the setting for the play "Raisin in the Sun", by Lorraine Hansberry, which dramatized her own family's struggle to integrate the area by buying a house in 1938.  This led to a lawsuit over racially restrictive covenants, eventually reaching all the way to the Supreme Court in in 1940, where the justices ruled the covenants illegal.  In turn, Hansberry vs. Lee opened the doors to integration and a decades-long demographic shift in the area, culminating in a near-total turnover, from 99% white in 1930 to 98% African American in 2000.  Over the same time period, nearly half of the population of the neighborhood left, leaving the familiar urban symptoms: vacants, empty lots, crime, absentee owners, high rental rates, and depressed property values.  

My first job was paneling one of the bathrooms (under the front steps) in cedar planks.  No trim.  No excuses.  Woodworking throwdown.
Made the fan vent grate too.  Just for fun.
Initially, the Black Cinema House served as a materials depot for the ReBuild Foundation.  Listed on real estate records as an 8 bedroom home in 2010, there was a wealth of interior partitions that were taken out, providing the raw materials for Theaster's artwork.  Most of the stud lumber was old-growth pine and fir, tight-grained and hard to find.  Sections of plaster wall, fixtures, doors, and other pieces found their way into various sculptures and installations.  Material from the building is now being installed in Kassel, Germany, for Documenta 13, by a team of artisans from the ReBuild shop.  These pieces, built of humble indigenous materials, are traveling the world, accruing miles, experience, and value by virtue of their journey.  

Throughout the house, sections of the old brick are exposed, framed in drywall.  This section is a gorgeous collage of wallpapers past.
Theaster has thought through these "chance encounters" with material, place, and history in the following way:  "When working in communities that have long cultural histories, its really important to me to reach out to those folk who have been history makers and share with them the continued opportunities for new successes and growth in our neighborhoods. Its been really exciting to think about our buildings and their reinvestment as ways to get folk excited again to share their stories and continue the history and culture making processes. . . .

Whether buildings or symbols, objects or projects, creating chance encounters and a need for others is one way that I learn and grow. It has also helped me establish an artistic practice that feels fluid not insistent- continuous instead of vacuous. An ecology of meaning making from chance and highly negotiated opportunities. A practice that always is new, at least to me."
The materials re-entering the building tell their own story; excerpts, if you will, from Crispus Attucks Elementary, redwood water towers, and a host of salvaged materials bought at the ReBuilding Exchange.  As the building grows, forms a new identity, and finds a place in the fabric of the neighborhood -- stripped, re-assembled, repaired, re-inhabited, and reborn -- it will develop an "ecology of meaning" that will hopefully anchor the block.  

Vintage 50's era Crispus Attucks chalkboard, made of laminated masonite.
The office is all chalkboard, all the time.  I've been tearing my hair out over these panels, trying to get the joints tight, aligned with the outlets and switch holes, etc.
Instead of patching together around the window, I cut out the center of a sheet and fitted it in.  Woodworking throwdown.  Just sayin'.
Redwood behind a Crispus Attucks sink outside the cedar bathroom. 
Khadree, ReBuild apprentice.
Xavier, ReBuild apprentice.
Ray Ray, ReBuild apprentice.
Crispus Attucks blueprints.
Redlines, like they used to do.