Coming Out of the Scaffolding: Chicago's First LGBT Center

In recent American memory, gays and lesbians have been the self-designated keepers of the historic urban fabric. Their preservationist urge has saved whole districts from neglect—Will Fellows detailed it in his 2004 book A Passion to Preserve—and it’s common knowledge among real estate investors to “follow the gays” when searching for the next neighborhood to undergo gentrification.

Image courtesy Gensler

Fittingly, LGBT community centers also reflect preservationist elements, either by adapting old spaces or combining them into larger campuses. The most recent melding of old and new takes place in the Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, where Gensler designed the Center on Halsted. The city’s first LGBT community gathering place, it opens to the public with a formal gala, career expo, and guided tours this month—Pride month.

The Gensler team salvaged the terra cotta-and-brick facade of a former parks facility designed by David Saul Klafter in 1924, demolishing the rest to accommodate 175,000 square feet of new construction. The landmarked elevation, which features Model T wheels as a decorative relief, was restored by McGuire Igleski & Associates. A Whole Foods supermarket will occupy the space behind the historic face, and its rent will help defray the center’s operational costs.

The new building sensitively arranges a series of glazed volumes around the Art Deco facade. Regarding the glass surfacing, Gensler project design director Elva Rubio, AIA, says the client decided the building’s civic face needed no decoration other than the activity inside.

Indeed, the Center on Halsted is a beehive. “In Chicago the community clearly said the building should be devoted not just to social services, not just programs that help fix people, but something that serves the whole life cycle,” says executive director Robbin Burr. “So we’ve expanded our programming to include recreation, education, and the arts.”To accommodate these uses, the top floor of the three-story building includes a double-height space devoted to black-box theater and other performances, while a similarly scaled volume clad in translucent fiberglass panels contains a gymnasium with a basketball court.

Robert Kohl, who chairs the center’s executive committee, explains that the remaining program was designed around a central corridor, with more visible groups placed along Halsted Street and discreet functions, such as counseling, located on the more private, east side of the interior.

Also heightening comfort, a set of doors between the grocery store and the center’s soaring lobby will remain open during working hours. “You can go between the Whole Foods and the center without going outdoors. I love that because we still have a number of people come to us who might otherwise feel uncomfortable,” Burr says.

The building was designed with future lifecycles in mind, too. Sustainable features include a tremendous hearth made from bricks recycled from the old parks building, and, in another first for Chicago, a rainwater harvesting system that will fill urinals and toilets. Gensler is aiming for a LEED rating of Silver—with a tinge of pink.