Permanent Home for the North Lawndale Employment Network in Chicago

The completion of the first permanent campus for the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN), designed by Wheeler Kearns Architects, was celebrated with an Open House on August 26, 2021. Held on-site at 1111 South Homan Avenue, the event included a ribbon-cutting and was attended by prominent local officials including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Alderman Michael Scott Jr.

Courtesy Wheeler Kearns Architects. Photo by Tom Harris.

This adaptive reuse project saw the former Community Bank of Lawndale, the first African American-owned bank in the neighborhood, transformed into a vibrant community hub. The design is driven by NLEN’s aim to create a connection between the site and the community, supporting its residents with pathways to economic prosperity. In front of NLEN’s main entry, a former parking lot has been transformed into a landscaped public plaza. On the first floor, a one-story glass addition houses the Beelove Café, which offers healthy fresh foods for sale through a partnership with the local nonprofit Inspiration Kitchens. The café serves as a central gathering place, as well as a common space between the building’s programs. A walk-up window visible from the sidewalk welcomes passers-by. Inside, peek-through windows offer a glimpse into the production space for Sweet Beginnings, an urban apiary enterprise NLEN launched in 2004 that offers full-time transitional employment while also financing the nonprofit through selling honey products. Sweet Beginnings maintains five beehives on the roof of the renovated drive-through of its community bank partner, Wintrust Bank. A glass door at the café serves as an entrance to the bank, offering NLEN’s clients easy access to their services. The balance of the building includes NLEN’s administrative offices, training rooms, a computer lab, and a dedicated space for community events, such as town halls, yoga classes, and live music.

Originally built in 1983, the 20,000 square foot bank building was designed for security, with thick walls, few windows, and perimeter fencing. For Wheeler Kearns Architects, this posed a key design challenge for accommodating a people-oriented enterprise: how to create an inviting structure with a sense of transparency and welcome. Highlights of the design interventions include:

  • Adding new windows and an expansive glass bay window entry to the Beelove Café along the main street frontage, while removing any trace of the security fencing.
  • Visually connecting Sweet Beginnings’ central production space, encircled with gold-colored walls and windows, with the surrounding café, bank, and entry lobby.
  • Showcasing the neighborhood’s history with archival materials, such as a second-floor photo montage honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who briefly lived in the North Lawndale neighborhood in 1966.

Creating new green spaces, both inside and out. The building’s entrance plaza, populated with native plantings and ample seating, offers much-needed community green space. Once inside, a moss wall greets visitors in the lobby. Connected to the adjacent community room, a new walled Peace Garden offers a sanctuary for collective healing. Enhanced by the sounds of a fountain, plantings are surrounded by stone pavers and brick plaques recognizing donors and memorializing local individuals lost to gun violence.

Local philanthropists recognized the vital community work NLEN performs by naming their new headquarters project as one of six finalists in the 2020 Chicago Prize. NLEN has been an invaluable resource to Chicago’s West Side for two decades, helping its clients, which include citizens returning from incarceration and others facing financial hardship, to advance economically with training programs and resources. Sweet Beginnings alone has served over 500 clients, who have seen a 75% increase in their monthly income. The new headquarters will allow NLEN to serve 5,000 people annually, doubling its prior capacity. The 50% increase in Sweet Beginnings’ production space will provide for 100 new transitional jobs over five years, while adding six permanent local positions.

Courtesy Wheeler Kearns Architects. Photo by Tom Harris.

Larry Kearns, FAIA, Principal at Wheeler Kearns Architects, comments that “The design reanimates the building as a place for connecting people, which is at the heart of NLEN’s mission. Most important, Sweet Beginning’s production space is at its center, which aptly conveys the values of the organization.”

Manny Garcia, AIA, Project Architect at Wheeler Kearns Architects, comments that “Launching and, more importantly, completing this project is a true testament to the unwavering dedication of a small group of individuals committed to raising the quality of life of everyone around them. NLEN set the bar high and all of Chicago is recognizing that the future is shining bright for the South and West Side.”

NLEN’s President and CEO, Brenda Palms Barber, reflected that “Working closely with Wheeler Kearns Architects to realize our vision for designing a beautiful and inspiring campus for the residents of North Lawndale, was a critically important and right decision. Transforming a former bank building into a bright, open, and welcoming workforce campus and cafe required an extraordinary commitment, an abundance of creativity and talent, and a sincere passion for advancing our mission of creating pathways to training and good middle-wage jobs. “

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