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Gary C. Comer Youth Center

John Ronan Architect

Shared By

Xululabs, Xululabs

Project Name

Gary C. Comer Youth Center

Project Status



74,000 sq. feet

Construction Cost



Gary C. Comer


  • Structural Engineer: Arup
  • Electrical Engineer: CCJM Engineers
  • : CCJM Engineers
  • Plumbing Engineer: CCJM Engineers
  • Civil Engineer: Terra Engineering
  • Landscape Architect: Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture
  • Kirkegaard & Associates
  • Lighting Designer: Charter Sills & Associates
  • DB Integrated Systems
  • Cini-Little International

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Project Description

Three teens huddled against a bracing winter's rain make their way down South Chicago Avenue, a big two-way street that cuts through Chicago's Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood. The avenue used to be an industrial hub on the city's South Side. The mills and foundries that once crowded the street are largely gone. The trio walks past empty, fenced-off lots and unused buildings. But the kids break into a half-sprint as they cross Ingleside Avenue and enter the Gary C. Comer Youth Center, a colorful beacon rising from the tough, gray street. Its checkerboard façade of red, blue, and silver metallic panels jumps out from the surrounding brick and frame houses. The center's rectangular 74,000-squarefoot mass is topped by an 80-foot steel-framed tower with a scrolling LED sign that proudly announces what's happening inside. No other building in Chicago—or anywhere else, for that matter—looks quite like it. “There wasn't a real model for this,” says the building's architect, John Ronan, principal of the eponymous Chicago firm, during a walk-through on this rainy afternoon. “No prototype. It wasn't really an auditorium, it wasn't really a community center, and it wasn't really a recreation building. It was all those things and a little bit more.” The $30 million center was funded by Gary C. Comer, philanthropist and founder of Lands' End, who grew up a few blocks north of the center. He died last October at age 78, just months after the building's May 2006 dedication. Originally, Comer's plan was to build a headquarters for one local arts group, the South Shore Drill Team & Performing Arts Ensemble. Founded in 1980, the drill team has performed its stylized dance routines and synchronized rifle tosses for audiences around the world. But it had no home of its own, so its members—now 300 strong—practiced in local schools, churches, and warehouses. “He asked what I needed for the drill team, and I told him we needed a facility to practice in,” says Arthur Robertson, the team's director and founder, referring to Comer. “At the time, we were looking to find a warehouse and gut it and fix it up. And we did look at some places. Then [Comer] said, ‘We're just going to build you a facility.'” The center's mission expanded as Comer realized that Greater Grand Crossing needed an adequate community center, a theater, and a space for indoor recreation. Comer founded Lands' End (the errant apostrophe became part of its trademark) in 1962. What began as a small mail-order sailboat equipment business grew into a company that was worth nearly $2 billion when Sears, Roebuck & Co. bought it in 2002. A billionaire ranked among America's 400 richest people by Forbes, Comer never forgot his old neighborhood. He bought computers and uniforms and paid college tuition for students from his alma mater, Paul Revere Elementary School, located one block east of the center. Comer also built affordable homes in the area. In 2001, he and his wife, Frances, made a gift to found the Comer Children's Hospital at the nearby University of Chicago. But the youth center would be the philanthropic venture closest to his heart. From the beginning, in 2003, Comer was intimately involved in every phase of the center's design. After meeting Ronan—who had designed a striking elementary-school building for the Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago—Comer picked his small, 10-year-old practice over larger and more established architecture firms. “Gary [was] one of the richest people in the world, but you'd never know it if you met him,” Ronan says. “Very down to earth. He liked personal attention. He wanted to work with somebody and not get fobbed off on minions. He called four or five other people, and I think he found them to be pretentious.” Ronan acted as both architect and traffic cop as he fielded requests from Comer, neighborhood residents, Revere students, the drill team, and the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration, whose graduate interns do outreach work in the neighborhood. Neighborhood youth, fearing drive-by shootings, wanted the center to be largely windowless. Comer wanted separate auditorium and gymnasium buildings—in brick. Robertson wanted office space that overlooked the drill floor. Ronan responded with expanses of bulletproof glass and, instead of the brick that Comer urged, 8-foot-long color tiles made of glass fiber–reinforced concrete. In the end, Comer liked them so much that he asked that they be made brighter. “I'd seen a [youth] center before, but I'd never seen one with a whole bunch of colors on the outside,” says Briana Jamison, 13, a flag girl for the drill team. “It was, like, ‘Come join.'” Rather than build a separate gymnasium and auditorium, Ronan designed a single three-story-high convertible space. With the push of a few buttons, walls move, panels slide, and the gym becomes a theater: 640 padded seats slide out of a wall. (“I'd never seen anything like that,” Christopher Watkins, 12, marvels.) The finished center also has classrooms, a recording studio, a conference space, a computer center, a dance studio, a homework help center, a weight room, and a comfortably furnished recreation area with pool and foosball tables. Orbiting the gym/theater, many of these rooms—including Robertson's office—offer views into it. A practice area apart from the main gym has ceilings high enough to accommodate the drill team's rifle and flag tosses. The parking lot, with lanes marked off for the team to march, doubles as a staging area. “One day Gary called me and said, ‘John, I think we need to add a third story to the building,'” Ronan says, laughing. “And at that point, we didn't know what was going on the first two floors. He said, ‘I know we can do this. We'll make it work. I think we'll be sorry later if we don't do it.' And he was right.” On the third floor is an enclosed, fully irrigated rooftop garden—the roof of the gymnasium/auditorium—whose bounty of vegetables and herbs is cooked in the center's kitchen. Meals are served in a 300-seat cafeteria that overlooks the gym. On a recent visit, a small group of kids had gathered in the cafeteria to learn about nutrition, while the gym below hosted a vigorous game of refereed basketball. “They didn't have to build this place for us,” says 13-year-old Paige Starks, a Revere student who attends the center after school. “But they did.” Lee Bey is a Chicago-based critic, professor, and adviser on architecture and urbanism.
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