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The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Award for Architectural Excellence in Community Design, 2nd Place

Weese Langley Weese Architects Ltd for Grove Apartments

There’s what architects call “adaptive reuse” ... and then there’s total transformation. The panelized concrete box at the corner of Grove and Madison amid Oak Park’s onetime “Motor Row” — “remuddled” a while back into a cable TV office – gave no hint of its noble lineage. But when Interfaith Housing Development Corp. engaged Weese Langley Weese to see if the site had potential for supportive housing, Dennis Langley uncovered what was left of a masterpiece: the sturdy concrete bones and warm brick skin conceived originally by the late Albert Kahn, an American master of industrial design.

Turns out Kahn’s 1927 formula for a luxury car dealership had the skeletal strength to support two additional floors and 51 spacious apartments. Once those faux stucco panels were peeled away, a handsomely warm red brick façade emerged that would blend gracefully with the Edwardian single-family homes nearby on Grove Avenue. The blend-in factor was crucial in light of early NIMBY resistance to affordable rentals replacing what had been a vacant eyesore.

The transformation required heroic amounts of painstaking work and attention to detail. Half the building’s blockish backside was cleared away for a courtyard, for landscaped parking, and blessed sunshine. Out front, Kahn’s rock-solid cast-in-place piers were extended by two stories and trimmed with the same Indiana limestone as the original. Compatible brick was special-ordered, as were beveled-glass exterior doors like those called for in Kahn’s original drawings.

The old LaSalle dealership’s nearly floor-to-ceiling windows were continued on the two added floors so natural light fills the wide corridors and all 51 apartments, each divided into kitchen/bedroom/living areas as opposed to “studio” style.

In keeping with Madison Street’s commercial zoning, the first-floor auto showroom is leased to an organically-inclined coop grocery store.

“It was,” says architect Langley, “a matter of finding what was originally there ... and imagining how Kahn would have added those two extra stories.”