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Restoring the Glory of This Iconic Chicago ‘Black Metropolis’ Building

The Overton Hygienic Building will soon house an assortment of businesses, as it did in its heyday during the period of the Great Migration. (Photo by Audrey F. Henderson)

In the heart of Bronzeville, on Chicago’s near South Side, around 20 folks bundled in coats, hats and scarves gathered on the first floor of the iconic Overton Hygienic Building. Photos and graphics lined the walls, which were stripped to bare plaster and exposed brick. On one table sat a cardboard representation titled “The Shotgun Shack/House,” covered with cutout slogans and photos. D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 film, “The Birth of a Nation,” played in a continuous loop, projected directly onto the bare wall opposite the entrance.

They were all there on Nov. 30, 2018, for the closing reception of “Art and Social Justice: Examining the State of Our Environment,” a pop-up exhibition organized by Phantom Gallery Chicago Network. The month-long multimedia exhibition featured contributions from participating curators Renee Baker, Felicia Grant Preston, Paola Aguirre Serrano and Paula Robinson; along with artists Duane Preston, Renard Preston, Ciera L, Preston, Jihad El Amin, Toussaint Werner, Michael “Koto” Thomas, Walter Freeman, Larissa Johnson and Rhonda Hardy.

The venue was no random selection. In its heyday, the Overton building housed a thriving variety of black-owned commercial and civic improvement ventures, under the direction of legendary African-American entrepreneur Anthony Overton.

“Of all the black business pioneers, Overton is my historical business mentor,” says Paula Robinson, who, in addition to curating part of the exhibition, serves as president of Bronzeville Community Development Partnership. “[Overton’s] civic entrepreneurial vision set the bar. State Street was our ‘Black Wall Street’.”

Born under the tail-end of slavery on March 21, 1865, in Monroe, La., Overton was educated at Washburn College and earned a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Kansas. He worked as an attorney before establishing the Hygienic Manufacturing Company in Kansas City in 1898. In 1911, Overton moved his operations to the south side of Chicago, manufacturing toiletries and baking powder. He eventually launched the High-Brown label of fine cosmetics and fragrances for women of color.

In 1922, Overton commissioned architect Z. Erol Smith to design and construct his namesake building. The brick and terra cotta structure housed Overton’s cosmetics and household goods manufacturing operations, along with the Victory Life Insurance Company, Douglass National Bank and the Northern Realty Company.

Overton also published the Chicago Bee newspaper, a rival to the legendary Chicago Defender, in the nearby Chicago Bee Building, which he commissioned in 1929 despite the imminent onset of the Great Depression. The Art Deco-influenced Chicago Bee building now houses a branch of the Chicago Public Library.

Overton’s endeavors were typical of the explosion of business innovation and growth during the Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow South. As in many Northern cities, Chicago’s African American population increased exponentially, from approximately 50,000 in 1910 to nearly 300,000 in 1930.

The “Black Metropolis” in Chicago operated as part of a bustling “city within a city,” developed largely out of necessity during a period when racism and redlining limited African Americans to live only in a rigidly restricted area — also known as “the Black Belt” — along a relatively narrow strip on the South Side of Chicago. The African-American businesses and enterprises located within Chicago’s Black Metropolis provided essential services, cultural attractions and entertainment.

In subsequent decades, however, the Overton Hygienic building fell into disrepair. The Davis Group now owns the 32,000-square foot building, renovating it in 2007 and sparing it from potential demolition. The budget of $8 million for the restoration effort was funded from several sources, including Historic Tax Credits, New Markets Tax Credits, developer equity and conventional financing.

Today, the Overton Hygienic Building and the Chicago Bee building are recognized as icons within Bronzeville. Both buildings, along with the Chicago Defender Building, the Wabash Avenue YMCA Building, Unity Hall, the Supreme Life Building, the Sunset Café, the Eighth Regiment Armory and the Victory Monument were granted Chicago landmark status as part of the Black Metropolis District in 1998.

In 2008, Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) introduced a bill in Congress, the “Black Metropolis District National Heritage Area Study Act,” though the bill was never enacted. Robinson and others continue to pursue National Heritage Area status for the Black Metropolis region, similar to the National Monument designation granted to the Pullman neighborhood located on Chicago’s far South Side by the National Park Service in 2015.

Meanwhile, the Davis Group, along with real estate consulting firm FP Commercial Advisors, are presently fitting out the Overton Building for eventual occupancy as incubator space. Although Overton likely never used the term, incubator development is entirely in keeping with the original use of the building, according to Lauren Lowery, principal and managing broker at Finders Plus Real Estate and FP Commercial Advisors.

“That’s exactly what it was. [African-Americans] incubated businesses, and [Overton] incubated his own businesses. He had banks inside, he’s got cosmetics inside. If you talk to historians what you’ll also find is that there might have been a few illegal things happening in that building,” Lowery says. “Black people needed to make money. He recognized that.”

Presently, the family-owned and operated Davis Group, along with FP Commercial Advisors, is evaluating potential tenants. The goal is to obtain tenants that are compatible with the mission of the building, along with being financially viable, according to Lowery.

“The building owners … recognize the historic value of the building and the fact that the building did incubate small businesses and large businesses back in its day. So that component is a really, really critical issue,” Lowery says. “They’re not going to approve just anyone, however — they are business owners, we’re not giving the space away.”

Lowery expects final tenant determinations should be made within the next several weeks, with tenants moving into the building during 2019.

“We have a lot of ranges of different business uses, all of which we’re really excited about,” says Lowery. “What we do recognize is that we have fantastic stakeholders within a block of this piece of property. We want to make sure that all of these people could benefit. They (the owners) believe they have a responsibility to the original developers of that building, to Mr. Overton. They really want to do their best to make it vibrant, to make it useful for everyone in the corridor — [and] not just in the corridor, but all of Chicago.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.

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