Gary Comer Youth Center
The Gary Comer Youth Center is a colorful beacon of hope in its neighborhood.
Its bold, bright walls provide a safe and flexible space for a wide range of youth activities. Its innovative design and community programs won it global acclaim as a model for enriching the lives of young people in the city.
Hope in Pocket Town
Pocket Town is a tough Southside neighborhood. This isolated section of Grand Crossing is bounded by railroad tracks and a cemetery. Because the area lacks significant community institutions, the neighborhood youth have few good options for activities.
Gary Comer, founder of clothing retailer Lands’ End, was born and raised in Pocket Town. In his later years, he donated a portion of his considerable wealth back to the community. In 2004, he set about building a new home for the South Shore Drill Team, which was one of the few strong youth programs in the neighborhood at the time.
Designed to Make Change
Comer hired architect John Ronan, and the two began to collaborate on a project that grew dramatically. Their building ultimately cost $30 million and today provides far more than just a home for the South Shore Drill Team.
The boxy, cantilevered masses and colorful walls of the Gary Comer Youth Center enliven the area. Since it opened in 2006, hundreds have benefited from its programs.
The Youth Center’s welcoming exterior includes:
- Brightly colored concrete panels that are cheerful and easily replaced if damaged, though to date none have needed repair.
- An 80-foot tower supports an LED sign announcing upcoming programs.
- Ample windows above the ground floor give the building an open appearance and plenty of interior light, while maintaining security.
The building is wrapped around a flexible interior space that can be used as a gym, a practice space or a performance hall. The cafeteria, classrooms, community center and library are all designed to easily adapt to meet future needs. The building’s rooftop garden mitigates its environmental impact, serves as an outdoor classroom and provides both work and produce for participating youth.
In 2007, the Center and Ronan won a Distinguished Building Award from the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).