3647 South State Street, otherwise known as the Chicago Bee building, was home to the Bee newspaper between 1929 and its cancellation in 1947. The building fell into disuse and disrepair in the decades following World War II, but over the past twenty years has found new life as a branch for Chicago Public Library.
3647 South State Street.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia
During the Bee's early years, it was located alongside many of Anthony Overton's other entrepreneurial projects in the Overton Hygienic building. However, in order for the newspaper to develop further, Overton believed that it needed a building of its own to rival the impressive South Side offices of rival publications such as the Chicago Defender, which itself had moved into an impressive new site on South Indiana Avenue at the beginning of the 1920s. Overton had aspirations for the Bee to claim the Defender's title as Chicago's premier black newspaper. He believed that the development of a custom built site for the newspaper would play a central role in cementing it as a legitimate rival to the Defender's editorial crown.
Furthemore, Overton saw the Defender as a lower class affair which relied on sensationalism and the exploitation of reader fears and anxieties to help boost sales and circulation. By contrast, he envisioned the Bee as a more respectable organ - a sedate and sophisticated publication which 'would adhere to professional journalistic standards and appeal to middle-class, conservative black Chicagoans.' Accordingly, the building of the Bee would come to serve two purposes. It would simultaneously position Overton's publication as a legitimate competitor to the Defender's reputation as Chicago's premier black publication, while at the same time serving as a physical reminder of the newspaper's sophisticated editorial tone.
Z. Erol Smith architectural drawing of the BEE building, 1929.
Image courtesy of NPS
The result - a three-story Art Deco building designed by Z. Erol Smith to the tune of around $200,000, stood as a symbol for a successful and stylish black publishing enterprise. The building's architectural design was intended to reflect a specific image of black modernity and style - a physical manifestation of the urban culture and entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago's 'New Negroes', as described by scholars such as Davarian Baldwin.
On his excellent website Chicago Patterns, John Morris has suggested that the building's exterior terra cotta inlay was created by the Northwestern Terra Cotta company of Chicago. The company was a renowned trimmings company well used within the city's construction industry and by architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Its patterns can be found on a host of Chicago landmarks, including the Civic Opera House, the Chicago Theater, and the Wrigley Building.
Exterior of the Chicago Bee building.
Image courtesy of Chicago Patterns
Unfortunately, the construction of the Bee building coincided with the onset of the Great Depression, and Overton's businesses suffered. The Bee was the sole occupant of 3647 South State Street for a short period of time before the Overton Hygienic Company also moved into the building following the failure of Overton's bank. The newspaper also suffered from the departure of influential editors such as James Gentry, who defected to the Defender during 1932.
When it was constructed, the Bee building was presented as a crown jewel in the vibrant South State street corridor which had emerged as the center of Bronzeville and life in the South Side's "Black Metropolis" during the early twentieth century. However, as the focus for black business and entertainment shifted further South towards the intersection of 47th Street and South Parkway, the building became increasingly isolated. Following Overton's death and the demise of the Bee in the 1940s the building fell into disrepair - a fate that was mirrored by nearby institutions such as the Wabash Avenue YMCA at 3763 South Wabash, which closed its doors in 1969. After Overton Hygienic finally went under during the 1980s the Bee building became vacant.
In a 1993 article for the Chicago Reader, Adam Langer painted a pessimistic image of the building's future. Between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the population of the mid-South Side had almost halved, and over half of its residents lived below the poverty line. When the Chicago Bee building had been completed, it was intended to be seen as a symbol for the vibrant black independent business community on the South Side.
However, by the time Overton Hygienic had disbanded in the early 1980s, the area had been decimated by deindustrialisation and the disintegration of minority enterprise. Langer estimated that nearly 1/3 of the land was vacant or abandoned, and prominent landmarks such as the Chicago Bee building and the Eighth Regiment Armory had suffered considerably from "the ravages of time, weather, vandals, and brick thieves."
Chicago Bee Building, circa 1985.
Image courtesy of NPS
Grassroots efforts to help redevelop the State Street corridor led to the Chicago Bee building being added to the National Register of Historic Properties in 1986 - an important act in helping to secure the building's long-term future. During the 1990s community based organisations such as the Mid-South Planning Group pushed for the development of a Black Metropolis Historic District. A central part of the Group's plans included the rehabilitation of the Bee building as a branch of Chicago Public Library. Following years of hard work, half-promises and frustrating delays, the restored Bee building was officially opened as a branch of Chicago Public Library in May 1996.
The afterlife of the building - as an important educational and civic centre, and as part of the developing Black Metropolis Historic District - is striking given that it could easily have suffered the same fate endured by many of the area's buildings in the decades following World War II. A large number of historically significant building's along the South State corridor were razed as part of urban renewal and land clearance programmes during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which was completed in 1961, had a particularly damaging effect, with the highway cutting straight through the heart of many black communities. Thanks in large part to the efforts made by grassroots coalitions and organisations such as the Mid-South Planning Group, the Chicago Bee building has been saved. Today, it remains an important civic hub for local communities.
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