New fieldhouse for South Loop

By Patrick Smith

The southeast end of the South Loop will soon have a new community center, and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum will have to find a new home.

Last year, the city of Chicago purchased the building at 1801 S. Indiana Ave., the current home of the veterans’ art museum, and handed it over to the park district. The park district then designated the building as Park 550. Now, as part of the Neighborhoods Alive! program, the park district is turning the building into a fieldhouse to serve the Prairie District Neighborhood.

“It’s called a fieldhouse right now because it doesn’t have an official name yet,” said Tina Feldstein, president of the Prairie District Neighbors Alliance. “But … it’s becoming a community center.

The building is currently undergoing a conversion in three phases, the first of which will be a renovation of the first floor that is to be completed by January 2010. The center will then be developed “based on the desires of the community,” according to Feldstein.

Feldstein is also the treasurer of the brand new Park 550 Advisory Council, which she says was formed to ensure that the center does just that. The neighborhood alliance’s Treasurer Jeffrey Ayersman serves as the new council’s president.

The alliance conducted a survey of 512 adults in the area, asking them what they would most want out of a new field house.

In the survey, the amenity that respondents most wanted to be included in the center was a fitness center, with 37.4 percent of respondents saying they were “strongly interested” in it being a part of the center. The second most popular option was an indoor playground for toddlers.

About half of the residents represented in the survey have children, and more than half of those children are under the age of 5.

The first phase, already under way, will accommodate the neighborhood’s young families with a planned indoor play area for children with rubber surfaces. Along with the indoor playground, the first floor will have space for its own art gallery and will keep the existing Café Society coffee and sandwich shop that occupies the left-side of the building.

Today, the first floor is bare, with exposed wires and metal frames. The only remaining artifact from the relocated museum is a sign taped on the inside of one of the windows that reads, “Support Our Veterans.”

The museum was moved from the first floor to the third last June after the advisory council had its first meeting.

“Are we excited about it? We have no opinion,” said a spokesman for the museum, Ted Stanuga. Stanuga added that he didn’t think “the babysitters and yoga people” that the community center would attract potential visitors to the museum.

But, he said that the museum was looking at the future relocation as “a very positive step,” and that the board of directors was actively looking for a new space.

“They’d like to stay in Chicago,” Stanuga said.

According to Feldstein, the museum has another two-and-a-half years to find a new home before work begins on the third floor of the community center.

The museum will be looking for a new building with more parking space to accommodate its successful educational outreach program.

“Our educational outreach program was bringing up to 12,000 students into the museum every school year, and bringing all those buses in to the neighborhood is probably what got the neighborhood thinking about moving us out of there,” Stanuga said. “It was impossible, there’s no parking around here, so we need [a new facility] to accommodate that.”

Still, Stanuga does not seem pleased with being forced out of the building.

“Our friends,” he said sarcastically of the neighborhood alliance.

But Feldstein is excited about the new center and the new advisory council, which she said will be working closely with the park district “to make sure that the facility does reflect the needs of the community.” And the new center may better serve the growing Prairie District Neighborhood, which sits east of Michigan Avenue, just south of Soldier Field.

Across the street from the museum, a whole new building of condominiums called the Prairie District Lofts are for sale. Joshua Thomas, who was taking a tour of one of the lofts with his wife and two young children, said that a new community center would definitely make him more likely to move into the neighborhood.

“It would make me want to live here more,” Thomas said. “It would mean there would be more stuff to do.”