Barely a month after being named to Preservation Chicago’s annual list of the city’s “most endangered” buildings, the Warehouse — aka, the “birthplace” of House music — is on its way to becoming an official Chicago landmark.
A monumental show of support from “Househeads” around the world brought the building at 206 S. Jefferson Ave. to the attention of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which unanimously approved preliminary landmark status for the Warehouse on Thursday.
“What a magical place,” said Commissioner Tiara Hughes. “The cultural significance here is just mind-blowing.”
Though it’s the building’s exterior that will be landmarked, it’s what went on inside the modest three-story structure that’s notable.
The Warehouse opened in 1977, conceived as Chicago’s answer to New York City’s club scene. Owner Robert Williams recruited DJ Frankie Knuckles to make the move from the Big Apple to the Windy City, and the rest is history.
Picking up elements of disco, soul, jazz, funk and gospel, and adding beats, Knuckles invented what came to be known as House music — “House” a reference to the Warehouse.
“We didn’t know what we were witnessing,” said Joe Shanahan, owner of the Metro and Smart Bar, who gravitated to the Warehouse in its heyday. “Frankie was creating an entirely new genre ... a DJ who was shifting culture.”
“It’s hard to overstate the influence of the Warehouse and Knuckles,” said Matt Crawford of the Department of Planning and Development, who prepared the landmark report.
The influence of the Warehouse went well beyond the music that boomed from its sound system. At the time, its West Loop address was far from established entertainment districts, and the club’s underground status created “a safe place for marginalized Black and Brown and queer individuals when other outlets weren’t available,” said Frederick Dunson, a former Warehouse employee and president and executive director of the Frankie Knuckles Foundation.
The Warehouse closed in 1982 and the building fell off the radar until it was recently sold, with the real estate listing referencing a “development” opportunity.
It was that specter of demolition that led people like Michael Ball, who works in artist relations and runs a music studio, to rush to defend what he told the commission was like “the Vatican, the Mecca of House music.”
Avi Kamionski, an attorney, is one of the new owners and he assured the landmark commission that there’s no intent to tear down the building. The plan is to do an interior “refresh” and use it for office space, including for his own legal practice. The appeal of the building, Kamionski said, is its location opposite his alma mater, the Kent College of Law.
“We’d like to work with the commission on this issue,” he said. “It’s cool to hear about all the history of the building.”
While the perceived threat to the building’s existence may have been a false alarm, the attention Preservation Chicago brought to an overlooked piece of the city’s history was long overdue.
“The Warehouse is that perfect Chicago story. Now is the time to honor Knuckles and House sound,” said Max Chavez, Preservation Chicago’s director of research and special projects.
Even though there’s little if anything left of the Warehouse club — no dance floor remnants, Kamionski said — the building and what it represents is likely to become a touchstone, and tourist destination, for Househeads.
DJ Celeste Alexander, who counts Knuckles as one of her mentors, said Chicago is known around the world as the birthplace of House, but “we do not have a building, a place to give a starting point of its origin. The history of House music and culture should have a designation where people can see where it all began.”
The landmarks commission agreed.
Chairman Ernie Wong encouraged Kamionski to take advantage of city resources and explore the opportunity to incorporate a bit of House history into planned renovations, “something to really celebrate the history of this building and the significance of what happened here.”
Want to learn more about the history of House and Frankie Knuckles? Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation is hosting a daylong house party in Frankie’s honor, April 15, at Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., including tours of the Frankie Knuckles record collection exhibit, a screening of the short documentary “My Frankie,” and of course, DJ sets.