Related Midwest Blog

Reclaimed Wood from Lathrop Community Transformed into Usable Public Art

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Visit Chicago’s riverside Lathrop community today and you might notice two large logs placed in the shade facing the Great Lawn. You might see residents or passersby seated on the public artworks, chatting with friends or meeting someone new. These “mega-chaise lounges” are new to the property, but the wood they are made from has a long history at Lathrop. 

When famous landscape artist Jens Jensen designed Lathrop’s outdoor space—the Great Lawn—he added a number of trees and other plants to create a lush, shaded area surrounding the housing community. Julia C. Lathrop Homes opened along the Chicago River in the late 1930s, and were renowned not only for being one of the first public housing communities in Chicago, but also for providing a natural oasis within the city center thanks to Jensen’s work. 

Related Midwest successfully renovated Lathrop while preserving the property’s legacy and creating a mixed-income community with modern amenities. This required removing some of the property’s original trees to accommodate a necessary fire lane and resident parking. However, to honor Jensen’s legacy, Related wanted to ensure the felled trees had a second life. The Lathrop team joined forces with Chicago artists Erik Peterson and Bryan Saner to dream up a way to use the beautiful logs.

Erik, Bryan, and Related agreed on the idea of keeping the logs as close to their natural form as possible while creating sculptural outdoor seating for Lathrop residents to enjoy. The woodworkers sanded down the trees and carved seats into the wood, building four chaise lounges—two of which are extra-large at 12 and 13 feet long. The chaises embrace the curvy, wild shapes of the trees that grew here and allow Lathrop residents and guests to feel like they are surrounded by nature despite living in the middle of Chicago. 

“To carve the chaises, we had to sit on them while working so we had to get to know the logs,” says Erik. “Bryan and I really listened to the logs and tried to keep their true form, but we also created comfortable seats for us humans.”

Erik and Bryan worked on the project with a small team including Anjal Chande and Bluestem Building & Restoration---a business run out of the Lathrop woodshop.

The four chaises were recently installed at Lathrop and within minutes of their installation, they already had their first visitor: a Lathrop resident named Mary who had been watching Erik and the Bluestem team place the log from her window. She was soon joined by another resident, Ali. The two met each other for the first time because of the chaises—a testament to the community-building power of adding public art to the Lathrop grounds. 

The rest of the trees felled by Lathrop’s renovation are also being transformed into something new for the community. Instead of sending the logs to the wood chipper, which might have been more cost-effective, Related asked Bryan and Erik to build a nature playground for the nearby Mary Crane Early Childhood Center, and had most of the trees milled into boards and live-edge slabs that could be used in future woodworking projects and community events. 

Bryan and Erik say the reuse of the trees as public art is a testament to Related’s commitment to renewal and preserving the ethos of the original Lathrop community. 

“These chaises serve as souvenirs to the first generation of Lathrop Homes. They are reminders of the passion that people brought to ensure that Lathrop was preserved as a mixed-income community,” Bryan says. “The trees preserve the past while creating something new for future Chicagoans—just like the development of Lathrop, which will now be home to new generations of people and trees.”