New landmark survey overdue to protect Chicago’s architectural and cultural heritage

A new survey would help save more historic buildings and assist efforts to bring more landmark-based economic incentives to historic but economically challenged areas.

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An updated Chicago Resources Survey could include Pride Cleaners, a postwar treasure at 558 E. 79th St.

Lee Bey/Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side

There’s been some good thinking by the Lightfoot administration as of late regarding the landmarking of buildings, particularly the relatively quick march toward an official designation for Mamie and Emmett Till’s home.

So what’s a fitting encore for 2021? The city should — finally — commission a long overdue update of its 25-year-old Chicago Historic Resources Survey, a catalogue of 17,000 buildings and structures that has proven to be a valuable tool in helping city officials and preservationists determine if a site is worthy of landmark status.

The color-coded survey is essentially a “book of life” for Chicago structures built before 1940. A building at the two highest ratings of red and orange can be placed on the path toward a landmark designation.

And the city can issue a 90-day hold on a demolition permit sought for a non-landmarked red- or orange-rated building. During the hold period, city officials can decide if a building is worthy of landmark status.

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But the current survey doesn’t include buildings and sites constructed after 1940. It also overlooks scores of potentially historic South and West side locations and structures, including the 125-year-old Till residence, which should have earned a spot on the survey based its age alone.

A new survey would fix these wrongs and help save more historic buildings. And given that designated buildings can be eligible for things such as historic tax credits for rehabs and property tax freezes — critical in historic but economically challenged areas — it’s essential the Lightfoot administration and the Department of Planning push for a new and far more comprehensive resources survey.

A more accurate account is needed

You can find Pride Cleaners, a radical-looking midcentury modern building with an angled, hyperbolic paraboloid roof — one of the few in Chicago — at 79th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue in the Chatham neighborhood.

But you won’t find it in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. Built in 1959 with a seamless addition in 1966, the building was barely out of its teens when work on the survey began in 1983. Pride Cleaners was part of a significant class of buildings across the city that were too young, then, to be considered historic.

Pride Cleaners is just past 60 years old now, more than a full decade beyond the customary 50-year mark when buildings are often considered for landmark status. A new survey would include Pride Cleaners, adding the structure to a pool of historic buildings potentially eligible to be designated.

Survey listings currently include the year of construction, address, architect — Gerald Siegwart in Pride Cleaners’ case — and the yellow/green/orange/red color rating, which is valuable information for those looking to bring obscure buildings to light.

An updated survey would give a more accurate account of Chicago’s historic buildings by including other midcentury structures. If the cut-off year were moved from 1940 to 1975, the new survey would include iconic structures such as SOM’s John Hancock Center from 1971, the 110-story Willis Tower, completed in 1973, and architect Harry Weese’s Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, built in 1968 at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue.

Potentially ‘hundreds’ of new sites

The Till family’s modest two-flat at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. wasn’t designed by a prominent architect, nor is it a groundbreaking design. And the historic event to which the building is associated — the grisly 1955 murder of young Emmett Till that further catalyzed the Civil Rights movement — happened in the Mississippi Delta, more than 650 miles south of the home.

But the building is landmark-worthy nonetheless. And a new survey, with surveyors looking at the city with fresh eyes, could include more everyday and ordinary places and spaces like these where historic events nonetheless, happened.

“We don’t have a record of the full extent of actual sites tied to the African American and Latino experience. I suspect that there are hundreds of sites, and we don’t know where they are,” Department of Planning Commissioner Maurice Cox said at a hearing for the Till designation in September.

For instance, Curtom, the record company and recording studio formed in 1968 by singer Curtis Mayfield, is long gone. But the single-story brick building that once housed the legendary enterprise sits there in near anonymity, looking pretty much as it did when Mayfield owned it, at 8543 S. Stony Island Avenue.

A new survey is in order, and we acknowledge that doing it right won't be cheap. The current survey was done for $1.2 million, which is equal to nearly $3 million today, and required more than 20 surveyors to fan out across the city and document the buildings.

This is no small task.

But it’s an important one.

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