Preservationist places faith in plan for State Street buildings

A proposal to revive the buildings adjacent to the federal complex is being developed, with hope that it will satisfy concerns about safety.

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The buildings at 202 and 220 S. State St., situated close to the Dirksen Federal Building.

The buildings at 202 and 220 S. State St., situated close to the Dirksen Federal Building.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

Ward Miller, in a manner of speaking, is on a mission from God.

Mind you, Miller does not claim an endorsement from the Almighty in the task before him as executive director of Preservation Chicago, a group that argues for the merit and reuse of our town’s architectural heritage. But many might see it that way as they learn the details of his latest cause.

Preservation Chicago has had its hits and misses, like any advocacy group. It tends to get under the skin of developers who, in relentless pursuit of “highest and best use” for real estate and cash, find it easier to consign old buildings to landfills. Miller, who can be imagined carrying a mighty staff of authority, finds himself in a new “save these buildings” crusade. Except that he’s not seeking justice from the throne of private enterprise. This time, his appeal is to the federal government.

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Miller wants to rescue the two early 20th-century high-rises at 202 and 220 S. State St. They are skinny buildings that long ago appealed to small shops and professional firms, but the floor layouts are poor for workplaces today. The ornamented buildings have been empty for years and have deteriorated.

The federal government owns them and wants them destroyed because they back up against the Dirksen Federal Building, 219 S. Dearborn St., and those floors, occupied or not, mean a security risk. Some windows look out onto judges’ chambers and jury rooms.

Miller believes he has a solution for preservation and safety. The buildings could be renovated as a collaborative archives center, mostly for religious orders or similar groups. He contends there is actual demand for this unusual use and can cite support to back that up.

“Archives don’t need direct sunlight. In fact, sunlight is bad for records,” he said. The problematic windows at 202 and 220 S. State, known respectively as the Century and the Consumers buildings, could be sealed off or bricked over.

It’s a possible answer to an issue that has vexed city and federal agencies for years. Security concerns killed a plan former Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed to convert the buildings to small apartments.

The argument about the buildings hit the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, where all thoughtful debates should occur. Our architecture critic, Lee Bey, on April 2 wrote the feds would be irresponsible if they tore down the buildings. They are part of State Street’s qualification for the National Register of Historic Places and demolition would waste good architecture, Bey wrote.

His piece drew a tart reply from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who defended his $52 million earmark to take down the high-rises, plus two low-rises in between. Durbin said the security threat was real to federal workers in Chicago. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he’s attentive to this problem.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Malachy McCarthy, archivist at the Claretian Missionaries in Chicago, has worked with Miller on his idea. McCarthy said several communities of the Franciscan Order are committed to the project or interested. The Episcopal Church archives in Austin, Texas, need a permanent home and leaders there are listening to pitches about the project, he said.

Centralized archives mean cost sharing for religious orders that want to care for their records, some older than the country itself, and yet are challenged by an aging membership, McCarthy said. “This archives center could be a treasure trove for serious urban research and scholarly work,” he said.

Miller and McCarthy said a suburban university might take space in the buildings. Other users could include museums or private collections. JLK Architects and the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti have been helping the project, they said.

The General Services Administration manages federal property. In a statement, the GSA said it “will engage with potential consulting parties and evaluate viable alternatives” for the buildings as part of a review required by the National Historic Preservation Act. It said it expects public meetings to start in late summer.

Miller said he hopes the meetings will make more Chicagoans appreciate the buildings.

“They represent the Chicago School of Architecture and that whole period of the early skyscraper that made Chicago known around the world,” he said. The strongly vertical designs by two seminal architecture firms — Holabird and Roche for 202 S. State and Jenney, Mundie & Jensen for 220 S. State — were transitional buildings hinting at the Art Deco age to come, he said.

The Chicago Loop Alliance, representing downtown businesses, is rooting for the preservationists, said its CEO, Michael Edwards.

There are a lot of independent groups to wrangle here, and religious orders will need to make financial commitments. If this works, call it divine intervention on a civic matter. We could use more of that in these parts.

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