Are the endangered Century and Consumer buildings headed toward landmark status?
Let’s hope so. It would be a better fate than the federal government’s plan to demolish the structures for a security plaza.
The Century and Consumers buildings, two vacant downtown skyscrapers that are shamefully rotting away and now targeted for demolition by the federal government, might soon gain a powerful advocate.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks has asked the city’s Department of Planning to work on creating a landmark designation report on the early 20th century buildings, located at 202 and 220 S. State St.
This is key because, traditionally, creation of the reports is almost always a first step toward granting landmark status to a site.
“I think there’s a lot of examination that has to be done,” the commission’s chairman, Ernest Wong, said this month at a hearing on the buildings.
For a while now, we — along with the town’s leading preservationists — have said the federal government’s plan to wreck the buildings to create a security plaza for the Dirksen Federal Building is a senseless affront to architectural preservation, and also to efforts to make State Street more viable.
So it’s great to see the commission and the city weigh in. Both are important voices with enough weight to possibly change the outcome for the two buildings.
To raze — or reuse?
The commission requested the preparation of a landmarks designation report after a July 7 meeting on the Century and Consumers buildings.
During the meeting, Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief federal judge of the Northern District of Illinois, spoke about the case for demolition and said the buildings’ west windows look directly into judges’ chambers, creating a security concern.
Pallmeyer said wrecking the near-dilapidated buildings would improve State Street.
“We recognize, again, that this is an issue that draws a lot of attention, but we think there really are benefits to a proposal that would eliminate those buildings, particularly for State Street,” she said.
What Pallmeyer conveniently omitted is that the buildings are in bad condition because the federal government bought the site years ago and let it waste away by keeping the properties from being redeveloped.
The two skyscrapers were designed by the city’s leading architecture firms of the day. Jenny, Mundie & Jensen designed the Consumers Building, completed in 1913. Holabird & Roche’s Century Building was built in 1915.
The issue of the buildings’ fate came to a head beginning last spring when U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., earmarked $52 million to demolish the buildings.
“But those security concerns are real,” Durbin wrote in an April 26 letter to the Sun-Times. “Federal courthouses and those who work there are targets. That is why the federal government acquired these buildings in the first place.”
In the wake of the earmark, one of the leading voices for saving the buildings, Preservation Chicago, proposed turning the structures into a limited-access archives center for religious orders and other organizations.
Preservation Chicago Executive Director Ward Miller said he wants the General Services Administration, the federal agency that owns the site, to let his group get inside the buildings.
“There hasn’t been a space for robust conversation in the past,” Miller said. “It’s the GSA giving directives.”
A better outcome is needed
The stance by the landmarks commission, and the Lightfoot administration by proxy, represents a potential turnaround from the city’s position just three years ago.
That’s when Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Planning and Development — citing the feds’ security issues — walked away from a deal hatched under Mayor Rahm Emanuel to buy the buildings from the GSA and sell them to developer CA Ventures.
The company would have converted the 22-story Consumers Building into 270 micro-apartments, while turning the 16-story Century Building into 159 studio and one-bedroom units.
Shame on both the feds and the locals for forcing this $141 million plan to go bust.
But hopefully today is a new day. Would a city landmark designation — on its face — prevent the federal government from razing the buildings?
Likely not. It could lead to a standoff that ends with the federal government using its power to bigfoot over the city’s wishes.
Or — and this is what we want to see — landmarking the buildings could bring the judges, the city, the GSA and that $52 million earmark to the table to work out something that leads to these buildings being properly redeveloped.
That’s what Chicago and downtown really need.
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