City landmarks panel backs review of State Street buildings that feds say are security risk

The members act after getting a petition from more than 22,000 people who voiced support for saving the early 20th century structures, setting up a potential show down with the federal government over security concerns for the nearby Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

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The Consumers Building, 220 S. State St., (left), and the Century Building (right), 202 S. State St.

The Consumers Building, 220 S. State St., (left), and the Century Building (right), 202 S. State St., would be demolished by the federal government as part of a security plan for the neighboring Dirksen Federal Building.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Moving toward a potential standoff with the federal government, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voiced tentative support Thursday for preserving two State Street buildings that the U.S. District Court here wants to tear down for security reasons.

The panel asked city staffers to prepare a report that could lead to official landmark designation for the buildings, at 202 and 220 S. State St. The vote came after the panel received a petition signed by more than 22,000 people supporting preservation of the two early 20th century buildings.

The federal government owns the buildings, which abut the Dirksen Federal Building. Congress has appropriated $52 million to tear down the buildings, but preservationists argue they contribute to State Street’s character and that demolition would hurt a stretch of the historic retail corridor.

Despite hearing from Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois, about the case for demolition, the panel unanimously directed city staff to prepare a “preliminary summary of information” about the properties. The report could lead to the commission recommending landmark designation to the City Council in a few months.

Observers said it’s doubtful any city landmark designation, which ordinarily bars a building from being wrecked, would bind the federal government. But it could build public pressure on behalf of the buildings, which are vacant and in poor shape.

The group Preservation Chicago, which organized the petition drive, has proposed that the buildings become a cooperative archives center for religious orders and other organizations. It has cited backing for the idea from 20 religious orders and Dominican University in River Forest.

The plan would offer controlled access to the buildings and minimize any security threat to the courthouse, said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.

Ernest Wong, a landscape architect who chairs the landmarks panel, said the buildings are important components of State Street and that alternatives for saving them should be explored. “I think there’s a lot of examination that has to be done,” he said.

Other members expressed agreement.

Pallmeyer, however, told the panel, “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 the buildings have made their block of State “somewhat moribund” and that removing them would allow improved pedestrian access to the Dirksen building from the east.

The primary concern is that some of the State Street buildings’ windows look directly into judicial chambers or jury rooms. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., earmarked the money for the demolition, citing the federal judiciary’s security worries.

Because the buildings are within part of downtown on the National Trust of Historic Places, the government has to hold hearings about alternatives to demolition. The hearings are expected to start this summer. Pallmeyer said the government is “sensitive to the concerns of preservation and history” and is committed to the hearings process.

Miller said after the commission’s vote that he was grateful for its support thus far. He called on the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to give his group access to the buildings so it can better develop plans for the archives center.

“There hasn’t been a space for robust conversation in the past,” Miller said. “It’s the GSA giving directives.” The agency could not immediately be reached for comment.

The sites in question are the 22-story Consumers Building at 220 S. State, built in 1913, and the 16-story Century Building, dating from 1915, at 202 S. State. Both are clad in terra cotta. Supporters say they are examples of how architectural trends in Chicago skyscrapers evolved.

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