Fight the power: City must move quickly on landmark status for fed-owned Loop skyscrapers

A preliminary designation hopefully would force the Century and Consumers buildings to be redeveloped rather than demolished.

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A pair of large downtown high rises — the Consumers Building and the Century Building — extend into a cloudy sky.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks is scheduled to meet this week to decide whether to designate downtown’s endangered 100-year-old Century and Consumers buildings.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Century and Consumers buildings downtown are landmarks in every sense of the word.

Built in 1913, the upswept 16-story Century at 202 S. State St. was designed by the prestigious firm Holabird & Root and gives an advanced glimpse of the Art Deco building style that would become popular a decade later.

The Jenny, Mundie & Jensen-designed Consumers Building at 220 S. State St. is a terra cotta-clad tower built in 1913. It’s a surviving example of the early high-rises that helped give then-young State Street —and downtown itself — much of its prominence.

All of that history and architecture would be wrecked and hauled to oblivion, if the buildings’ owner, the federal government, has it way. Judges in the nearby Dirksen Federal Building — along with the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies — want to wreck the 100-year-old skyscrapers and two smaller structures between them to make room for a secure plaza to protect the courthouse.

Editorial

Editorial

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks is set to decide Thursday whether to recommend preliminary landmark status for the Century and Consumers building. The vote would come as the U.S. General Services Administration conducts a series of required federal hearings designed to determine if the buildings are indeed historic.

We strongly encourage the city commission to recommend preliminary landmark status for the buildings, an act that could set the towers on a path toward a permanent designation.

While the federal government has the power to override such a designation and wreck the buildings anyway, it would risk the embarrassment of doing so in the face of a credible argument by the city that the Century and Consumers are not only worthy of preservation, but can be reused without endangering judges at the Dirksen.

Redevelop, not raze

The vacant buildings have been in peril since they were bought by federal government in 2005, then left to rot.

But things worsened in March 2022 when U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., earmarked $52 million to replace the site with a landscaped security buffer for the courthouse.

We’ve never been convinced that demolishing the buildings would make the courthouse safer.

That’s because the Dirksen and the two other buildings that compose the Federal Center’s core are surrounded by busy streets and other buildings. Dearborn Street runs through the middle of the complex.

And given that State Street — like most downtown commercial corridors and North Michigan Avenue — needs all the help it can get, wrecking rather than redeveloping the site makes little sense.

Indeed, the Century and Consumers buildings were actually headed for reuse in 2017, when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel approved CA Ventures’ $141 million plan to rehab and redevelop the properties.

Under the bid, the city would have acquired the site from the federal government and turned it over to CA Ventures. The company would’ve turned the Consumers into 270 micro-apartments, while converting the Century Building into 159 studio and one-bedroom units.

But in one of her administration’s earliest blunders, Mayor Lori Lightfoot in December 2019 nixed the deal, citing the feds’ safety concerns.

If that mistake can be corrected at all, the recommendation of landmark status for the Century and Consumers is a key first step.

Seek landmark status now

City landmark status would hopefully force a showdown between the city and the feds that could be resolved — this editorial board feels — with a deal in which the GSA could contribute the $52 million demolition earmark toward a plan to redevelop and reuse the buildings, with an eye toward the judges’ safety concerns.

That’s the only outcome that benefits the economic health of State Street and downtown.

And if a face-off is to happen, too bad it couldn’t have occurred earlier, rather than in the waning days of the Lightfoot administration.

But the landmarks commission last November declined to vote on the designation, claiming more study on the matter was needed.

Wrong move, given the condition of the buildings. But the commission can get it right this week.

Meanwhile, the sidewalk on State Street is fenced off in front of the Century and Consumers — ordered so by the feds last month after inspectors found structural weaknesses in the two buildings between the towers.

The federal GSA said razing the pair of smaller buildings could begin this week. And it certainly feels like a possible harbinger of the Century and Consumers buildings’ future if some kind of evasive action is not taken — quickly.

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