City landmarks panel backs preservation of State Street towers

The decision by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is not binding on the federal government, which owns the properties and has called them a security risk.

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The buildings at 202 and 220 S. State St., with the Dirksen Federal Building behind them.

The buildings at 202 and 220 S. State St., with the Dirksen Federal Building behind them.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

A city commission Thursday recommended landmark protection for two early 20th century buildings on State Street that the federal government wants to tear down.

The decision by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks isn’t the final word on the matter, as city landmark rules don’t apply to the federal government. But it may generate public support for finding a new use for the vacant buildings and influence the outcome of hearings about their future.

The properties are at 202 and 220 S. State St. The federal government owns them and has decided they pose a security risk for the neighboring Dirksen Federal Building on Dearborn Street.

Preservationists contend the distinctive architecture should be saved and that viable uses, such as an archives center shared by various groups, can bring the buildings back to life while addressing security concerns. The Chicago Loop Alliance, representing downtown businesses, also is on record urging that they be saved.

The commission voted 5-0 to back preliminary landmark status for the buildings, the first in an essentially two-step process that gives property owners a chance to object to the decision.

The General Services Administration, which manages federal property, told the commission it is neutral on city landmark designation. The agency is leading public hearings on ideas for the buildings, but the federal government has appropriated $52 million to take them down.

Landmarks recommendations by the commission must go to the City Council for final action.

Speaking to the panel, Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, said destroying the buildings would be a “disgrace.” Lohan, grandson of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who worked with him on the design of Chicago’s federal complex, called the State Street buildings “fine examples of Chicago’s architectural heritage.”

The properties are the Century Building at 202 S. State and the Consumers Building at 220 S. State. The federal government has owned them for years, as well as two smaller buildings between them regarded as less significant.

One of them, a three-story building at 208-12 S. State, has become a hazard and will be torn down, the GSA has said. It has said the demolition will not affect the other buildings.

The 202 and 220 buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Federal authorities are worried about how close the buildings’ windows are to the Dirksen property. They potentially afford views into judges’ chambers and jury rooms, federal court authorities have said.

In a written statement to the commission, Rebecca Pallmeyer, chief judge of the Northern District of Illinois, said, “We note suggestions that the Court should consider security enhancements that may be adequate to address the Court’s safety concerns. Media reports have suggested that those concerns are limited to sight lines into the Courthouse from the buildings at issue. We can assure you that while sight lines are significant, law enforcement experts have identified several additional concerns.”

She did not go into detail. Pallmeyer said the GSA’s hearings should lead to a decision early in 2024.

The landmarks commission also took two other significant actions Thursday:

• It recommended that the City Council grant final landmark protection to the Epworth Church Building, 5253 N. Kenmore Ave. Investors want to convert the former church into housing.

• It recommended preliminary landmark recognition, a first step before final approval, for an early 20th century building called The Warehouse at 206 S. Jefferson St. In the 1970s and 1980s, it operated as a three-level nightclub that popularized “house music.” It now has law offices.

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