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Editorial: Landmarking Hancock Center makes good sense

Change the look of the Hancock Center? No.

Not without serious public debate and approval, which might never happen if the building is not given protective landmark status. Any significant change in the appearance of this iconic skyscraper, a symbol of Chicago worldwide, should be driven by aesthetic considerations as much as commercial.

Change the name of the Hancock Center? Sure, why not.

EDITORIAL

A rose is a rose by any name, as they say, and the insurance company has never owned the building, though it was a major original tenant. Chicago once thought the only proper name for a mayor was Daley — as in Richard J. Daley — but nobody insisted that every subsequent mayor had to be called Daley, unless of course it really was his or her name.

As Sun-Times columnist Mike Sneed reported last week, the Hancock Center’s owner, the Hearn Company, has a plan to sell naming rights to the Michigan Avenue skyscraper, which is the fourth-tallest building in Chicago, and build a glass box at the entrance that would be three or four stories high. The owner would put the building’s name, old or new, on the glass box, possibly as a flashing sign.

Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) thinks this is a miserable idea and has vowed to get the city to designate the building a landmark, which would restrict what the owner could do to it. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Sneed reports, looks ready to get on board with the idea.

A multi-story glass box obscuring a view of the original building from the pedestrian level certainly sounds like a bad idea, but we’d like to see more precise renderings of what the owner has in mind before choosing sides. There’s a good argument that the building’s sunken plaza has never worked particularly well, aesthetically or functionally, and should not be beyond tinkering with.

The goal of any renovation, says former Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey, should be for the building “to meet the ground in a graceful way, which it has never quite done.”

The real question is who decides.

When a 46-year-old architectural marvel has become an international symbol of the city, to be found on countless post cards and coffee mugs, we’d say the city should have a major say in any changes made, putting firm legal restrictions on what others might do. Hence the need for landmarking.

Designating a building a city landmark does not freeze it in time. Significant changes to the structure still can be made and often are. Consider the way the owners of the Chicago Cubs have been allowed to reinvent Wrigley Field, possibly the most cherished landmarked structure in Chicago. But every change has had to be vetted, fought over and approved.

Chicago is haunted by the ghosts of wonderful buildings that are no more, such as the Garrick Theater and the Home Insurance Building. Plenty of other vintage buildings, such as a number of those festooned with eyesore new balconies on the edge of the Loop, are not what they once were. You might think you could trust a fine building’s owners to know and cherish what they’ve got, but post-war Chicago history says otherwise. Short-term gain has a way of trumping long-term good sense.

Designating the Hancock Center as a landmark would make formal what everybody knows — this building, in its way, belongs to all Chicago.