A pair of historic Loop skyscrapers facing demolition by the federal government once again top Preservation Chicago’s annual list of most endangered buildings.
Legislators approved a $52 million earmark last year to tear down the vacant Century and Consumers buildings in the 200 block of South State Street, which the government acquired in 2007 as a security buffer and potential federal office expansion behind the adjacent Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.
[ 20 years of historic buildings, districts and objects at risk: Preservation Chicago’s full ‘Most Endangered’ list ]
Decaying monuments to the Chicago School of Architecture, the steel-framed, terra cotta skyscrapers have captured international attention as preservationists race the clock to save them, and a piece of the city’s high-rise history, before they are reduced to rubble.
“These are the very last of the early Chicago skyscrapers,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, a nonprofit group focused on protecting historically significant architectural structures. “I think a lot of people would get very upset if they were demolished.”
Completed in 1915, the 16-story Century Building at 202 S. State St. was designed by Holabird & Roche, a pioneering Chicago architecture firm that built a number of prominent commercial high-rises. The 22-story Consumers Building at 220 S. State St. was completed in 1913 and designed by Jenney, Mundie & Jensen. Lead architect William Le Baron Jenney is credited as building the first modern skyscraper, the nearby Home Insurance Building, in 1885.
A proposed $141 million mixed-use redevelopment of the buildings by CA Ventures fell through in 2019 over security concerns raised by federal judges working at the Dirksen building.
Preservation Chicago is proposing an adaptive reuse as a collaborative national archives center for religious groups and other organizations, but the federal government has other plans.
Signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 15, 2022, the $1.5 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act included $52 million for the demolition of the buildings. Because they are in the Loop Retail Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the government is holding ongoing public hearings to discuss the impact of their demolition.
In a notice for the hearings, the government said “there are no federal funds available for rehabilitation, preservation, or restoration of buildings.”
Preservation Chicago has been lobbying for a tweak to the bill that would add “renovation” as an option to the $52 million allocation. An online Change.org petition started by the group urging adaptive reuse of the buildings has collected more than 23,000 signatures.
The group is also pushing for landmark designation by the city, and said the demolition of the buildings could jeopardize the pending nomination of “Chicago’s Early Skyscrapers” as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a potential architectural tourism draw.
“Capturing these buildings as landmarks would send a clear message to the federal government that they have to find a better solution than demolition,” Miller said.
Other sites making the 2023 “Chicago 7 Most Endangered” list range from the West Loop birthplace of house music to an ornate Rogers Park warehouse.
Thousands of terra cotta commercial buildings are woven into the streetscape across Chicago. Many of them are in danger, according to the group.
In the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, builders shifted en masse from wood to more expensive fireproof materials like terra cotta, mostly because insurers demanded it. The city became a terra cotta center for the nation, from ornate skyscrapers to smaller neighborhood commercial buildings.
Redevelopment is threatening a growing number of terra cotta buildings, especially in areas of disinvestment on the South and West Sides, Miller said.
“A lot of these terra cotta buildings that have beautiful ornamentation are overlooked and demolished or allowed to fall into disrepair,” Miller said. “We’d like to have people become aware of these really special buildings in their communities and see if the city could create some legislation to maybe protect some of them.”
Designed by architect William P. Doerr and completed in 1924, the Jeffery Theater Building and Spencer Arms Hotel has stood as a cultural and architectural icon for nearly a century at the 71st Street commercial corridor in the South Shore neighborhood. The buildings have survived multiple brushes with demolition, the most recent being plans for redevelopment as a movie theater and bowling alley.
The Jeffery Theater has deteriorated since its closure in 1976 and the subsequent demolition of its auditorium, but its terra cotta facade and lobby remain, along with the hotel, which serves as residential apartments.
Preservation Chicago is urging the commercial corridor be designated a Chicago landmark district, and the buildings incorporated into any redevelopment.
In 1975, a commercial warehouse at 206. W. Jefferson St. in the West Loop was transformed into a three-level nightclub, launching what would become a popular entertainment destination for Chicago’s African American and LGBTQ+ communities, and an international cultural phenomenon.
Developed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, a New York import, house music was born. The booming dance genre has since influenced pop hits and nightclub soundtracks around the world.
The Warehouse was sold in December and, despite its cultural significance, has no protections against demolition and redevelopment in the rapidly changing West Loop, Miller said. Preservation Chicago is looking to the city for a landmark designation of the otherwise modest building.
“There’s an acknowledgment that it does have this music history,” Miller said. “But it’s next to a one-story restaurant and both could be marketed as teardown sites. That’s what concerns us.”
A three-story concrete building at the University of Illinois Chicago campus, Taft Hall is part of the largest collection of Brutalist architecture in the city. Designed by Chicago architect Walter Netsch and completed in 1965, it may be undergoing a dramatic face-lift.
In October, the university announced plans to renovate the building, including a complete demolition of its historic facade. Similar campus buildings were re-clad in glass, “destroying the original spirit” of the buildings, Miller said.
Designed by George S. Kingsley and completed in 1921, the Werner Brothers Storage Building near the Red Line stop in Rogers Park is slated for demolition to make way for an affordable transit-oriented residential development.
The building features an intricate terra cotta facade with a dramatic main entrance that Preservation Chicago would like to salvage by incorporating it into the redevelopment.
“It’s a showstopper of a building,” Miller said. “We’re encouraging that the affordable housing project go ahead … adjusted to engage this historic building and this beautiful terra cotta facade.”
The Continental Can Building, Damen Silos and Fisk Power Station have all stood for more than a century as visible reminders of Chicago’s industrial heritage. All three face potential demolition and redevelopment.
Built in 1920, the Continental Can site on the 3800 block of South Ashland Avenue is part of the first planned industrial park in the U.S. The gothic terra cotta building and tower are among the last vestiges of the original Central Manufacturing District in Bridgeport and McKinley Park on the city’s Southwest Side.
Preservation Chicago is encouraging the adaptive reuse of the Continental Can building and tower.
“Don’t give us another windowless building on Ashland Avenue,” Miller said. “That could be anywhere USA. We take pride in our architecture and our built environment. Let’s preserve those facades and that beautiful tower.”