Slicing and Dicing the Past to Get to the Future
 -by Lynn Becker

Plans to slip a sparkling new condo tower behind vintage facades spurs debate on the nature of architectural preservation.

(Originally published in slightly different and far better edited  form under the title "Know When to Fold Them" in the Chicago Reader, May 13th, 2005



How do you strike a balance in architectural preservation? Compromise too much and you wind up with an entry arch standing in a park beside the Art Institute, a forlorn remnant of Louis Sullivan's Monroe Wabash Tower, 72 stories of condos, Chicago, Illinois; Solomon Cordwell Buenz architectsdemolished 1893 Stock Exchange Building. Compromise too little and you wind up with "protected" buildings rotting away without purpose or relevance.

Last week the permit review committee of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks was considering Mesa Development's proposal to build a 72-story, 812 foot high residential tower behind four historic loft buildings, the oldest dating back to 1872, on the east side of Wabash between Madison and Monroe - a stretch that's part of the Jewelers Row Landmark District.
Mesa just finished the Heritage Millennium, a 57-story condo tower at Randolph and Wabash, where three historic buildings, including the old Blackhawk restaurant, were demolished except for their facades. Those facades became the front of a new garage, though they were restored to their original luster. It's an often-troubling approach that's become so common that a painfully clinical-sounding term has emerged to describe it: “Facadectomy.”

Historic lofts in Jewelers Row on Wabash avenue between Madison and Monroe

Mesa's plan for the South Wabash buildings is a bit more complex. The facades would be saved, though a garage entrance would be incorporated into one of them. The new building, designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz, would be constructed behind the facades. At their rooflines, it would emerge as a glass skyscraper, set back 28 feet from Wabash.

At the permit-review meeting the battle lines were drawn in the usual way. In one corner were the developer; 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus; and the city's planning bureaucracy. In the opposite corner were representatives of Preservation Chicago, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, and community groups such as South Loop Neighbors and Friends of Downtown.

"We see this as a real slippery slope," said David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council, at the permit review meeting. "We have no objections to the quality and the design of the building...[but] we can find no instance in Chicago or the U.S. where a new building has been permitted to be constructed in a local landmark district that is so completely out of scale with the heights of the surrounding historic structures. The landmarks commission's own rules and regulations state that new construction in a landmark district must respect the 'general size, shape, and scale of the features associated with the district.' We therefore find it difficult to imagine how a 70-story building can be considered respectful of the urban fabric of an historic district...[where] all but one of the tallest structures in this district are less than 280 feet high, or about one-third the height of the proposed condo tower."

"The question before you is whether a landmark district means anything," said preservation activist Martin Tangora . "How are you going to tell the owners of 20 N. Michigan-an eight-story building that's one of the oldest in the street wall-how are you going to tell them that they can't build a 70-story tower on the back all but 30 feet of that lot? How are you going to stop anything on the street wall or in the Jewelers Row district or any other district in Chicago if you allow this to go through?"

Monroe Wabash Tower seen from Grant Park, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, architects

Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, voiced a concern that was echoed by several other groups that testified. "The issue really is, why is this being rushed?" he said. "We're actually objecting on the basis of process. I found out yesterday that the reason I had not seen the drawings, the reason I was not aware of what the design looked like, is that the design has not yet been publicly released."

Trump Tower”, Fine continued, "“which was not in a landmark district, which did not involve the facadectomies or the demolition of a historic building-that process was completely open and had the luxury of public scrutiny for months and months and months. Yet this project, which is in a historic district, which does abut a designated Chicago landmark by one of the finest architecture firms in the entire country"”-meaning Louis Sullivan's Jewelers Building-"“somehow this project is being fast-tracked. That disturbs me to no end.”

Mesa attorney John George disputed Fine's contention, saying the application for the development had been filed last November and indeed, Bahlman's group knew enough about the project to begin denouncing it in January. Yet the city clearly wanted to move the project along unimpeded, proof of which was the presence of the commissioner of planning and development, Denise Casalino, who seldom attends permit review meetings and who left as soon as the proposal was approved. Joining her in voting for the project were Ben Weese, the committee's chair, and John Baird, of Baird and Warner, who both praised the sensitivity of the design.

The sole dissenting vote came from committee member Phyllis Ellin, a National Parks Service historian. "What I'm being asked to do today," she said, "is not to give my opinion of whether I like it or not, as a matter of taste, but whether I think it meets the standards and guidelines of the commission. And I have to say I can't say that I feel that it meets the standards.... It's not in keeping with the size and scale of this particular district."

No building is ever declared a landmark down to every brick, window, or tile. Chicago's landmarking ordinances always clearly list those features being afforded protection, most commonly something like "all visible exterior elevations." If other features- such as the Palmer House lobby or the atriums in Marshall Field's-are to be protected, they have to be listed specifically. Other parts of the buildings are considered "noncontributing." Landowners, after a commission review, are generally free to renovate or remove them. In landmark districts, where buildings are protected as a group, entire buildings deemed to be without historic or architectural merit can be designated noncontributing.

The first major issue surrounding the Wabash Avenue project is whether the proposed alterations Champlain - now Sharp - buildingdestroy the features that made the buildings landmark quality. The plan is for the fourth and fifth floors of the facade to front a parking deck, leaving the kind of "blind" windows that make preservationists cringe. But the first floors, now a jumble of unfortunate alterations, would be restored to their historic state and the space behind them returned to retail use. More importantly, behind the second- and third- floor windows would be new classrooms and offices for the School of the Art Institute, which would be linked to the school's Champlain Building to the south; the architects would also restore that building's storefronts, now a dowdy mix of glass and dulled metal, to their original appearance. The new building would also add squash and handball courts for members of the University Club, to be linked by a bridge over the alley to the club's Gothic 1909 Holabird and Roche building on Michigan Avenue.

On principle, I think preserving just the facades of old buildings is bad, but the facades of these Wabash buildings are their only distinguished feature. Their north and south walls are invisible, alley elevations along south Wabash avenue in Chicagobutting up against the adjacent buildings. The rear elevations are as ugly and inchoate as you'd expect for walls facing a narrow, dark alley. The interiors, changed numerous times down over the decades, have no landmark protection and wouldn't seem to deserve it.

The second major issue is whether the new project would be out of scale with the other buildings in the landmark district. When he said the proposed tower's height would be three times that of the surrounding buildings, Bahlman was excluding both the 551-foot Pittsfield Building and the 438-foot Willoughby Tower; Mesa's building would be 816 feet high. Bahlman also said the Pittsfield and Willoughby were too "slender" to be intrusive. But Mesa's building would be a marked improvement on recent towers such as the Heritage Millennium, a massive slab of concrete and glass, set on a north-south axis, that looms over the Cultural Center. Mesa's new tower would be faced with a glass curtain wall, and it would be oriented east to west, tapering down to a thinner facade facing Michigan Avenue and thereby creating a slender profile with a lot of blue sky to the north and south of it.

Bahlman was also excluding nearby megatowers such as the 631-foot Heritage Millennium a block to the north, the 600-foot CNA tower a few blocks south, and the 582-foot tall 55 E. Monroe, right across the street. These buildings are in fact outside the landmark district, but this is the kind of blinders-on analysis only a lawyer could love. A great city like Chicago is not an atomized collection of unrelated parts. It's a continuous urban fabric whose strength lies in the way the components draw on and enrich one another. The Michigan Avenue Landmark District - quiet, dowdy, and a bit dilapidated - has exploded with renewed energy since Millennium Park opened across the street. The modernism of Frank Gehry, Jaume Plensa and Anish Kapoor didn't compromise the patrician tone of their older neighbors-it allowed us to see them with a fresh eye.

Wabash presents a tougher challenge. When State Street was King, the east side of Wabash enjoyed the spillover, with vibrant, long-lived attractions such as the Blackhawk Restaurant and Kroch and Brentano's bookstore. Both are long gone. As State Street declined, east Wabash declined harder - there's been a constant churn of The Chicago Loop L elevated structure over Wabash avenueretailers coming and going, with few displaying real staying power. The mass of the L continues to dominate the streetscape. “I was part of a movement many years ago to take down the L,” 42nd ward alderman Burton Natarus reminded hearing attendees, in what seemed a subtle dig at preservationists. “Some people think it is a landmark . . . but what it's done to the street is made it dark, and it has a negative effect, not only from the standpoint of appearance, but from the standpoint of noise. I always thought the L should have been taken down and we would have had some beautiful streets. I think that what this project does is that it livens things up a little bit. It beautifies the area.”

With over 350 units, the Mesa project could help increase pedestrian traffic and make Wabash more attractive for retailers. As for the Wabash L, the best way to neutralize its toxic effects would be to celebrate its status as an undesignated landmark. Pry some cash from the Central Loop TIF, get some architects and lighting designers involved, and come up with a plan to repaint and light up it's undercarriage in a way that not only eliminates the darkness from the avenue beneath, but makes an attraction of the beautiful intricacy of the structure, itself.

The permit-review committee's decision comes before the Chicago Plan Commission on May 19 and the full landmarks commission in June; the final decision will eventually be made by the City Council, giving opponents plenty of time to organize. There will be a lot more discussion of slippery slopes, and rightly so - the last thing anyone wants to do is set a precedent that starts demolition-hungry lawyers salivating. But the continued vitality of Chicago architecture depends on regular injections of the contemporary into the traditional - and on preservation efforts that don't descend into a kind of architectural taxidermy


© Copyright 2005 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.


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