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Uncle Sam: State Street Slumlord






 -by Lynn Becker

[October 20, 2008] - The vacant, crumbling Century Building transforms a corner of State Street into skid row. Is this really the best the Feds can do?

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


Century Building, 202 S. State Street, Chicago, Holabird and Roche, architects
I know times are tough, but this is ridiculous. Who would have thought the Federal government would be channeling the spirit of Lou Wolf to become the blightmasters of State Street?

As part of the post 9-11 hysteria, the General Services Administration decided it would acquire almost all of the real estate on the half block along State, between Adams and Jackson, to create room for expansion and enhanced security for the Mies van der Rohe's Dirksen building, just to the west, part of the multi-block complex known as the "Federal Campus". As reported at the time by Crain's Chicago business, when they couldn't quickly come to an agreement with the company controlling Holabird and Roche's 1916 Century Building, now known by it's address, 202 S. State, they simply invoked their power of eminent domain and seized it.

At the time feds acquired it, the Century was already a long way from it's original elegance where, as described by Robert Bruegmann in his indispensable book on ornament, Century Building, 202 S. State, Chicago, IL, Holabird and Roche, architectsHolabird and Roche, The Architects and the City, the cream terra cotta facades featured "bands of low relief ornament described as a 'modern translation of Spanish.'" A year 2000 concept proposal by the city of Chicago to do a residential rehab of the Century, similar to the one done at the Burnham, Root and Atwood Reliance Building, died a quick death when an analysis of the original terra cotta showed it in such execrable condition as to make the cost of its restoration prohibitive. It probably also didn't help that the Century is an extremely thin building, with only 42 and a half feet frontage on State, and 101 on Adams.

As they began to disclose in 2006, the GSA had big plans for its new half-block long before they actually acquired it, with proposals to create as much as a million and a half square feet of new office space. In 2003, it had proposal for expansion of Federal Campus, State Street, Chicagoengaged four of the city's best architects - Ralph Johnson, Thomas Beeby, Joe Valerio and landscape architect Peter Lindsay Schaudt - to participate in a charette to create an array of possible build-outs for the site. They included everything from renovating the Century and 220 South State and linking them with an infill building, to demolishing everything and putting the entire 1.5 million square feet in just one, half-billion-dollar tower. (You can read about and see the various proposals in a report you can download here, courtesy of Chicago Carless's Mike Doyle, who actually took the time to scan all the pages into a pdf.) As of November of last year, it was reported that the GSA was still seeking funding for the project, and the future of the current structures remained undetermined. The Century remains vacant and scaffold hemmed.

As you can see from the photo below, the Century was already in bad shape in late 2006.
Century Building, Chicago, Holabird and Roche, architectsw
Amazingly, now its only gotten worse. Compare the area beneath the windows along Adams in the 2006 photo with what's there now, a haphazard slather of bare plywood that looks like it was assembled blindfolded.
plywood board-ups, Century Building, 202 S. State Street, Chicago, Holabird and Roche, architects
Who's keeping watch over this property for the GSA? Donald Rumsfield?

Slowly, State Street south of Madison has awakened from its long slumber of decline. Another Holabird and Roche building, 1912 North American Building, has regained its original luster in a sparkling rehab into condo's. A smart new Ulta flagship store has just opened in a rehab of Adler and Sullivan's 1884 Morgenthau Bauland building at 108 south - unfortunately, with the last bit of the original building's ornament at the roofline now totally obliterated. Under pressure from activist groups Landmarks Illinois and Preservation, the original storefronts of the Palmer House have been recreated to house shiny new shops like the new Croc's store picture below.
new retailers on Chicago's State Street, crocs at the Palmer House, Ulta up the street
And then there's the Century, the dead rotting fish stinking up State Street. The feds may have big dreams, but as poet Delmore Schwartz once famously observed, in dreams begin responsibilities. Even in a imploding economy, the fed's toxic mismanagement of the Century Building is unacceptable. I know Senator Obama is kind of busy right now, but maybe Illinois' senior Senator, Dick Durbin, could put some subtle pressure on his friends at the GSA to come up with a fiscally responsible plan for keeping the Century in deep freeze that doesn't leave it the biggest eyesore in the Loop.

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© 2008 photos and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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