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-by Lynn Becker
Scaffolding has gone up around the Farwell Building on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. Last month, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted down a proposal that would have seen the landmark's facades stripped, the building itself demolished, and the facades reassembled on a completely new building, all under the name of landmark protection.
Is the scaffolding a ploy in a PR campaign to reverse that vote by persuading the public the building is so unsafe that demolition is the only solution?
What's at stake, and how is it shaking down in Chicago's world of power politics?
Is landmarks preservation in Chicago going the way of the dinosaur? (January 2nd, 2007) We may only be starting to get a handle on 2007, but already the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is scheduled to take a Thursday vote that stands to reverse the results of decades of struggle, and leave all but a handful of Chicago's finest buildings open to demolition.
Do I exaggerate? I wish that I were. Please read on.
The proposal is so simply stated as to be almost innocuous:
Yet that sentence carries the seed of the mass destruction of much of Chicago's most historic architecture.
The Farwell Building is a designated landmark. Designed by architect Philip Maher, it is a beautiful, classically-styled, 1920's high-rise, clad in Indiana limestone, and engagingly ornamented in a mixture of French Revival and Art Deco styles. It's one of the last survivors of the time when Michigan Avenue earned the nickname "Boul Mich" by being lined by restrained, neoclassical buildings of posh elegance and the highest standards of design.
The Farwell's new owner is Prism Development Company, which plans to erect The Ritz-Carlton Residences, a 40 story tower designed by architect Lucien Lagrange containing just 86 high-end residences, on Michigan Avenue just north of the Farwell.
At the time the Farwell was being considered for landmark status, concessions were made to allow for adjustments to some of the street-level bays to accomodate contemporary uses. For Prism, that was chump change. Here's what they really want.
They want to erect a parking garage for the Residences on Michigan Avenue.
Let me repeat that for emphasis: they want to make one of the world's premier shopping streets a back alley for a parking garage. But why stop there? They want to erect their parking garage where the Farwell now stands. They intend to demolish the Farwell, a legally protected landmark, erect a new parking garage, and then re-assemble the Farwell's severed skin over the new building.
Prism gets its garage. The dead Farwell's facades are deployed as camouflage. The Landmarks Commission keeps the Farwell on its roster as if nothing has happened. Everyone wins - only the city and it's architecture dies.
As horrific as this proposal is, its future implications are worse still. It sets a precedent that makes most of the city's landmarks easily dispensible. All it takes is a developer waving a big bankroll who knows his or her way through Chicago's cloutstream. Save the fragments. Smash the landmark. Paste the fragments back on again. Once the Farwell's death warrant is signed, developers will begin circling city landmarks. As protected landmarks, the buildings fall too far short of a potential big payout to be an interesting investment. As potential knockdowns, they're compacted gold, just waiting to be crushed and extracted.
Just walk down Michigan Avenue. Start with the Woman's Athletic Club, the Farwell's stately cousin, another official landmark, also designed by Maher, just a block to the south. Knock down the WAC, put a tower behind it , create a modern structure in place of the WAC and wallpaper it the WAC's facades. Burgeoning tax rolls, grateful, happy developers - WAC, WAC clone - same/same!
Still other soaring new condo towers could be slid behind the skin of 333 North Michigan, or behind the London Guarantee across the street, facing off against Trump on the other side of the river. And think of all those all Chicago classics with their antiquated turn-of-the-century central light courts - the Marquette, or the Rookery. Engineer a cantilever over that great John Root, Frank Lloyd Wright atrium, backlight the skylight with floods, hollow out everything above, insert a tower, and voila - LaSalle Street becomes the Chicago's latest new residential hot spot. And since it's in the city's newest TIF district, the developers will probably even get a fat subsidy.
Why is this wrong? The fact I even have to pose the question gives me the shakes. Reassembled fragments are not buildings; they're what you find lining the stairs of the Art Institute, pinned to the walls like butterflys to a board. Buildings are lived in. They are not a "perfected" Empire State Building, reassembled as a come-on to a Vegas casino. They are the past made flesh, corporeal entities. They resonate with the decades of human experience that has passed through them, putting us in touch with it, reassuring us that we are not stranded and alone in the treacherous, unstable present.
There is no precedent for the Farwell proposal. When landmark designation for the 1870's McCarthy was stripped in the late 80's, the argument was that it stood on blighted ground, an obstacle to economic renewal, an argument undercut when the entire block - the infamous Block 37 - on which it stood remained a vacant dir patch or the next fifteen years. Last year, I wrote in support of the Legacy, which is preserving the facades of older Wabash avenue facades and demolishing the buildings behind them for a new tower. The differences between these projects and the Farwell proposal is marked.
The landmark comissioners and commission staff shouldn't kid themselves that, somehow, they'll be able to come up with pretty, fine-pointed arguments of difference that will keep what happens to Farwell from becoming the new norm. Once this Pandora is out of her box, the powerful attorney's who represent the big developers will fly her like a kite. They'll march into court and argue that if Prism was allowed to do it, stopping them from doing the same is actionable discrimination - and they'll be right.
I can't speak about the three new commisioners that were appointed to the landmarks panel last fall, but I can say that the other commisioners whom I have observed over the past few years - people like architect Ben Weese, real estate legend John Baird, Museum of Industry President David Mosena and architectural historian Phyliss Ellin - are of people of diligence and conscience, no less than the dedicated staff at the commission that supports them. Which makes what I'm hearing - that the demolition of the Farwell is a done deal, and will pass with only token opposition - all the more inexplicable.
Each commissioner voting on the Farwell proposal needs to be aware that they are not just voting on the fate of one building, but setting a precedent that will turn the clock backward and handcuff the city's power to protect its landmarks, probably for decades to come. In the process, the architectural heritage that has made Chicago famous throughout the world will be squandered and decimated in ways we can only begin to imagine.
The Farwell proposal is on the agenda for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks meeting for this Thursday, January 4th. It will take place beginning at 12:45 P.M. in the Cook County Commission Board Room, 118 N. Clark.
It is open to the public.
Here is a list of the names of the current commissioners:
The choice couldn't be clearer. Will we continue to protect Chicago's extraordinary and irreplacable architecture, or we will settle for taxidermy and a Potemkin Village?
© Copyright 2006 images and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.