Observations and Images on Architecture, Culture and More, in Chicago and the World. See it all here.

The Unprotected: The Germania Club and
Chicago's Endangered Architectural Treasures






 -by Lynn Becker

[February 25, 2008] - Even as it celebrates the 40th anniversary year of the city's landmarks ordinance, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks leaves many of Chicago's most essential buildings unprotected. (originally published, in somewhat different and much better edited form, in the February 21, 2008 Chicago Reader, under the title, Losing our Landmarks.)


The Surreal Thing, how the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is redefining what a landmark building is


If you want to see why the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has gone whack, you only have to visit the corner of Clark Diamond Bank Building, ChicagoStreet and North Avenue. There you'll see a minor modernist gem, the 1961 North Federal Savings and Loan building, now home to Diamond Bank. It's one of 16 bank buildings throughout the city that the commission seeks to landmark. I think it's a good thing, although some of my readers have gone on record as disagreeing.

What's decidedly not a good thing is what's happening a block to the south, an example of how the commission often piddles with second-string, if worthy landmarks, while leaving far more seminal and historic buildings twisting in the wind. The building in question is architect August Fiedler's 1888 Germania Club, one of the great icons of Chicago's once central and thriving German culture, and one of its last surviving traces in a neighborhood long dominated by that culture.

Imposing yet inviting, the Germania building is dominated by a continuous arcade of paired high windows, each bisected by an ornamented column that blossoms into a double arch under a classical pediment. Tall red brick piers rest atop a two-story stone base. A broad loggia centers the second story of the Clark Street elevation, and a majestic, Doric-columned entrance faces Germania Place.Germania Club, Chicago, August Fiedler, architect

It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, but—shocking but all too common—it has never been designated an official Chicago landmark. It’s rated orange in the city’s Historic Resources Survey, which means it possesses “some architectural feature or historical association” making it “potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community.”

Last month, Crain's Chicago Business reported that shopping center goliath Kimco Realty has acquired the Germania for $9.3 million. And while the company Germania Club, entrance, 1888, August Fiedler, architect declined to return their calls - or ours - about the fate of the structure, the prospects are not exactly cheery.

There could, of course, be a fairy tale ending to this story, but sensitive restoration and adaptive re-use aren't what Kimco is known for. It's known for creating, owning and operating strip malls. Think the K-Mart at Kimball and Addison. That's what they do. Big warehouses islanded in oceans of surface parking: Home Depot's, Value City's, Kohl's etc. For them, "something different" would be their bunker-walled K-Mart on Philadelphia's Market Street, complete with 524 parking spaces, just blocks from the city's soaring 1901 city hall.

The Germania Club in Chicago History

As the Encyclopedia of Chicago tells it, "In 1900, 470,000 Chicagoans—one out of every four residents—had either been born in Germany or had a parent born there." Chicago's German community was a driving force in building the city and its culture, and the Germania was at the epicenter. According to a 1965 centennial book, quoted on the website of the University of Illinois at Chicago Library:

The Germania Club was founded in Chicago in 1865 . . . The Club's stated purpose is to bring together American citizens of German extraction, to foster and perpetuate German cultural ideals, and Gemuetlichkeit, roughly translated as "sociability." The Club was originally known as the Germania Maennerchor and initially had a more intensive focus on music. The group was created when onlookers were moved by the requiems sung by German-American Civil War veterans before President Lincoln's body as it lay in open coffin for public viewing in Chicago. The Germania Club constructed a club house on Germania Place and Clark Street in Chicago that included a grand ballroom. This facility once hosted a banquet for Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and later showcased German works of art as the club's focus expanded beyond music.

A New York Times article from December, 1893 reported on a major Germania scandal. Just before a banquet commemorating the club's twenty-eighth anniversary that was to be addressed by progressive Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, the Germania's directors voted to refuse not only to hang, but even to accept, a portrait of Altgeld, contributed by famed Chicago restaurateur Philip Henrici. Good conservative German Burghers all, they were protesting Altgeld's pardon earlier that year of the three surviving anarchists convicted, in a notoriously unjust trial, of being participants in the 1886 Haymarket Riot in which seven police officers died. Protests to the refusal threatened to split the Germania Club apart. The directors reversed themselves, even as the banquet was taking place, and accepted the portrait.

The Kimco Threat
In 1985, about a year before the club voted itself out of existence, a developer had proposed making the Germania Club an entrance facility for a new 45-story condo tower just to the north. The proposal never came to fruition. Could it be back in play today?

Those same, low-rise buildings to the north are still there, including Mitchell's Gargoyle, Village Theater, Chicago, Adolph Hoerner, architectrestaurant, while just next door, the 1916 Village theater, originally called the Germania, and also orange-rated, went vacant last March.

Kimco could be ripping out the Germania’s ballrooms and interiors even now—there’s nothing to stop them. The orange rating provides only minimal protection if the company wants to raze the whole building: it puts a hold on demolition for 90 days after the request for a permit, giving preservationists scant time to persuade the commission and City Council to save the Germania.

The Unprotected

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and there's no doubt but that preserving their distinctive architectural character is one of the Landmark Commissions's key missions and accomplishments, but as it concentrates on laundry list landmarkings of bridges, fire houses, and banks, it's left buildings that form the bedrock of Chicago’s architectural heritage in harm's way. The number of neighborhood landmark districts created by the commission continues to explode, and while the commission and its permit review committee spend increasing amounts of time reviewing changes to the thousands of buildings in those districts, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind structures like the Wrigley Building, Marina City, and the Newberry Library have no landmark protection whatsoever.
Daily News Building, Chicago, 1929, Holabird and Root, architects

The next big battle could be over the 1929 art deco Daily News Building, at Madison and Canal. In 1993 owner Sam Zell, the real estate titan who just bought the Tribune Company, had John Warner Norton’s spectacular mural Gathering the News, Printing the News, and Transporting the News (subject of a 1997 Reader feature story) peeled off the high ceiling of the 180-foot concourse. It’s been languishing in a warehouse ever since.

Now Zell is floating a proposal to chop off the concourse, along with its twin arm to the north, and replace the gracious riverfront plaza—among Chicago’s greatest civic amenities—with a new office tower. How can he get away with this? Because even though the Daily News Building and Plaza is nearly eight decades old and one of Chicago’s best and most recognizable structures, the commission has never gotten around to it - it's never been designated a landmark. But Engine Company 42 has, so I guess it's all OK.

Relief, Germania Club, 1888, Chicago, August Fiedler, architect
Part I - The Surreal Thing:
Chicago's Broken Landmarking Process

Thursday, February 28th
40th Anniversary of the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance
- a lecture by Brian Goeken, Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Development for Landmarks, 12:15 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington,
Through May 9th
Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage? -
Chicago Architecture Foundation, Atrium Gallery, 224 S. Michigan, 312/922.3432.

Join a discussion on this story.



© 2008 photos and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

Endgame for the Chicago Daily News Building and Plaza

Really BIG Show - The Big CPH Experiment: 7 New Architectural Specifies From the Danish Welfare State, exhibition at the Graham Foundation, Chicago

Pedro E. Guerrero's American Century
The Magic of America, by Marion Mahoney The Chicago Children's Museum - The Battle Over Grant Park
Chicago Spire, Santiago Calatrava, architect, Marketing Begins

Santiago Calatrava Explains it All for You - The Chicago Spire

Toy Futures - Building Asia Brick by Brick, by Lynn Becker

The New Spertus Lightens Up
Uptown the Architecture of Dreams and Waking

Richard Nickel's Chicago

James Turrell's Skyspace at UIC

Planning and Its Disconnects in the city of Chicago