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The Surreal Thing -
Chicago's Broken Landmarking Process






 -by Lynn Becker

[February 25, 2008] - Even as it celebrates the 40th anniversary of the city's landmarks ordinance, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks not only continues to leave many of Chicago's most essential buildings unprotected, it's upending the very definition of what a landmark building is. (originally published, in somewhat different and much better edited form, in the February 21, 2008 Chicago Reader, under the title, Losing our Landmarks.)


The Unprotected - iconic Chicago buildings with no landmark protection


Jewelers Row facades, back side, Chicago

In 2005 a proposal for a new condo tower in the landmarked Jewelers Row District on Wabash came before the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The plan for the Legacy at Millennium Park allowed the developers to demolish everything but the facades of three 19th-century buildings, one of which had once housed the flagship store of booksellers Kroch’s & Brentano’s. I wrote in the Reader in favor of the project, rejecting preservationists’ tired, knee-jerk “slippery slope” arguments that it would set a dangerous precedent.

I was wrong.

Today, the Commission, even as it stands on the sidelines as many of Chicago's most famous and important buildings are left dangling in the wind (more on that next), is making "we had to throw away the building to save the landmark" its far too frequent refrain.

Meet Brian Goeken. He has no vote, but with the title of Deputy Commissioner of Planning and Development for Landmarks, Goecken sits with the commissioners at every meeting, and is an active influence on their deliberations. 

Last year, at a hearing on whether a developer could demolish the landmark Farwell Building on Michigan Avenue and paste its facades onto a completely new structure, objections were raised about allowing a garage, one of the replacement building's primary usages, on Michigan Avenue. Goeken was Johnny-on-the-spot: “The commission has previously approved parking on street frontages as part of 6 N. Michigan and the Monroe Building . . . and also as part of 21-29 S. Wabash”—that is, the Legacy project. They all get thrown into his mixmaster and – voila – parking directly facing the Magnificent Mile is now A-OK. Goecken is a master at expanding precedents; he can take a tiny rivulet and expand it into a superhighway.

His heavy hand can be seen in how, in an accelerating succession of decisions, the commission has become a willing partner in the subversion of the most basic tenet of landmark preservation: keeping important buildings intact.

Even before Goeken’s time, in 1997, the city was so anxious to have John Buck move forward with his $500 million North Bridge development that the McGraw-Hill Building on North Michigan Avenue wasn’t landmarked so much as sacrificed; Buck won approval to destroy the building and remount its facade on a new hotel structure.

Since the Legacy decision, though, the pace has increased dramatically. In 2006 we witnessed the strange saga of architect Alfred S. Alschuler's 1920's art deco Chicago Printed String Building, across from the Chicago Printed String Building, Alfred Alschuler, architectTarget at Elston and Logan Boulevard: Demolition started because a permit had been issued in error, then landmark negotiations allowed the near total destruction of the actual building and the installation of a new structure behind the original facade. After that, the proposal to landmark it was dropped.

Recently, preservationists learned that the commission was ready to sign off on a proposal to demolish all but the front 60 feet of the landmarked Chicago Athletic Association building, on Michigan Avenue just south of Madison, with a new structure to be inserted behind it. A special meeting called in January to approve the proposal was canceled. If the project is on hold it might mean that there’s hope for some threatened landmarks, not due to any action by the commission but thanks to economic recession slowing down development.

Developers are clearly paying attention to the new landmarks policy. A spokesman American Book Company building, Chicagofor the Alter Group says a facadectomy is one of several options, including demolition, under consideration for another potential landmark, the Romanesque 1912 American Book Company building at 320-334 E. Cermak, which is in the path of a $450 million hotel development project next to McCormick Place.

Just across the street there’s a nightmare preview of American Book’s possible future. In 1993 the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which runs McCormick Place, entered into an agreement with state officials and preservationists to maintain a historic property it Platt Luggage Building, Chicago, 1907, Howard van Doren Shaw, architectowned: the Platt Luggage Building, a 1907 beaux arts building designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw at 2301 S. Prairie. No landmarking required, right? Well, seven years and $2.4 million in rehabilitation costs later, the authority tore up the agreement so it could use the property for a McCormick Place expansion. After the nonprofit group that became Landmarks Illinois failed to stop it in court, the building was destroyed. Shaw’s elegant facade is now pasted onto a power plant a block to the north. [In Philadelphia recently, the Convention authority there also unilaterally tore up a hard negotiated agreement and demolished two "protected" landmarks. Read Inga Saffron's report here.]

“All exterior building elevations, including rooflines, visible from public rights-of-way”—that’s the standard wording used in each ordinance designating a landmark or landmark district. For decades that merely meant that unless architecturally significant interiors were also referred to in the ordinance, the owner was free to change the inside of the building so long as the protected exterior wasn’t altered. Now, it's coming to mean that if you "save" the protected elements, you can throw away the building.

Increasingly, an ordinance that was created to protect landmark buildings has been transformed into a mechanism for codifying their destruction.  The bottom line is that the landmarks commission has become increasingly subservient to the will of its parent, the Chicago Department of Planning and Development. If you’re a home owner in a landmark district and you want to make changes to your property, the commission will likely hold you to strict standards. If you’re a big developer in the planning department’s good graces, too often anything goes.

I once sat in at a Commission Permit Review Subcommittee meeting, which passes on modifications to landmark properties, where one such hapless homeowner, working with Dan Wheeler, one of the city’s best architects, got slapped down for the sin of proposing replacing a non-original skylight on one side of his roof with a smaller skylight on the other side of the roof.  Commission member Phyllis Ellin voted no, saying she feared approval would set a dangerous precedent.  This is the same Phyliss Ellin who cast her vote to approve a proposal to :

a. remove the facades of the Farwell Building
b. demolish the building
c. remount the facades on a completely new structure
d. still call it "The Farwell Building", as if nothing had ever happened.

Ellin had been one of three commissioners to vote against the proposal just a month before, sending the measure down to a stunning, unexpected defeat. But, of course, Farwell Building, Chicago, William Maher, architectthis is Chicago. For preservationists, there's the "second bite" provision, which means that if a vote for landmark designation fails, there's no second chance - it can't be considered again. For developers, however, who want to demolish a landmark structure, well, they get to keep coming back until they get what they want.

For the Farwell, a special session was quickly scheduled. That's always a bad sign. Special sessions are rarely, if ever, called to take emergency action to save an endangered building. As with Chicago Athletic, they're called to rubber stamp the will of the Department of Planning and Development.

There was no justification for the second Farwell meeting other than to reverse the decision. No substantive changes were offered. Although almost all the major testimony by opponents at the first meeting centered on objections to demolishing the building, the only changes offered by proponents were, literally, window dressing, including presentation of a flimsy cardboard model designed to show how revised window treatments would conceal the existence of the garage from the street. Even though Commission chairman David Mosena explicated stated that the session was not an economic hardship hearing, he made no move to stop an extended presentation claiming economic hardship by a consultant hired by the project's backer, Prism Development Company.

But it didn't really matter. The fix was in.

At the original February, 2007 session, Phyllis Ellin, one of three "No" votes, had said, "Not every use is going to be compatible with every possible historic building.  There can be a lot of flexibility, but in this case  I think it pushes beyond the envelope of what’s possible." Then, in March, she changed her vote to "Yes". Commissioner Lisa Willis also reversed her vote, "I do not think that whatever happens with this proposal will set a precedent," she insisted, as if trying to convince herself.  "It is not meant to be a precedent.," chimed in Mosena.

Only preservation architect Edward I. Torrez, the sole surviving "no" vote, seemed to see through the ruse. The first time out, he had actually had the temerity to spar Farwell Building, Chicago, William Maher, architectwith Brian Goeken over Goecken's attempting to use the McGraw Hill Building, which became a facadectomy in course of landmarking negotiations, as a precedent for the Farwell, which was already a landmark.

By the second hearing, any reference to words like "tearing down" or "demolition" of the building had been banished from the developer's precisely calculated presentations. In the newspeak of architectural preservation, all such references had been replaced by the phrase "removal and replacement of the interior structural frame." Orwell would have nodded, knowingly.

There had been no question but, based on a detailed report by structural engineer Kenneth B. Kellermeyer, that the Farwell's facades are in very poor shape. For most developers, that would be a calamity. For Prism Development, it was a godsend. They need to demolish the Farwell in order to have a staging area for squeezing a 40-story residential tower, the Ritz-Carlson Residences, with 86 ultra high-end condominiums, onto an undersized site next door. And it provided the fig leaf Landmarks commissioners needed to give Prism what it wanted.

Kellermeyer only testified as to fragility of the facades; he resisted making any evaluation on the structural soundness of the building, itself. But make no mistake, getting the Farwell out of the way was Prism's priority almost from day one. If you don't believe me, read what the Landmarks Commission staff, itself, had to say:

“Staff concurs with the applicant that due to the size constraints of the project site and practical limitations of creating economically viable floorplates for the new building the project would not be possible without encroaching into the Farwell Building.” The Farwell is being demolished not because it's falling apart, but because it's become inconvenient to the plans of a big-bucks developer.

In this atmosphere, every new proposal threatens to become an exercise in how much of a building the Commission can negotiate away to be destroyed in the process of designating it a landmark.  In one recent designation process, it even sabotaged the hard of work of its capable and amazingly dedicated staff. 

Take the case of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s classic 1974 IBM Building at IBM Building, Chicago, Mies van der Rohe, architectWabash and the river. It’s one of Chicago’s finest structures, and it finally received landmark designation this month—but only because the developer transforming the middle floors into a hotel needed the attendant tax breaks to make his project financially viable. When he proposed erecting a large, redundant canopy to protrude beyond the ample shelter provided by Mies’s elegant original, commission staff recommended cutting it to just a few feet, enough to provide some additional weather protection and heat lamps. Fat chance. The commissioners overruled their own staff to approve every inch of the developer’s desired 14-foot projection.

Need another example? In 2006 the commission also negotiated away the grand, block-long concourse linking State and Wabash at the Palmer House and approved a “modernization” of the retail facades, until Preservation Chicago mounted a full press campaign that wound up pressuring them to reverse themselves and mandate a restoration of the original facade designs.

In January, Preservation Chicago came out with their 2008 Chicago Seven, their annual list of the city's most endangered places. First up wasn't a building, but the landmarks ordinance, itself. “Several recent redevelopment projects,” the group contends, “endorsed by the city’s planning department and approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks call into question whether the integrity of the ordinance itself is in danger of being destroyed."

Part II - The Unprotected: the Germania Club
and Chicago's endangered treasures


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.

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