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Marina City Curdles, Landmarks Commission Piddles  





 -by Lynn Becker

Has the Commission on Chicago Landmarks outlived its purpose?



The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


Nothing says Marina City better than rows of garage doors and bricked up facades.


Well, as first reported by the independent Marina City Online website, an exchange of letters on the Marina Towers Condo Association website reveals that's exactly what Michael D. Barnello, CEO of Maryland-based Lasalle Hotel Properties, owner of everything at Marina City beneath the 20th floor, had in mind for new tenant Dick's Last Resort.

According to an October, 2007 letter to Barnello from Draper and Kramer, the condo association's management agent, "Preliminary space alteration plans, showedMarina City, Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg, architect a 10' outdoor dining area separated from an indoor dining area with windowed garage doors . . . The DLR plans reflect that red brick will adorn the facade of the restaurant's main entrance on Dearborn street as well as the riverfront. In addition, DLR plans to install a rather large neon sign above its main entrance as well as a tall, narrow freestanding sign (resembling a phallic symbol) on the street level of Dearborn Street . . . "

In his response, Barnello said a more "suitable surface" than the brick "is being considered," and added that he had enlisted the Chicago Architectural Foundation to "provide feedback once the design elements have been selected." He said the sign "is not expected to detract from the building appearance."

Don't hold your breath. A while back, a correspondent who had had several conversations with the man told me Barnello didn't really think Marina City was Smith and Wollensky, Marina City, Chicagoanything special architecturally. LaSalle isn't the first to trash Marina City's integrity. The complex has suffered a continuing litany of desecrations - but LaSalle seems intent on speeding up the process. A bit of the sad recent history:

1. Smith and Wollensky - no, not the steak house itself which, especially in summer with its outdoor dining patio, is a wonderful amenity that replaced an undersized, misconceived skating rink that had fallen into disuse decades before. The actual building, however, is a piece of incredible kitsch that sticks out like a sore thumb (and raised middle finger) against the elegant modernism of Goldberg's design.

2. In the fall of 2006, the base of the complex's office building, formerly the House of Blues Hotel, now the Hotel Sax, was repainted in dark, drab colors that spews gloomy darkness where Goldberg had welcomed and reflected light. It essentially severed the structure into two disparate segments: Goldberg's original graceful Marina City, Hotel Sax, Chicagotower, and a base that looks like a cheap cupholder.

3. And now, the riverside curtain wall is to become similarly schizoid, with the Smith and Wollensky side still presenting the original windows along the river, and the Dick's half marred with a recessed dining plaza faced in modified garage doors.

And where is the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in all this? Out of sight and out of mind, increasingly, a rubber stamp for developers. It's become very good at creating laundry lists of neighborhood firehouses and banks to landmark (mostly good choices, to my mind; some of my readers have disagreed). But when it comes to something like Marina City, probably among the top ten - or even five - most important structures in this Marina City, IBM Building, Chicagocity, a building that has made Chicago architecture known and admired throughout the world, the Landmarks Commission is nowhere to be found.

At some point, the question must be asked: Does the Commission on Chicago Landmarks any longer serve a purpose? Most of the commission's heavy lifting is done by its very capable and dedicated staff. Aside from the vote against demolishing the Farwell Building, which political muscle quickly reversed, has the commission EVER voted down a staff proposal? (The exception to this, of course, are those commissioners who serve on the Permit Review subcommittee, who spend long hours sorting through proposed changes to landmarked properties.)

Very often, the Commission doesn't even begin landmark proceedings until a developer looking for tax breaks initiatives the process. This was the case with Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building (aka 330 North Wabash), where the commissioners actually made the situation worse. The new owners of the building, who are converting the lower floors to a hotel, want to build a large new lighted canopy beneath Mies' elegant original. That such a misguided idea was entertained at all is bad enough, but a commission staff proposal to substantially reduce the size of the canopy was sabotaged by a vote of the commissioners, who chose giving the developers exactly what they wanted over protecting the building's integrity.

A modest proposal:

1. Abolish the Landmark's Commission

2. Create a Department of Landmarks, using the current staff, and remove it from the control of the Department of Planning, whose recommendations, after public hearings, would be submitted to the City Council, first in Committee, and then as a whole, for approval.

3. Appoint an Executive Director of Landmarks, both to manage the Landmarks Department, and to serve as a vigorous, highly visible advocate for the city's architectural heritage.

What do you think?

Join a discussion on this story.



© 2008 images and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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