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Will two historic ‘Chicago Loop’ skyscrapers be saved or scrapped?

Ron Stang
Will two historic ‘Chicago Loop’ skyscrapers be saved or scrapped?
PRESERVATION CHICAGO — The Century and Consumers buildings in Chicago's historic Loop district.

Two, more than 100-year-old buildings, emblematic of the “Chicago School” of skyscraper architecture, could face the wrecking ball, while a smaller building in between already is.

One is the 22-storey Consumers Building at 220 S. State St. and the other is the 16-storey Century Building at 202 S. State. Both have been empty for years. Sandwiched in between is the three-storey building, which was considered structurally unsound by the U.S. government’s General Services Administration (GSA), which owns all three.

The government wants to tear down all three because of a security risk to the Dirksen federal courthouse behind them on the same block. All buildings are located in Chicago’s Loop Retail Historic District.

The Century Building was designed by Holabird & Roche, the Consumers by Jenney, Mundie & Jensen. Lead architect William Le Baron Jenney is credited in 1885 with designing the first modern skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, located nearby. 

The three-storey building used to have some historical significance but was “slipcovered” over various remodellings since the 1950s “so the true building wasn’t visible” and “may have had limited occupants,” according to Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. He said it was “non-contributing” architecturally to the historic district.

While the GSA has targeted the two taller buildings and set aside as much as $52 million for the entire demolition project – $3.2 million is earmarked for the three-storey – the Century and Consumers have won a reprieve.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation this month named the skyscrapers to its annual America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. 

This follows a similar citation by Landmarks Illinois. And the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks gave the buildings “preliminary landmark” status, saving them, at least temporarily, until full landmark designation.

The GSA has input into the process and ultimately has the power to overrule and continue with demolition plans.

Miller says the federal government perceives the buildings as a security threat and that has prevented their redevelopment, even though the feds have owned the structures for 17 years. “There were security concerns with a residential building so close to the federal center,” he said.

When the Dirksen building was designed in the 1960s, its designer, acclaimed architect Mies van der Rohe, “very much admired these early skyscrapers that surrounded his federal center” providing architectural “context.”

The GSA didn’t agree to an interview for this story.

Miller said as for the demolition process itself Preservation Chicago has asked it be done so as to not threaten the structural integrity of the towers.

“We’ve asked that the demolition not include the perimeter walls that touch the adjacent structures or the basement and foundations of the building they’re demolishing,” he said.

Miller said the money devoted to the demolitions seems high.

“That just seems really excessive to us that they’re paying a gold Cadillac cost to demolish these buildings when (comparable buildings) could be demolished for a lot less.”

The GSA had no comment on the cost.

Miller agreed demolishing in a high density downtown can be tricky, but it has been going on for decades.

“Getting materials in and out of the Loop is not easy by any means but it’s not impossible,” he said.

But should the buildings be saved Miller said some of that money could be used for restoration.

“It could be used to dismantle something and store it,” he said. “So, we’re hoping that perhaps some of those monies could be used for clearing out the tall buildings and making them sort of a clean box so one could start anew.”

Chicago has a hit and miss history of preserving its classic architecture, beginning with demolitions to build the “L” elevated commuter train tracks in the 1930s, then post-war demolitions for modern buildings until preservation activism saved many buildings in more recent decades.

Miller believes the two towers could be restored.

“We’ve seen the reports that they’re structurally safe (though) the terracotta cladding on them needs quite a bit of work,” he said. “That’s because for 17 years of ownership by the GSA, they’ve not been well maintained (and ironically) usurped the city ordinances because they’re the federal government.”

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