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Chicago Fights to Save Old Tall Buildings

Preservationists work to protect historic structures from the wrecking ball by giving them local landmark status. RACE AGAINST BULLDOZERS

MAINTAINING the rich historical mix of building styles that gives Chicago its special architectural character takes constant, vigorous effort. Here in the Windy City the usual economic fight involved in saving historically important buildings from the wrecking ball is often complicated by local politics.

Preservationists have won some key battles. They have also lost some, and they are concerned that they could lose more.

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One of the most widely lamented recent losses is the McCarthy Building, an elegant 1871 Loop building by John Mills Van Osdel, Chicago's first professional architect. It is now slated to be razed as part of Chicago's North Loop development project.

Generally local landmark status serves to protect a building against a major revamping or destruction. In this case, the Chicago City Council designated the McCarthy building a city landmark in 1987, but later reversed its decision in a move that cleared the way for the bulldozer. Preservationists challenged the reversal in court but lost.

A similar effort by heritage-conscious Chicagoans to save the Granada Theater in the Rogers Park area from the wrecking ball a year or two ago was also unsuccessful.

For several years the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI), a feisty, privately funded group, has been engaged in an intensive fight to save the 15-story Chicago Building, which was built in 1904 by Holabird and Roche. It is widely considered the best surviving example of the Chicago School of Architecture, which produced the world's first tall buildings.

Alternative uses

Although the Chicago Building is registered as both a national and a state landmark, the City Council did not see fit to give it local landmark status.

After learning last fall that the longtime owner, the Chicago Board of Education, planned to sell the building to a bank that wanted to demolish it, LPCI garnered its supporters for a protest rally. Recently the council met with Mayor Richard M. Daley and got his pledge to try to save the building. The bank has now withdrawn its bid, and LPCI hopes to work with other developers to put together alternative development plans that could yet save the building.

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``I'm cautiously optimistic - everyone now says they want to save the building and that's a major step,'' says LPCI executive director Carol Wyant. One positive result of all this activity, she says, is a growing public awareness of the importance of historic preservation.

``We've lost enough buildings in recent times so that people are beginning to say, `Wait a minute - we're not going to let this continue to happen,''' she says. ``I think we've turned an important corner in Chicago.''

She credits that kind of public awareness and the open support of Mayor Daley for the current hold on a developer's plans to raze Hotel St. Benedict Flats, Chicago's first luxury apartment building. The developer wants to replace the red-brick Victorian complex, just one block west of busy Michigan Avenue, with a parking lot. Since the structure is a national but not a local landmark - ``because of politics again,'' says Ms. Wyant - the developer had free rein. Now, however, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is in the early stages of designating the structure a local landmark. If the City Council follows suit, the developer may have to shift plans.

Yet preservationists say their efforts to rescue significant buildings face some increasingly tough hurdles.

Building owners often do not view landmark status as an honor. They see it as freezing their options and are concerned that it may adversely affect property values. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks recently notified the owners of 10 downtown commercial buildings constructed shortly after the devastating Chicago fire of the 1870s that it was proposing them for landmark status. Commission director William McLenahan says none welcomed the idea.

``The commission wants to freeze both the interior, including all the dining rooms, and the exterior - forever,'' says Herman Berghoff, owner of the Loop's popular Berghoff's Restaurant, family owned and operated for 92 years. ``Well, forever is a long time....''

Convincing owners and developers that preserving or restoring their building makes as good economic sense as razing or revamping it also has become more difficult. Congress in 1986 put new limits on how much tax credit can be claimed and under what circumstances for rehabilitating landmark structures.

Preservationists say this key decision has had an inhibiting effect on their cause: ``It's made things a lot harder - the number of projects is just down dramatically,'' says Tim Turner, director of the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Dissenting owners do not have the final word on landmark status. Yet their opposition adds new legal hurdles to the approval process. One new preservationist trend definitely more popular with such property owners is the designation of whole neighborhoods as landmark districts. The move is seen as one that better protects property values and keeps one's neighbors from making radical alterations.

The City Council has made a number of such group designations. One recent addition: seven low-rise homes along Lake Shore Drive built between 1891 and 1916. The commission's Mr. McLenahan says that in the last two decades about 6,000 Chicago buildings, either in groups or standing alone, have been labeled local landmarks.

Many citizens are becoming more protective of new structures that may one day become future landmarks. The owners of the 100-story John Hancock apartment building were well along in gaining city approval for their plan to build an enclosed atrium along Michigan Avenue when tenants, joined by the state's Landmark Preservation Council and the National Trust, staged a massive protest. In time their objections brought Mayor Daley aboard and effectively quashed the plan. Hancock is now challenging the denial on administrative grounds.

Protecting new buildings

Usually buildings less than 50 years of age are not considered for landmark status. The preservation council's board proposed an exception for the Hancock because of its pioneering, crossed-brace engineering design.

``It's easy to get caught up in the tastes of the moment,'' explains Ms. Wyant. ``Generally the test of time helps sort out what's important and what's not - but there are some cases where a building is so significant or innovative that rules can be broken.''

``I think our role is not only to identify and protect resources of the past but also to encourage the best new designs possible because they will be the landmarks of the future,'' adds the National Trust's Tim Turner. ``I don't think there's any question, for instance, but that the Sears Tower, because of the engineering technology involved in its construction, is a future landmark.... It's a matter of developing the proper patina and age.''

To get a better handle on both old and new buildings that bear watching, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has been conducting a street by street survey of the city's assets for the last several years. ``We've really encouraged and tried to support that,'' Turner says, ``because it's only from having a comprehensive sense of a city's building stock that you can begin to make reasonable decisions of what should be considered for landmark status.'' Some buildings in such an inventory may still be lost, he says, but they are more likely to be identified from an informed decision.

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