Are Endangered Century and Consumer Buildings Headed to Prominence?

Century and Consumer Buildings, vacant downtown skyscrapers that are shamefully rotting and now targeted for demolition by the federal government, may soon gain a staunch supporter.

The Chicago Landmarks Commission asked the city’s Department of Planning to work on creating a historic mapping report for the early 20th century buildings, located at 202 and 220 S. State St.

This is key because, traditionally, generating reports is almost always the first step toward awarding feature status to a site.

“I think there is a lot of checks that need to be done,” the commission’s chair, Ernst Wong, said this month at a hearing on the buildings.

A while ago, we said—along with the city’s conservation pioneers—that the federal government’s building demolition plan to create a security plaza for the Dirksen Federal Building was a meaningless affront to architectural preservation, as well as to efforts to make State Street more habitable.

So it’s great to see the committee and the city come to terms with it. Both are important sounds that have enough weight to alter the potential outcome of the two buildings.

To tear it down – or reuse it?

The committee requested that a landmark report be prepared after the July 7 meeting on the Century and Consumer Buildings.

During the meeting, Rebecca Palmier, the chief federal judge for the Northern District of Illinois, spoke about the demolition case and said the buildings’ western windows look directly into the judges’ rooms, creating security concerns.

Palmer said the destruction of the semi-distressed buildings would improve State Street.

“We realize, again, that this is an issue that draws a lot of attention, but we do believe there are benefits to a proposal that would eliminate those buildings, especially on State Street,” she said.

What Pallmeyer conveniently overlooked is that the buildings are in poor condition because the federal government bought the site years ago and left it forfeited by preventing real estate from redevelopment.

The two skyscrapers were designed by the city’s leading architectural firms at the time. Jenny, Mundie & Jensen designed the Consumer Building, which was completed in 1913. The Holabird & Roche Century Building was built in 1915.

The issue of the buildings’ fate came to a head last spring when US Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat, allocated $52 million to demolish the buildings.

“But these security concerns are real,” Durbin wrote in an April 26 letter to the Sun Times. Federal courts and workers there are targets. Which is why these buildings were acquired by the federal government in the first place.”

In the wake of this appropriation, one of the major voices of building rescue, Chicago Preservation, proposed converting the structures into a limited-access archives for religious orders and other organizations.

Chicago Conservation Executive Director Ward Miller said he wants the General Services Administration, the federal agency that owns the site, to allow his group into the buildings.

“There was no space for strong conversations in the past,” Miller said. “It’s GSA directives.”

A better result is needed

The Landmarks Commission’s position and the acting Lightfoot Department represent a potential shift from the city’s location just three years ago.

That’s when Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Department of Planning and Development — citing federal security issues — walked away from a deal struck under Mayor Rahm Emanuel to buy the buildings from GSA and sell them to developer CA Ventures.

The company was going to convert the 22-story consumer building into 270 small apartments, while the 16-storey Century Building would convert into 159 studios and one-bedroom units.

Shame on both the feds and the locals for forcing them to bankrupt this $141 million plan.

But hopefully today will be a new day. Will the city’s historic designation, on the face of it, prevent the federal government from demolishing buildings?

Most likely not. It could lead to a showdown that ends with the federal government using its power to fulfill the city’s wishes.

Or – and that’s what we want to see – defining the landmarks of the buildings could bring the judges, the city, the GSA, and put $52 million to the table to work on something that would properly redevelop these buildings.

That’s what Chicago and downtown really need.

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