Landmarks Commission hearings are an opportunity to talk about century buildings and consumers

Landmarks Commission hearings are an opportunity to talk about century buildings and consumers

The buildings of the century and the consumers, those vacant skyscrapers on State Street that the federal government wants to demolish, are still hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

As this newspaper and its editorial board have reported for the past three years, the feds own two high-rise buildings at Adams and State streets, but are seeking to destroy them, citing concerns that the structures pose a security risk to the neighboring Dirksen Federal Reserve. The building and court were occupied again.

Next Monday, Nov. 13, the Chicago Landmarks Commission will hold a public hearing to gather testimony for — and against — the commission’s move to obtain protected landmark status for the buildings.

The federal government has the legal authority to demolish the Century and its consumers, whether they are landmarks or not.

But for the sake of State Street and the city’s architectural heritage, the buildings must be preserved and reused.

If the U.S. General Services Administration and the federal judges demanding demolition are looking to actually serve the public, they would do well to listen to what is likely to be a groundswell of testimony in favor of saving the buildings and stick with it.

Buildings are “what State Street is all about.”

The Century and Consumers were designed by two of Chicago’s top architectural firms at the turn of the last century.

Jenny, Mundy & Jensen designed the Consumers Building, 220 S. State Street, which was completed in 1913. The Holabird & Roche Century Building, 202 S. State Street, was built in 1915.

But the buildings are literally rotting away after 20 years of no federal ownership at the owner level.

U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in March 2022 allocated $52 million to the GSA to level the terracotta towers and two small buildings between them in favor of a secure plaza intended to protect the Dirksen Building, located a block west on Dearborn Street.

The Landmarks Commission granted the Century and Consumers buildings preliminary landmark status in April, putting the pair on the path toward potential permanent designation approved by the City Council.

But the GSA has not approved the designation, pending the results of a required federal review of the potential impacts of demolition, prompting a landmarks hearing next week.

Many in Chicago, including building preservation groups and State Street advocates, have spoken out over the past three years in support of reusing the buildings in a way that addresses Derksen’s safety concerns during the skyscraper’s reuse.

For example, Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance, told the Sun-Times in 2022: “Those buildings historically contribute to what State Street is all about.”

Given the needs of State Street’s redevelopment, spending $52 million to replace classic buildings with a landscaped security perimeter is an insult to taxpayers in general and Chicagoans in particular.

Here’s what it is: GSA says it spends $750,000 every two years on repairs and inspections of the facades of structures. Scaffolding alone costs $75,000 a year, according to the agency.

By law, Durbin’s allotments can only be used for demolition. But this madness could be mitigated by allocating a new $54 million – or more – to building reuse.

Even GSA’s draft environmental impact statement on the demolition, released last August, acknowledges that the impact of demolition “will have a significant, long-term negative impact on these buildings. Removing the Century and Consumer Buildings…would alter the attributes that define the character of the Loop Retail Historic District.” And the Chicago Fed Center, leading to negative, moderate and long-term effects.

The final phase of GSA’s four-step review of properties involves the agency seeking real estate developers and industry volunteers to “engage in a charrette-style discussion aimed at promoting market interest in redeveloping” the buildings, a company spokesperson told us Wednesday.

That’s good to hear.

The horn and consumers must be salvaged, refurbished and reused. If the political and civil backbone for making this move can be strengthened by next week’s testimony, so be it.

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