In Chicago, an imperial federal government wants to destroy its neighbors to feel more secure
Chicago, the city that invented the skyscraper and whose central business district is a living museum of the history of tall buildings drawing visitors from all over the world, is on the verge of losing two historic early twentieth-century office towers. The two towers, designed by architects renowned for advancing skyscraper design, are imperiled because federal employees don’t feel safe with neighboring office towers just across an alley from their own skyscraper.
Lee Bey writes in the Chicago Sun-Times:
U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill, last month earmarked $52 million for the GSA to demolish the terra-cotta clad towers [the Century Building and the Consumers Building] and two small buildings between them, replacing the ensemble with a safety buffer to protect the Dirksen Federal Building, which is located a block west on Dearborn Street.
The GSA owns the buildings and has been seeking the demolition since 2019, about two years after then-U.S. District Court Chief Judge Ruben Castillo told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin his concerns that Century and Consumers sat close to the Dirksen’s eastern side.
But is this reason enough send the towers to a landfill — when the federal center is surrounded by buildings and through-streets?
The Consumers Building (left) and The Century Building (right)
Photo credit: PreservationChicago.org
Demolishing the two artifacts from the beginnings of skyscrapers would destroy the wall of buildings along State Street, rob the street of retail activity, and leave a windy plaza, as always happens when a tall building is adjoined by an open space – especially in the Windy City.
Preservation Chicago writes:
These two remarkable buildings, the 16-story Century Building by Holabird & Roche (1915) and the 22-story Consumers Building by Jenney, Mundie & Jensen (1913), were once principally occupied by small businesses, attorney offices and showrooms. Due to the close proximity of the courthouse and courtrooms, the Federal Government and the General Services Administration (GSA), exercised its power of eminent domain in 2005 to take control of these State Street buildings based on increased security fears following the events of September 11, 2001. Since that acquisition by the GSA, the buildings have been stable but slowly deteriorating due to deferred maintenance and vacancy.
Multiple adaptive reuse plans for the Century and Consumers Buildings have been proposed and later blocked due to the proximity to the Chicago Federal Center. The Dirksen Federal Courthouse, part of the larger Federal Center complex, fronting Dearborn Street on the west, is located across the rear alley from these historic buildings.
In other words, in order to provide security (and better views) for the federal employees, a cordon sanitaire must be created around them by destroying neighboring properties that just happen to be precious links in the historic chain of buildings that gave the world the dominant architectural form of the twentieth century and beyond. This would be cultural vandalism of a high order.
After seizing the properties, the feds’ original plan was to connect them to use them for office space, but when that plan was junked,
…in 2017, the City of Chicago issued a Request For Proposals for the adaptive reuse of the Century and Consumers Buildings, after an extensive advocacy effort by Preservation Chicago. Preservation Chicago was delighted by the City of Chicago’s selection of CA Ventures in partnership with Cedar Street Companies. Their $141 million renovation proposal planned for a preservation-sensitive adaptive reuse of the four building cluster, with the two terra cotta office towers as residential apartments and the two adjacent low-rise buildings as State Street retail. Despite a strong developer team submitting a solid adaptive reuse for a residential plan, it was halted by a federal judge citing security concerns.
Is this razing of neighbors going to become a national policy wherever federal offices are located? If so, a lot of American downtowns are going to see wrecking balls flying, and flat, paved areas proliferating, as businesses are driven out and property tax rolls are denuded.
Such a policy as is planned for Chicago reeks of an imperial mentality that sees the government as all-powerful, so great and awe-inspiring that none dare be its neighbors.
Hat tip: Peter von Buol