Thursday, March 14, 2013

Chicago Seven again...

Preservation Chicago has realeased its annual list of the seven most endangered buildings in Chicago. Returning to the list are two splendid prominent skyscrapers on State Street which I wrote about (hard to believe) two years ago.

Yet another Roman Catholic church has made the list, St. James Church at 31st and Wabash. The Joliet limestone church was designed by one of the preeminent ecclesiastical architects of the 19th Century, Patrick Keely. It is slated for demolition as early as next month and there will be a vigil outside the building on St. Patrick's Day held by a group hoping to save the building, a prominent landmark on the South Side for over 130 years. Unlike other recent threatened church buildings in the city, St. James continues to support an active, albeit small parish community which would like to save its beautiful church, just as it did back in 1972 after a devastating fire. The Archdiocese of Chicago supports the demolition siting the costs of repairs to bring the building up to code. I have to admit it's a difficult call, the Church has to juggle so many balls these days, money is tight and I have a hard time finding fault in the Archdiocese's view that its priorities lie in saving people rather than buildings. However in a case like this where there is an active community that would like to worship in a building that has meant so much to so many for so long, special considerations should be made. It worked with Holy Family Church which survived the Chicago Fire, but barely survived the wrecking ball no so long ago, ditto with the magnificent St. Mary of the Angles, the beautiful domed landmark off the Kennedy Expressway. I hope some arrangement can be made to save St. James but I'm not optimistic.

A prominent West Side landmark on the list is Hotel Guyon which fronts Garfield Park. That neighborhood which once boasted several magnificent hotel-apartment buildings, has been in decline for decades but has recently seen some resurgence, anchored by the restoration of the great Chicago park and its conservatory designed by the estimable landscape architect Jens Jensen. Coincidentally, Hotel Guyon was designed by another prominent Chicago architect by the name of Jens Jensen, no relation. It's a massive building that defines the western boundary of the park and its loss would be significant to the community. Unlike the restrictions faced with preserving a church, I believe the city should step in in cases such as this to encourage successful re-development of buildings which could go a long way to jump start communities which sorely need it. Given the size of the building however, it would be an enormous effort and again I'm not optimistic.

Saving the Medic Building on Ashland just north of Belmont Avenue would not be a massive undertaking. The two story Art Deco storefront-office building is a gem. Despite the difficult economy, it's hard to believe that a private concern could not be convinced to take over the building, and preserve an architectural genre that popular as it may be, is disappearing from our city at an alarming rate.

By contrast, post World War II architecture is not popularly loved as Art Deco or everything that came before. Three of the buildings, or groups of buildings on the list fall into that category:

  • The Allstate Building, part of the Sears Campus on the West Side,
  • The State Bank of Clearing on the far Southwst Side by Harry Weese,
  • Lathrop Homes housing project on the Northwest Side. 
Preservation Chicago makes splendid arguments for all three. However despite being architecturally significant, none of them are particularly charming, or easily lovable works of architecture, nor are they in high profile areas, so it's hard to imagine a groundswell of public support for any of them. Which is too bad.

And speaking of post WWII architecture, old Prentice Hospital, Bertrand Goldberg's groundbreaking mid-seventies work which has been on the front burner of preservation battles in recent years, appears to be a lost cause. Here is a lovely elegy to the treasure apparently soon to be turned to dust from my friend Edward Lifson.

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