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Ode to an Eyesore

The modest, low-slung Sun-Times Building, unloved by legions, is on death row—doomed, if all goes as planned, to be replaced by a Trump tower of affluence. But at least one person likes it just where it is.

It sits there so humble, squatting flush against the river, its gunmetal gray worn and weathered, a tired servant from another time. In those days, it was a working building, a manufacturing plant that took in newsprint by rail and river and rolled it through a roaring assembly line of presses, spitting out daily editions of the newspaper at the other end.

Purposefully low-slung, the building defers to the architectural icons that frame it, more ambitious buildings with grander auras, though they serve companies that make merely chewing gum and office machines. There has been a nobility to the work produced in this building, even with its frequent silliness and sophistry. And yet, the building has not been cared for as well as its better-loved neighbors; it almost appears to have a little sag in its shoulders, as if it’s tired of straining against the wind, fighting for its life. As if it knows it’s on death row.

The truth is, the Sun-Times Building has been on death row for a long, long time. It’s almost a miracle it’s still here. The building is inarguably a piece of Chicago history, but from its birth it has been almost universally regarded as one ugly piece of work. It has never really been loved. Because of its prime riverside location, the land beneath the oddly shaped, seven-story structure has long been coveted by developers pained by the profits uncaptured. Each succeeding owner of the Chicago Sun-Times has faced rumors that it would sell the building and move the paper because the land was too valuable to sit on; the investment group that bought the paper from Rupert Murdoch was forced to deny it was interested strictly as a real-estate play. That is one of the lasting indignities of the Sun-Times Building: It literally is not worth the dirt it sits on.

Now, it appears, the end has finally come. If all goes according to Donald Trump’s plans, the Sun-Times Building will be demolished this summer to make room for a tall, glitzy skyscraper with plush offices, pricey condominiums, and a luxurious spa and health club. (Trump insists that the deal isn’t imperiled by the financial scandal that has engulfed Conrad Black and his company Hollinger International Inc., which owns the Sun-Times and the building.) The scrappy tabloid will be moved to a location yet to be determined, and the pug, blue-collar barge will give way to a citadel of affluence. And no one seems to care.

As a measure of how little sentiment the building evokes, nary a peep has been heard from preservationists or even weepy old-time journalists since the day almost two and a half years ago when Trump big-footed into town with his grandiose plans and sky-high ego, hinting that he would construct the world’s tallest building on the site. Just on the principle of keeping Donald the Barbarian at the gate, you would think a coalition would form to save the building-some kind of united front against all things Trump. Nada. This building is apparently so ugly that even a Trump project is thought to be an improvement.

But will it be? There is no question that the Trump International Hotel & Tower will be prettier. It may even be handsome. After an early stumble, the revised version of the building, designed by Adrian Smith, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is a cut above Trump’s other monuments to himself (and at 90 stories, it won’t be the tallest). It remains to be seen, though, what impact the Trump tower will have on its surroundings, especially the bookends of the Wrigley and IBM buildings.

The Sun-Times Building has the aesthetic advantage of being low-scale. And even if the building can’t be defended on architectural grounds, isn’t there something to be said for a modest piece of modernism where so much Chicago newspaper history has occurred? Even if the building resembles an oversized tin shack? Stand on the Michigan Avenue bridge and gaze in that direction. The Sun-Times Building is supposed to be there. It fits. Unlike, say, the James R. Thompson Center, which still painfully jars the senses. Or the west façade of its science-fiction cousin, the new Soldier Field.

The Sun-Times Building may be ugly and unloved, but it has never really been hated. It seems fitting-it looks like the home of a feisty, blue-collar, tabloid underdog to the haughty, Gothic-tower Chicago Tribune (even if the Sun-Times gave up its working-class roots years ago). The building’s location, within a stone’s throw of its rival, is perfect, as is the way the competitors are connected underground by the centrally located neutral zone that is the Billy Goat Tavern, easily accessible through the loading docks of each paper.

So if no one else is going to say it, I will. I’m going to miss the Sun-Times Building. I like it, and I like it just where it is. Is it really so crazy to wonder if this building should be saved?

 

Let’s be clear. The Sun-Times Building has never been hailed as great architecture. Not even close, leading professionals say. John Vinci calls it “a dog.” Stanley Tigerman calls it “that funny little fucked-up building.” Franz Schulze calls it “undistinguished, ordinary, second-rate.” But the Sun-Times Building does belong to a place and time. It is part of a generation of postwar buildings that were the first significant structures built in the city since the Depression. The building’s architect, Sigurd Naess, of Naess & Murphy (which evolved out of Daniel Burnham’s firm and became Helmut Jahn’s firm), also designed the Prudential Building, which has been equally despised by architects (I happen to love the Pru). Naess was not a great architect. Carter Manny, then a young colleague, says that Naess was more of a technician than a designer. His work was not well received by up-and-coming architects in thrall to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “The young people in the firm were not happy with [the Sun-Times Building],” Manny recalls. “And they hadn’t been very happy with the Prudential Building. The younger people in the firm thought they were very retardare, not the best being done at the time.”

Still, city officials were proud. The Sun-Times Building was considered the keystone of the Fort Dearborn Project, an effort to redevelop the city north of the river. That’s why more than 600 dignitaries-including Mayor Richard J. Daley, Governor William Stratton, and Senator Everett Dirksen-gathered in the Red Lacquer Room of the Palmer House Hilton one November day in 1955 as part of the groundbreaking ceremonies. Of course, it was also good business and smart politics to attend events important to newspaper proprietors like the Marshall Field family, but the city’s civic leaders were genuinely excited about what was promised as “America’s most modern newspaper plant.” The Sun-Times boasted in its own pages that “from the roof to riverbank, the building will incorporate the latest in design.”

That might not have been exactly the case when it was completed two years later, but the Sun-Times Building was featured in Progressive Architect magazine in 1959 and pictured in a 1962 Life magazine spread titled “Up, Up and Up in Busy Chicago.” The plaza to the east was one of the first riverside plazas in the city; the quality of the enclosed space was even noted in urban-design guru Jane Jacobs’s 1957 essay “Downtown Is for People.”

The Wrigley Building was already next door. Marina City was completed two blocks away in 1964, and the IBM Building went up across the street in 1971. Those buildings, just west of the Michigan Avenue bridge, form one of the great architectural cores of the city, giving one another enough room to show off. The Sun-Times Building does its part not only by staying out of the way but by being one of the few buildings whose design acknowledges the river.

And yet, it gets no respect. Over the years the building has been called “an aging gray box,” “a roach motel,” and “lumbering gray flotsam.” Conrad Black once described it as “terribly humdrum.” The New York Times recently called it a “coffin-shaped box . . . that for years has been the ugly duckling on a river of architectural splendor.” The truth is, though, that there are uglier buildings on the river, particularly on its south side.

The funny/sad thing is that if the little pug could hold on until, say, its 50th anniversary, the building might be viewed differently. “The Sun-Times Building is about ready to become historic,” says Robert Bruegmann, a professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If it got as far as 2007, there would be a very considerable surge in interest in putting it on the National Register of Historic Places. A lot of these buildings are killed off at just the moment before they really come back into their own.”

Bruegmann says that a building that is loved by the avant-garde when new tends to be disliked by the middlebrow. In a generation, the building will become accepted by the mainstream while the avant-garde begins to find it passé. It works in reverse, too. “The leaders of opinion right now are starting to discover those buildings of the fifties, and starting to be extremely interested in them,” says Bruegmann. “The first reaction is often a camp sensibility that they’re so terrible they’re good, and then that settles into a thing where they’re just plain good.”

 

Bruegmann points to the Empire State Building as a prime example. Originally thought by the high-art crowd to be vulgar, it was later reconsidered. The Sun-Times Building is no Empire State Building, but it may be the equivalent of the Huntington Hartford museum in New York City’s Columbus Circle, which is from the same era, has been widely disparaged, and is now facing demolition-as well as a campaign by author Tom Wolfe to save it.

“Anyone with pretensions to be ‘with it’ will say these are marvelous buildings,” says Bruegmann. “It took 50 years for them to come to that point of view.”

Art students are showing an interest now, says Vince Michael, the director of the historic preservation program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We run a ‘recent past’ class, and it’s the most popular class we have,” Michael says. “Students eat it up. If you saw something built, you’re less likely to venerate it. So people who saw the Sun-Times Building built are less likely to venerate it.” The new generation, though, likes it.

And others are starting to admit their affections. “It’s a sweet little building,” says Jeanne Lambin, a former preservation planner for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks who now works in the Wisconsin field office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While in Chicago, Lambin conducted a survey of the city’s post-1940 buildings. “It takes much longer for people to appreciate the kind of everyday architecture that people live and work in rather than the architectural stars, architecture with a capital ‘A,’” Lambin says. “So I think the poor little Sun-Times Building has suffered as a result of that. And a squat little aluminum building with yellow accents-it’s kind of funny-looking. He looks much different than all his friends on the river.”

But the steel-framed building was innovative for its time. It was one of the first to use curtain-wall technology (because the frame provides structural support, the veneer is cosmetic, which allows for more glass), Lambin says. And the frame allowed for a clear span at the bottom to better house printing operations. “It’s worth saving if only to say this is a great example of vernacular modernism,” she adds. “It’s not a high-style building, it’s not the best example of a modern building in Chicago, but this is how a lot of companies and architects and buildings were interpreted with the new materials that were being made and the new technology. It’s interesting and worthy just because of that. Now I’m going to get beaten up by people! Go ahead, lambaste me. I think it should be saved.”

Perhaps no one in the city is better suited to evaluate the Sun-Times Building than Lee Bey. He has a tripartite perspective: Bey worked at the paper for nearly nine years; he was the paper’s architecture critic for the last four; and now, as the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for planning and design, he works for the city and represented the mayor in talks about the Trump building’s design. Bey does not favor saving the building, but he is passionate about its charms. “To admit this publicly will bring derision on me, but I will be a little sad to see it go,” Bey says. “I’ve bit my tongue on this for years: I kind of like this building, and always have.”

While Bey is nostalgic for the building’s reversible windows and the stunning view from his old office, he is still in Trump’s corner. “I hate to see it go, but clearly what’s going to be built there is far better,” he says. “If saving the Sun-Times Building means you don’t get the Trump building, then that wouldn’t be right. But you look at [the Sun-Times Building], and you think, It’s kind of cool.”

 

I toured the building recently to get an inside look. The lobby is still grand and shiny, with its granite floors and marble walls. But the rest of it is bleak. The hallways are depressingly nondescript. The lack of pride and preservation is disturbing. The escalators that connect the first four floors are turned off; some think it is to save money on the electric bill. People still use them as stairs, but it is an odd sight. The office that used to belong to legendary advice columnist Ann Landers, and then her replacement, Jeffrey Zaslow, is now labeled Room 320 Credit Department. The newsroom library is a musty museum piece. Columnist Neil Steinberg took me inside the building’s innards, to a dusty upper-floor cavern of steam pipes and building machinery, where some archival material is haphazardly stored. He showed me boxes of material that he had once tried to organize, and gave up on. “No one cares,” he muttered. And the newsroom itself . . . well, it’s tempting to romanticize a space that has been used in several movies to represent a newsroom of old (not like the sterile maze of cubicles found at the modern newspaper), but the romance would be misplaced. The Sun-Times newsroom just looks tired, mostly absent of the kind of swashbuckling charms you would hope for.

Steinberg and I almost got locked in a stairwell before finding ourselves outside the door of the Trump model condo show room. We walked in, and it was like stepping through heaven’s gate, as if the light of God suddenly shone on us. We found ourselves in a wood-paneled room staffed by an attractive blond receptionist and featuring a seven-foot model of the new Trump building. Steinberg turned to me and said, “The air is fresher in here.” And damn if it didn’t really feel as if someone was pumping in fresh air.

A salesperson told us that half of the 326 condos had sold in four weeks (at press time, the residences were 70 percent sold). I asked her if the base of the Trump building was a homage to the Sun-Times Building, because it has a similar shape. Another indignity: The part that looks like the Sun-Times Building, she informed me, is the parking garage. We looked at a model bathroom. It had limestone floors, custom-designed wood vanities, a private water closet, granite countertops, German fixtures, and a $3,000 shower door. Even the elevator down from the show room had been glitzed up, while the regular elevators remained schlubby.

It was hard not to think that maybe there was something to this Trump thing, even though I will never be able to afford an apartment there. And then, as I was walking out of the building, I saw Cook County Board of Commissioners president John Stroger walking in on his way to meet with the editorial board. A Sun-Times reporter chased after me to give me a decades-old brochure with personal instructions from Marshall Field on what to do in case of a nuclear blast. And I wandered over to the now-closed “gallery,” where visitors used to watch the presses, which have been ripped out. Stroger, the brochure, the absent presses-I experienced more history in a few minutes than I can imagine ever transpiring in the lifetime of a Trump tower.

Rick Telander, a Sun-Times sports columnist, wrote recently that “the little tug cannot be torn down soon enough, in my opinion, even if it scatters us workers like dandelion seeds-though you would think there might be something between a seven-story hiccup and the impending Trump penile implant.”

If those are the choices, I’ll take the hiccup. Ugly buildings can be important places, too.

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