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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.

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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?

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