Why These Are The Seven Most Endangered Buildings in Chicago

Preservation Chicago president Ward Miller explains what happens behind the scenes to create the annual list of threatened city buildings and districts.

The terra cotta-clad Jeffery Theater, at 71st Street and Jeffery Boulevard.   Photo: Courtesy Andrew Schneider/Preservation Chicago

Local advocacy group Preservation Chicago opened March with their closely-watched annual “most endangered list” of historically and/or architecturally significant buildings and districts facing grave dangers. It’s the twelfth installment of the group’s big call-to-arms, with seven nominees put forth each year—some newcomers, others old-timers.

Here’s what’s on the list this year (and there are pictures at the bottom of this post):

  • The Central Manufacturing District, the nation’s first planned industrial district and an outgrowth of the old Union Stock Yards
  • South Shore’s neo-classical Jeffery Theater, facing the indignity of playing host to a McDonald’s
  • Twin-towered St. Adalbert Catholic Church, built in 1912 and still the tallest structure in Pilsen
  • The Fisk and Crawford power houses, recently retired coal plants on the Lower West Side with complicated and uncertain futures
  • The vacant Hotel Guyon in the impoverished West Garfield Park neighborhood, with a new demolition threat
  • The shuttered Francis Scott Key Public School, designed by noted architect Dwight Perkins but lacking a new use plan
  • The Madison/Wabash Station House, an ornate but deteriorating 1896 structure due to be replaced by the CTA’s new Washington/Wabash station

I caught up with Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago’s president and executive director, to ask about the thinking and methodology behind the Chicago 7 and the duties of preservationists. He was more than willing to be bludgeoned by my questions.

Preservation Chicago’s 2014 “Chicago 7” most threatened list presents an interesting cast of characters, but I noticed that for first time in its dozen years no purely residential structure made the cut. The Hotel Guyon has been an SRO (single-room occupancy) in the past, but it wasn’t built for long-term residency. Is there no important, acutely endangered residential?

There certainly is, and people sometimes don’t realize that the work is ongoing for many places that don’t appear on the Chicago 7 year to year. With Lathrop [Homes], for instance, and with all of them, we’re doing advocacy to try and find solutions. Just because last year’s candidates aren’t this year’s candidates doesn’t mean we’re not working to save them. Places like Lathrop and the Uptown Theater get a lot of attention and we don’t want people to get fatigued.

Things aren’t happening at the rate we want them to [with the Uptown Theater]. I really think city officials should get McPier involved. Why not give them The Uptown and say “run with it?” Of course, they’d be required to adhere to landmark requirements. But let’s make it a North Side conference center/cultural center/entertainment venue… everything you can think of. If this is an initiative of the Mayor, let’s figure out a way he can do it. And so we’re always thinking: How can the great stories attached to buildings help them?

Late last year, the city finally got funds to tear down the Hotel Guyon, and I went into overdrive and put a package of developers together. At present there’s a gap in money for rehab that’s making it challenging, but you can’t really go out and just talk about histories anymore. It’s a necessary step to show what can be done to give something new life.

This [Garfield Park’s Washington Boulevard] used to be a bustling commercial district with the [now-demolished] Paradise Theater directly across the street. It’s a culturally fascinating part of Chicago with a rich Jewish and African-American history. And we could use more truly affordable housing. I’ve seen some affordable housing in Logan Square and I chuckle because it’s really become pretty expensive. In reality we need low-income housing too, and the CHA is behind in supplying it. There’s no reason we can’t make this work [for the Garfield Park community].

How do you strike a balance with threatened districts vs. threatened buildings?

On Fridays I take part of the day off and try to go to different parts of the city and look around and see if there’s something we’ve overlooked, a story we need to tell. For instance, I’m headed down to the South Shore Cultural Center tomorrow for a discussion about the Jeffery Theater, which is on the Chicago 7. And you know what, I’m going to go up and down Jeffery Blvd and 71st Street and look at structures again. With all the great intact buildings, why aren’t we considering 71st/Jeffery as a landmark district?

I blame our elected officials, including Aldermen, for not having the foresight to work with the community on these issues. I have to intervene and be the contact and the spokesman to bring more attention. A lot of people think we’re anti-development; we’re actually pro-development—sensitive development.

We have to keep developing landmark districts. Every great neighborhood in the city of Chicago is anchored by a landmark district. And if you’re not in a historic district, you want to be adjacent to one. Look around: these are great areas, the stars of Chicago.

What of the list’s apparent South Side bias?

Underrepresenting the North Side this year wasn’t intentional. However, you hear so often that two-thirds of the city is being neglected, so I’m OK with this year’s list being South Side-focused. We’re debating putting Lathrop Homes back on because of its affordable housing.

My father used to say, “Ward, why live in Chicago if you don’t live close to the lake?” Elsewhere were enclaves very pure in their ethnic qualities, whether Polish, Latino, or black. I want to say we’re at a point where some of those things don’t matter. As a matter of fact, we embrace that cultural history. I want to pick up on that positive link and say, we are a city ready for the 21st Century—we don’t react to institutional or racial barriers the way we once did.

Is it be fair to say there’s a good bit of instinct and observation built into the methodology for each annual list?

Yes, there is. We look at these buildings, which come to us from interested citizens, activists, our membership, board members, random calls, and my own observations, and we ask “are there resources” and “what will the community look like without this building?”

Sometimes the more challenging the battle, the more interesting the nomination is too. In some organizations there may be decisions based on politically what might happen to you. I think we’re the organization that isn’t necessarily afraid to take on the hard stories, the hard issues.

I was out there fighting for Lathrop more than 10 years ago. I said, look, the CHA is transforming and this is going to be a big question at some point soon. Prentice Hospital was another one, where in 1999 a newspaper article said Northwestern was looking to build a new Prentice Hospital. And I said, “Uh-oh, what’s going to happen to Bertrand Goldberg’s building?”

Northwestern is probably not even phased by the outcome [Old Prentice’s demolition], but they probably don’t realize the hit they’ve taken in the community. For the fate of a midcentury modernist masterpiece to hinge on a science and technology argument just didn’t make much sense to me. I think there was some credibility lost.

Can you explain the significance of the Loop’s Madison/Wabash Station House, which the CTA plans to replace with a modern station at Washington? If it’s going to fall into disuse, would the idea be to keep it around as a visual landmark?

It’s the oldest station house left in the Loop, along with the more hidden Quincy Station. You really are aware of the CTA when you look down the street and see the station. Visually, it tells you where to go. The new replacement station [coming in 2016] will be midblock. I don’t know why the CTA can’t figure out how to shift toward Madison and keep the station house. There used to be a Louis Sullivan-designed structure at the platform’s south end known as the “Crystal Bridge” [connecting to Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company Building, and adorned with elaborate metalwork]. It was world famous. Why wouldn’t we embrace the history here? Does anyone really care if the platform is a little longer? We could have a CTA complaint station there, a museum, anything to justify keeping the station in use.

When you cross the Lake Street line at Ashland, you see these great stations that are like Victorian Painted Ladies smiling at you. Someone was sensitive enough to realize there’s charm on the CTA worth preserving—and it makes you love that line.

What’s the ideal vision for the shuttered power stations?

This might be the most exciting story of all. The three stations—I’m including State Line Energy in Hammond, 200 or 300 feet over the state line—have a great lineage of architecture. [Crawford and State Line] were designed by Daniel Burnham’s successor firm Graham, Probst, and White; and Fisk was designed by H.H. Richardson’s successors Sheplan, Rutan and Coolidge. And they’re all on the water. Why not use these as an opportunity for waterfront recreation and parks…. maybe use some of these as field houses with programs and classes in the giant turbine rooms? Kids would come to understand their city better. [State Line] is right on the lakefront by the skyway, almost an extension of Palmer Park. Why not grow lakefront activities in this area?

These plants were the best of their day, with turbine engines of unrivaled size and technology powering the city. Why can’t we overwhelm people with the beauty and scale and magnitude? These places have been off limits for 100 years.

These could be great satellite stars in our neighborhoods that could bring in tourism and recreational activities in the shadow of giant smokestacks. It would be our communities that benefit from this, along with people like me that just can’t get enough.

There have been some notable setbacks recently in protecting iconic old churches. What can you say about the Pilsen church nomination?

I think the archdiocese needs to find ways to get people in the door, and old churches like St. Adalbert have a chance of becoming the community centers they once were. The archdiocese could at least staff and maintain these great temples of immigrants.

I think they need to get back on their mission. Instead of closing schools and churches they should be figuring out a way to become pillars of support in the community. A lot of times they shut down these centers and there’s nothing left, like at St. Laurence [a complex of vacant 100-year-old religious buildings with uncertain fate in Grand Crossing].

How do you define “success” in the world of historic preservation? Is it important to celebrate minor victories when loses are so abundant and absolute?

A “success” in the world of historic preservation could be broken down into several categories. The first success is a good outcome for the building that is part of the campaign, where the structure is saved and/or worked sensitively into a development with its historic integrity intact. The second type of “success” may be where a facade and other components could be integrated into a new plan, but may not be considered a true save of the entire structure. This would depend on an individual case study and the scope of the project.

The next category would be an educational, outreach and advocacy campaign, where perhaps the building is not saved, but the outreach effort and publicity were successful in spurring ongoing public discussions, written articles and conversation. That was the case with Prentice Hospital, where five different organizations—Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, AIA Chicago, Docomomo—all came together to form “The Save Prentice Coalition.” That campaign was very good at bringing the issue to a more public forum and getting the building considered for Chicago Landmark Designation.

Our advocacy and outreach around the effort to save St. James Catholic Church last year may also be an educational-outreach-advocacy victory, as it raised awareness of a historic building that was to be demolished without any notice to the community, the parish or the citizens of Chicago. The building’s place in the community was further brought to light and its story told.

It’s important to acknowledge any or all of these accomplishments in this field [of historic preservation]. I don’t think “celebrate” is a term to use, as in most cases the structures should have never been considered for demolition. It’s more about correcting the missteps, emphasizing the lack of creative vision or will to save a building and to offer plans for reuse or restoration.

At the end of the day, this is all about making Chicago and our communities a better place to live and visit through the embrace of cultural resources and architectural and historical landmarks.

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