Don’t Believe Your Eyes

Perkins Fellows Hamilton

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

One of the great conundrums of modern historic preservation is the split between the goal – preserving history – and the means – architectural control. This is why unknowing persons sometimes dismiss preservation commissions as “beauty contests” and equally why unschooled developers propose storybook design details to make things more “historic”. Which brings us to the great façade problem, which is getting a deliciously perverse twist in Chicago right now.

Right next to me, in the Chicago Landmark Jewelers Row district, two landmark buildings are being structurally demolished for a new highrise. Their facades will be propped up and restored. A fairly felicitous version of this project happened a couple of years ago to the north and the results look good. Thanks to the elevated tracks, the new setback tower reads as a separate building. But those weren’t landmarks, and Jeweler’s Row was – the Landmarks Commission approved it – like a beauty pageant.

Three blocks west, the City and even Landmarks Illinois reluctantly agreed to a partial demolition of a William LeBaron Jenney building (39 S. LaSalle) that will again save the façade – one bay deep – and a lobby. On North Michigan Avenue, the Farwell Building is being skinned and restructured – a facadectomy if there ever was one.

Back in the 1998-2001 several Chicago Landmarks (the Harris Theater in the Loop, Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio near the Water Tower) were reduced to a thin slice before reconstruction. The McGraw-Hill building was skinned, demolished and the old skin re-used on a new structure. The Platt Luggage building is a reconstructed façade on 22nd Street.

And now plans for the Dwight Buildings, a 1910 Schmidt Garden Martin Prairie printing house on reinforced concrete. Gobsmacked in a landmarks hearing 15 years ago, the building has no protection outside of its RED rating on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. That means it qualifies for a 90-day demolition delay.

Only here is the rub – there is no demolition. The developer is saving the whole building – the structure, the lobby, even the windows.

Let that sink in. They are saving the windows in a downtown building. Not because they are crazy preservationists – not by a long shot. Someone did their due diligence and realized that window replacement is – as it is so often – marketers blowing a whole lot of smoke up the rear access stair.

Anyway, the dear old Dwight is not being demolished but a new steel and glass structure will, wrap it on the side – and the top. Several new stories, supported by the that sturdy 1910 frame, will sit on top – clearly demarcated by color, material and even bay width.

The perverse irony here is that the Dwight will be a fully preserved building that looks like a facadectomy. Jeweler’s Row and 39 S. LaSalle and the Farwell Building will be facadectomies that look lke you preserved the building and added on top. So don’t believe your eyes. We don’t like it, but history will live on at the Dwight, whereas on Wabash, LaSalle and Michigan – beauty is only skin deep.


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