Just hours after we sat in the conference room at Landmarks Illinois and doubted whether Alderman Brendan Reilly would come out in favor of preserving the Lake Shore Athletic Club, he did. Crain’s broke the news yesterday, and tons of Streeterville residents, Landmarks Illinois members and Preservation Chicago supporters who had demonstrated outside the building on June 3 were elated. A 42nd ward alderman bucking the development community in favor of the larger community!
Cynicism in Chicago politics is almost as old as aldermanic privilege, and even though Reilly defeated Burton Natarus last spring largely because Natarus was seen as too friendly with developers, we longtime observers were hedging our bets. Reilly had negotiated an additional 60-day period on top of the 90-day demolition delay provided for landmark-eligible buildings in Chicago. The cynic in me said: well, that will be all he does, to show he made an effort.
But he did more, putting developer Fifield Companies and owner Northwestern University on the defensive. No crocodile tears for either – Northwestern was looking at a capital gain of over $30 million for a lakefront building it never paid taxes on, after bobbling a deal several years ago that would have netted only a few million less without demolishing the building. Fifield’s muscle called the 1920s landmark by nationally famous architect Jarvis Hunt “the lowest and worst use” for the site, a gaffe winning no friends in Streeterville, a reasonably well-heeled community that likes to have a say in its environment. The people that live there want it to stay – that is the real bottom line, as Reilly divined.
This isn’t a small building, and while the exterior ornament is restrained, the interior, especially the pool, is resplendent and lush. Fifield couldn’t build something this nice if it wanted to. That is the trick to pre-1940 preservation – it is made in ways you can’t make anymore. It is not a question of economics but extinction: You couldn’t build that swimming pool today anymore than you could breed passenger pigeons.
Reilly could have dodged this issue with over three years to repair his image among his constituency, but maybe he realized that it was just as important to take a strong stand early on, winning the support of tons of voters. Fifield will hang around no matter what, as will Northwestern, which mostly votes in Evanston, where it has fought local landmark districts for the better part of a decade. In fact, between Lake Shore Athletic and Prentice Women’s Hospital, Northwestern is fast becoming the preservation nemesis Loyola was in the 90s.
Alderman Reilly, however, is a preservation superman today, a world of difference in the 42nd ward!