A battle over a proposed condo tower on South Wabash raises a basic question: How do you strike a balance in architectural preservation? Compromise too much and you wind up with an entry arch standing in a park beside the Art Institute, a forlorn remnant of Louis Sullivan’s demolished 1894 Stock Exchange Building. Compromise too little and you wind up protecting irrelevant buildings.

Last week the permit-review committee of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks was considering Mesa Development’s proposal to build a 72-story, 816-foot-high residential tower behind four loft buildings, the oldest dating back to 1872, on the east side of Wabash between Madison and Monroe–a stretch that’s part of the Jewelers Row Landmark District.

Mesa just finished the Heritage at Millennium Park, a 57-story condo tower at Randolph and Wabash, where three historic buildings, including the old Blackhawk restaurant, were demolished except for their facades. Those facades became the front of a new garage, though they were restored to their original luster. This approach to old buildings has become so common that the term facadectomy has been coined to describe it.

Mesa’s plan for the South Wabash buildings is a bit more complex. The facades would be saved, though a garage entrance would be incorporated into one of them. The new building–designed by Solomon Cordwell Buenz–would be constructed behind the facades, a glass skyscraper with a 28-foot setback.

At the permit-review meeting the battle lines were drawn in the usual way. In one corner were the developer, 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus, and some of the city’s planning bureaucrats. In the opposite corner were representatives of Preservation Chicago, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, and community groups such as South Loop Neighbors and Friends of Downtown.

“We see this as a real slippery slope,” David Bahlman, president of the Landmarks Preservation Council, told the committee. “We have no objections to the quality and the design of the building . . . [but] we can find no instance in Chicago or the U.S. where a new building has been permitted to be constructed in a local landmark district that is so completely out of scale with the heights of the surrounding historic structures. The landmarks commission’s own rules and regulations state that new construction in a landmark district must respect the ‘general size, shape, and scale of the features associated with the district.’ We therefore find it difficult to imagine how a 72-story building can be considered respectful of the urban fabric of an historic district . . . [where] all but one of the tallest structures in this district are less than 280 feet high, or about one-third the height of the proposed condo tower.”

“The question before you is whether a landmark district means anything,” said preservation activist Martin Tangora. “How are you going to tell the owners of 20 N. Michigan–an eight-story building that’s one of the oldest in the street wall–how are you going to tell them that they can’t build a 70-story tower on the back all but 30 feet of that lot? How are you going to stop anything on the street wall or in the Jewelers Row district or any other district in Chicago if you allow this to go through?”

Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, voiced a concern that was echoed by several other groups that testified. “The issue really is, why is this being rushed?” he said. “I found out yesterday that the reason I had not seen the drawings, the reason I was not aware of what the design looked like, is that the design has not yet been publicly released. . . . Trump Tower–which was not in a landmark district, which did not involve the facadectomies or the demolition of a historic building–that process was completely open and had the luxury of public scrutiny for months and months and months. Yet this project, which is in a historic district, which does abut a designated Chicago landmark by one of the finest architecture firms in the entire country”–meaning Louis Sullivan’s Jewelers Building–“somehow this project is being fast-tracked. That disturbs me to no end.”

Mesa attorney John George disputed Fine’s contention, saying the application for the development was filed last November, and indeed, Bahlman’s group knew enough about the project to begin denouncing it in January. Yet the city clearly wanted to move the project along unimpeded, proof of which was the presence of its commissioner of planning and development, Denise Casalino, who seldom attends permit-review meetings and who left as soon as the proposal was approved. Joining her in voting for the project were Ben Weese, the committee’s chair, and John Baird, of Baird & Warner–both of whom praised the sensitivity of the design.

The sole dissenting vote came from Phyllis Ellin, a National Parks Service historian. “What I’m being asked to do today,” she said, “is not to give my opinion of whether I like it or not as a matter of taste, but whether I think it meets the standards and guidelines of the commission. And I have to say I can’t say that I feel that it meets the standards. . . . It’s not in keeping with the size and scale of this particular district.”

No building is ever declared a landmark down to every brick, window, or tile. Chicago’s landmarking ordinances always clearly list those features being afforded protection, most commonly something like “all visible exterior elevations.” If other features–such as the Palmer House lobby or the atrium in Marshall Field’s–are to be protected, they have to be listed specifically. Other parts of the buildings are considered “noncontributing,” and the owners, after a commission review, are generally free to renovate or remove them. In landmark districts, where buildings are protected as a group, entire buildings deemed to be without historic or architectural merit can be designated noncontributing.

The first major issue surrounding the South Wabash project is whether the proposed alterations destroy the features that made the buildings landmark quality. The plans show the fourth and fifth floors of the facade fronting a parking deck, leaving the kind of “blind” windows that make preservationists cringe. But the first floors, now a jumble of unfortunate alterations, would be restored to their historic state, and the space behind them would be returned to retail use. More important, behind the second- and third-floor windows would be new classrooms and offices for the School of the Art Institute, which would be linked to the school’s Champlain Building to the south; the architects would also restore that building’s storefronts, now a dowdy mix of glass and dulled metal, to their original appearance. The new building would include squash and handball courts for members of the University Club, to be linked by a bridge over the alley to the club’s Gothic 1909 Holabird and Roche building on Michigan Avenue.

As a general principle, I think preserving just the facades of old buildings is bad, but the facades of these Wabash buildings are their only distinguished feature. Their north and south walls are invisible, butting up against the adjacent buildings, and their back walls, which face a narrow, dark alley, are ugly and inchoate. The interiors, changed numerous times over decades, have no landmark protection and wouldn’t seem to deserve it.

The second major issue is whether the new project would be out of scale with the other buildings in the landmark district. When he said the proposed 816-foot tower would be three times that of the surrounding buildings, Bahlman was excluding both the 551-foot Pittsfield Building and the 438-foot Willoughby Tower, though he did say the Pittsfield and Willoughby were too slender to be intrusive. But Mesa’s building would be a marked improvement on recent towers such as the Heritage at Millennium Park, a massive slab of concrete and glass set on a north-south axis that looms over the Cultural Center. Mesa’s new tower would have a glass curtain wall, and it would be oriented east to west, tapering to a narrow profile where it faces Michigan Avenue, leaving a lot of blue sky to the north and south of it.

Bahlman was also excluding nearby megatowers such as the 631-foot Heritage a block to the north, the 600-foot CNA tower a couple blocks south, and the 582-foot building at 55 E. Monroe, right across the street. These buildings are outside the landmark district, but this is the kind of blinders-on analysis only a lawyer could love. A great city like Chicago is not an atomized collection of unrelated parts. It’s a continuous fabric whose strength lies in the way the components draw on and enrich one another. The Michigan Avenue landmark district–quiet, dowdy, and more than a little dilapidated–has exploded with renewed energy since Millennium Park opened across the street. The modernism of the works of Frank Gehry, Jaume Plensa, and Anish Kapoor didn’t compromise the patrician tone of their older neighbors–it allowed us to see them with a fresh eye.

Wabash presents a tougher challenge. When State Street was king, Wabash enjoyed the spillover, and it was lined with vibrant shops and restaurants, such as the Blackhawk and the Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore. Both are long gone. As State Street declined, Wabash followed, and retailers have come and gone. The mass of the el continues to dominate the streetscape. “I was part of a movement many years ago to take down the el,” Burton Natarus told the people attending the permit-review meeting in what seemed a subtle dig at preservationists. “Some people think it is a landmark . . . but what it’s done to the street is made it dark. And it has a negative effect, not only from the standpoint of appearance, but from the standpoint of noise. . . . I think that what this project does is that it livens things up a little bit. It beautifies the area.”

With more than 350 units, the Mesa project could help increase pedestrian traffic and make Wabash more attractive to retailers. As for the el, the best way to neutralize its toxic effects would be to pry some cash from the Central Loop TIF and repaint and light up its undercarriage, making an attraction out of the beautifully intricate structure.

The permit-review committee’s decision comes before the Chicago Plan Commission on May 19 and the full landmarks commission in June; the final decision will eventually be made by the City Council, giving opponents plenty of time to organize. There will be a lot more discussion of slippery slopes, and rightly so–the last thing anyone wants to do is set a precedent that starts demolition-minded lawyers salivating. But the continued vitality of Chicago architecture depends on regular injections of the contemporary into the traditional–and on preservation efforts that aren’t tantamount to architectural taxidermy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Murphy.