Landmark approval for West Burton Place won't save the building at 159. Credit: Deanna Isaacs

On Thursday the Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously approved a preliminary landmark recommendation for a half block of Old Town’s West Burton Place (between LaSalle and Wells), a week after a demolition permit was issued for one of the 13 buildings in the proposed historic district.

“You made your move a little late here,” was how citizen and perennial gadfly George Blakemore—a regular presence at these meetings—put it during a public comment period. 

The new designation will not prevent the destruction of a three-flat at 159 W. Burton, which was purchased in April by a developer who plans to replace it with a four-story condominium. The Victorian-era structure stands next to the core building on the street, the Carl Street Studios—a fanciful warren of artists’ live-work spaces created by developer and artist Sol Kogen and art deco artist and craftsman Edgar Miller.

But residents who’ve mounted a preservation campaign under the slogan “Save our story, save our street,” say the historic district, proposed by 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, will at least ensure that there aren’t any future demolitions on the historic part of the block.   

And they’re hoping the developer will change his plan and keep significant parts of the exterior of the building intact.

What would convince him to do that? History, neighborhood sentiment, and the fact that he’s going to need some building permits. Exterior construction within a historic district is subject to review by the Landmarks Commission.

Eleanor Esser Gorski, the city’s director of historic preservation, observed that the demolition permit can’t be rescinded. But, she said, “I’m hopeful we can change the course of what’s happening through persuasion.” 

A 2007 attempt to get the block landmarked was dropped because some property owners weren’t on board.  At Thursday’s meeting, James Kemmerer, who lives in a co-op building within the proposed district, said at this point, he’s “neutral” and looking for more information.  

Among the many speakers supporting the designation were representatives of the Chicago Art Deco Society, Landmarks Illinois, the Edgar Miller Legacy, the National Museum of Mexican Art, and Preservation Chicago. Also, architectural historian Rolf Achilles, author Richard Cahan, and former Chicago Tribune art critic Alan Artner, who’s lived on the block for 43 years.

The developer, Sebastian Barsh of Castlerock Properties, apparently wasn’t present.

The next step is a study by the city planning department, which can take as long as 60 days, followed by letters being sent to property owners within the proposed district requesting their consent. (No one at the meeting seemed to know exactly how many owners there are.) If the owners are not in unanimous agreement, a public hearing is scheduled. Ultimately, the commission makes a recommendation to the City Council, where the final decision is made.

Gorski said the developer has been given “a few alternatives”—suggestions that would allow him to change the interior of the building while maintaining “the front facade.”   

The Commission also unanimously approved a landmark recommendation for Bertrand Goldberg’s iconic Marina City.

That moved Blakemore to wonder how the corn cob towers could meet the commission’s standard “when [Goldberg’s] Prentice [Women’s Hospital] was torn down.”

He also objected to the commission’s recommendation for $2.4 million in property tax incentives for a $5.9 million renovation of a building at 2230 S. Michigan Avenue, in the Motor Row District.

“It’s ridiculous,” Blakemore said. “Poor people have no way to get incentives to pay their taxes.”