Will Tribune Tower's landmark designation protect the inscriptions in the lobby or the artifacts embedded in the facade? Credit: Mariano Mantel

Many years ago a college friend who was one of the lucky ones—right out of J-school she got a reporting job with the Chicago Tribune—led me up a public elevator to a little-known service elevator and out onto a terrace at the top of a hotel that’s now the InterContinental. It was a summer night. Stars lit the sky above and glittering Michigan Avenue below. And at our exalted level, almost near enough to touch, loomed the Tribune Tower’s mighty gothic crown. 

This was now her city, her home, her life. And did any building represent Chicago more assertively than Trib Tower? When it was built in the 1920s—having been chosen as the winner of an architectural competition that asked for “the most beautiful office building in the world”—the Tower was criticized as backward-looking. But what’s wrong with building a castle if you belong in one? Tribune Tower sent the message that the Tribune‘s president, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, wanted sent: We rule.

Sic transit gloria. Today the tower belongs to one company, Tribune Media, and the paper to another, Tronc, Inc. Tronc could soon be sold to Gannett, and the tower’s about to be sold for about $240 million to CIM Group, a real estate investment firm based in Los Angeles. Tribune Media is planning to move out of the Tower, but reportedly will remain in Chicago; the Tribune‘s lease at 435 North Michigan runs through 2018.  

Tribune Tower was designated a city landmark in 1989. But exactly what this protects—or should protect—is unclear to me. The lobbies and facades, says the ordinance. But does that include the inscriptions in the lobby “that express the ideals and obligations of the journalistic community as interpreted by the Chicago Tribune“? I’m quoting from the staff report on Tribune Tower prepared by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which noticed those inscriptions. However, the ordinance itself does not. 

And what about the various artifacts embedded in the building’s facade—the stones from the Alamo and Notre Dame cathedral and the Great Wall of China? The ordinance doesn’t mention them either. The problem is that these adornments aren’t so much site specific as Tribune specific, reflecting the idealism and venturesomeness of journalism, and the eccentricity of the colonel. Should they stay where they are—to grace, completely gratuitously, the entrance to an LA-based real estate company’s property? Should the Tribune, the departing main tenant, be allowed to take its relics to its next headquarters? (My guess is the Tribune has little interest in doing this and its next landlord will have even less.)

Or could CIM Group get away with getting rid of the artifacts, on the grounds they’re now completely out of context and the landmark ordinance offers them no special protection? 

I’ve done one earlier Tribune Tower architectural story that I can remember. Back in 1988 the Tribune dedicated a new staircase between the second, third, and fourth floors. Top execs made speeches and cut ribbons, and a navy band marched up and down the stairs playing its heart out. “It was a big goddamn hoot!” said a Trib reporter. “It was kind of like an old-fashioned Fourth of July thing.” 

And after it was built, no one used it!

It all seemed pretty funny then, but now it seems sort of poignant. That was still a time—though not by much—when the Tribune was still the Tribune, so full of itself that it occasionally got preposterous. 

Chicago will still have the Tower—by one name or another—but when will a building have been more gutted?