Seth and Kimberly Guterman were alarmed to learn last month that a developer intended to tear down a turn-of-the-century three-flat on their block. They and their neighbors on West Newport came up with a plan to save the building by turning the whole block, which runs unbroken from Halsted to Sheffield, into a landmark.

They soon discovered that when it comes to preservation, politics still trumps merit. “Call it preservation Chicago style,” says Jonathan Fine, cofounder of the advocacy group Preservation Chicago. “What matters most is the alderman.”

The city was supposed to have removed politics from preservation a year ago, when Mayor Daley had the City Council pass an ordinance intended to guard against the demolition of historically valuable buildings. He’d called for the bill after the city’s building department quietly agreed to let the Crown family destroy the Mercantile Exchange, a 17-story limestone office building at Franklin and Washington. When word hit the papers, Daley and his chief planning aides claimed the building wasn’t worth preserving.

Dozens of protesters took to the streets and bombarded Daley with letters, pointing out that the Merc had been designed by Alfred Alschuler, a prominent architect of his time, and was a classic example of what Fine calls “Road to Perdition 1920s architecture.” Daley promptly reversed himself, expressing outrage that the building department had issued

a demolition permit without contacting the planning department and at least holding a meeting on the matter. To make sure nothing similar happened again, he pushed through a law requiring a 90-day moratorium on any request to demolish a building that had been deemed especially valuable in a late-80s catalog of most of the buildings in Chicago. The catalog had color coded buildings, the most historically valuable being, in descending order, red, orange, and green.

But as preservationists point out, the law merely sets off an alarm–it doesn’t compel the city to save a building someone wants to tear down. And so far it hasn’t made the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, a nine-person body appointed by Daley that makes recommendations to the City Council on buildings that should be saved, any quicker to preserve old buildings. There was no 90-day moratorium for the orange-rated Cass Studios building, at Chicago and Wabash, and this past summer it was demolished. The city said it made a mistake. Thirteen more orange-rated buildings were demolished after their 90 days were up. The city said they weren’t worth preserving. And another ten orange-rated buildings will probably be destroyed within the next few months. The commission did recommend that landmark status be given to Saint Gelasius Church in Woodlawn, but only after the local alderman, Arenda Troutman, threatened to tie herself to the church to keep it from being torn down.

Michael Moran, Preservation Chi-cago’s other cofounder, says the city doesn’t want to aggressively landmark old buildings because that would upset powerful developers. “What we have seen,” he says, “is that buildings or districts are considered not worthy of landmarking as a routine.”

The Victorian three-flat on Newport is especially vulnerable. It has a green rating, which means it has some architectural value but not enough to trigger a 90-day moratorium on demolition. The developer who bought it last month, William Broderick of Castleview Construction, says he had no way of knowing that anyone would be upset if he tore it down. “It didn’t receive any historical value during the city’s survey,” he says. “It’s not a landmark. Therefore we are entitled to do what the zoning law allows us to do. We hope to put a four-unit condominium there.”

Under the city’s demolition law Broderick was required to send a notice of demolition to the property owners who live on either side of the building, and they quickly let their neighbors know what he planned. They weren’t happy. “I think it would be a disgrace if we let this building get demolished,” says Seth Guterman, “and most of my neighbors agree.”

It’s not just the building alone, he says, but “the way the building fits into the context of the block.” The block is one of the few in Lakeview that hasn’t been changed in recent years by development–all of its 60 or so turn-of-the-century buildings remain. “I think it’s a beautiful street with cultural and historical significance,” says Guterman. “Look up and down the block and you’ll see house after house with the bay windows and the porches–there’s that ambience that says Chicago. The developer wants to put up a four-story unit that’s out of context with the block. It’s like punching out a tooth in a beautiful row of teeth.”

“If this street doesn’t merit landmarking, then no street does,” says Fine. “This is virtually 100 percent intact with historical buildings, and what’s more, its residents are asking for landmarking.”

Fine knows that the neighbors’ case is weakened because the building’s rating is green. “The sad fact is that the landmarks commission’s instinctive reaction is to pull back from landmarking,” he says. “In this case they’d probably say, ‘It’s green.’ So it gets torn down. Then we’d come back and say, ‘Well, save the rest of the buildings–landmark the block.’ And they would say, ‘Oh, but that other green building has already been destroyed, so the block’s not worth preserving.’ It becomes a catch-22.”

Fine warns that this logic could cost Chicago most of the vestiges of its architectural past. “You see this all over Lincoln Park and Lakeview,” he says. “There’s a similar stretch of Briar, which at one time was a beautiful block. Go there now and you can count 16 to 18 new buildings–you know, the redbrick shower-stall building. There’s nothing distinctive, nothing that’s Chicago. It’s all greed, all the time–free-market capitalism gone amok. It’s really a detriment to the city. It’s difficult to get anyone in the city to realize we’re sowing the seeds of our own mediocrity.”

In late September the neighbors contacted their alderman, Tom Tunney, whose office can review any permit submitted in the 44th Ward. He arranged a September 30 meeting between the residents and the developer. “The developer was a nice guy and all, but he wasn’t really ready to compromise,” says Guterman. “He said the building was in generally bad shape. We asked him to renovate it. He said he doesn’t do renovations.”

A few days later the residents pressed their case with Tunney. “He listened to us,” says Guterman, “and said if we had support in the community for landmarking the block he’d support us.”

Guterman and several neighbors circulated a petition that declared, “I am against the demolition of any building on our block and support the creation of a landmark district for our block, 814 to 938 W. Newport (alley to alley).” They soon had the signatures of most of the property owners and tenants on the block.

They delivered the petitions to Tunney, who got the building department to put a hold on the developer’s demolition request. Fine is hailing Tunney as a hero, though Tunney is reluctant to be labeled as anything more than a case-by-case preservationist. “I respect property owners’ rights to do what they want to do with their property–in our system a developer has his rights, and that’s the way it should be,” he says. “But this is a special case, because of the widespread support of the residents. I told the developer that we have to find a way to save the building. He said he wished he could. I gave him the name of another developer who does restoration, but they couldn’t agree on a sale price. So the hold on demolition is still on, and that’s where we stand.”

If the developer’s determined to tear down the building he can probably overturn the hold on his permit by going to court. But if he does that he risks antagonizing Tunney, which isn’t a good idea if he plans to keep working in the 44th Ward.

The Daley administration isn’t commenting on the matter. Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of the landmarks commission, directed questions to Pete Scales, a press spokesman in the planning department. Scales didn’t return calls for comment.

Yet some Newport residents say Goeken told them he didn’t think the building was worth saving. “I talked to Goeken, and it was very hard to pin him down,” says Guterman. “He said, ‘Well, it’s not really historically valuable.’ I said, ‘Have you seen the block?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, no, I haven’t really seen the block.’ So how can he make a judgment?”

Moran suspects that Goeken’s probably waiting for orders from City Hall higher-ups. He says that if Tunney hangs tough–as Troutman did–the city will have to preserve the building by landmarking the whole block. But if he wavers the building will be lost. “You’d think they’d take the merits of the building and the merits of the block into a matter like this,” says Moran. “But what we found is that the city’s instinct is to stay away from landmarking unless the alderman gets involved. If the alderman gets involved, then the value of the building dramatically changes–suddenly there’s this magical transformation in favor of landmarking.”

The preservationists say their job is to encourage residents who want to save buildings to let their aldermen know there are as many votes to be gained from landmarking buildings as there are contributions to be garnered by allowing developers free rein. “I admit it’s a funny way of doing things,” says Moran. “But it’s the way things get done in Chicago.”

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