The Uptown building that until recently housed the Rainbo roller rink has always been a “community magnet for entertainment,” says David Bahlman of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. In the days before air-conditioning, people congregated in the picnic groves and outdoor beer gardens that used to cover the two-plus-acre site, on Clark Street just north of Lawrence. The building, constructed in several stages and completed in 1928, has had many incarnations over the years, among them a movie theater, a bowling alley, and an ice rink. It’s also served as a venue for everything from jai alai games to wrestling matches, raves to dog shows, big-band performances to rock concerts. Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin played there in 1969 when it housed the Kinetic Playground. In the 70s it became a roller rink.

The rink closed at the end of March, and roller-skating enthusiast Edith Frost eulogized the Rainbo on her weblog, writing, “They had a good wood floor and it was the only skating rink I’d ever been to that allowed skating while drinking. It was also the only one I’d ever seen that had two levels of skating: the main floor downstairs and another little floor upstairs by the bar.”

Bahlman says that in addition to having a rich history as a community gathering spot, the building is architecturally noteworthy–with its “beautiful terra-cotta detailing,” “inventive use of free-floating cornices with dentils,” and “unique central entrance pavilion.” A team of architectural experts who inventoried city buildings from 1983 to 1995 for the Chicago Historic Resources Survey agreed, giving the Rainbo a rating of orange, their second highest on a color-coded scale.

But where Bahlman sees a “neighborhood gem,” Darren Miller, a real estate attorney and partner in Sapphire Development LLC, sees “a big orange building” that’s “architecturally not that significant.”

“It’s actually a number of buildings taped together” over the years in a “hodgepodge of styles,” he says. Though he understands the building may have sentimental value for some people–he says he used to go ice-skating there with his grandfather–he’s not sure sentimental “is the thing to preserve.”

Even before the Rainbo closed, Miller and his business partners were meeting with Alderman Helen Shiller to discuss their plans for the site. Sapphire, which bought the property two years ago for over $4 million, intends to build a mixed-use complex consisting of both commercial and residential space–either condos or town houses. Shiller made it clear that if possible, she’d like the new development to incorporate the building’s original facade.

Meanwhile Sapphire was busy lining up the chips to bring it down. The group hired a zoning attorney and began working with a developer. And last December it applied for a demolition permit. The application came in to City Hall around the same time that a plan to protect buildings like the Rainbo was floating through the halls.

Late last year Mayor Daley and his Department of Planning and Development commissioner, Alicia Mazur Berg, had proposed an amendment to the building code in response to heavy criticism after the city issued a demolition permit for the orange-rated Mercantile Exchange. The ordinance, which the City Council passed in January, requires a 90-day hold on demolition permits for any of the 6,200 buildings listed as architecturally or historically significant in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. It’s intended to give Berg’s department time to resolve the question of whether these buildings deserve landmark status. But two days before the ordinance went into effect, the Department of Buildings gave Sapphire Development permission to wreck the Rainbo building.

Shiller concedes that the building “is not in great shape” and may need to come down, and that the owners are well within their rights to demolish it. But she’s asked them not to do so until the possibilities for reusing the existing structure are fully explored. In certain circumstances, the city can provide financial assistance or tax breaks to developers willing to save notable buildings from the wrecking ball.

The developer on this project, Paul Hardej of Metropolitan Development Enterprises, Inc., insists demolition isn’t imminent–or even a foregone conclusion. Hardej says the partners are still “in the early stages of planning” and haven’t yet made a final decision as to whether the complex will call for the building’s destruction. And he denies that he timed they permit application to avoid being bound by the terms of the new ordinance. Rather, he says, they were trying to avoid a beginning-of-the-year fee hike on demolition permits. But according to a spokesperson for the Department of Construction and Permits, no such fee hike was made.

The building is now undergoing asbestos removal. What becomes of it after that–whether it gets renovated or reduced to rubble–“will be all sorted out in the next year, with the alderman’s full participation,” says Sapphire’s David Hanna. He says they are working closely with Shiller and “will do our best to keep as much of the building on site as possible–as long as it works financially.”

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