Last January, Robert Bank and his neighbors on the far northwest side were worried that a handsome two-story terra-cotta building on Lawrence near Milwaukee might be demolished, so they asked the city what they could do to get it protected. “They told us to fill out an application to have the building turned into a historical landmark and then wait for a hearing,” says Bank, a member of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association. “So we filled out the form and waited for our hearing. And we waited and waited and waited, until they finally gave us our hearing–five months after the building had been torn down! That’s some system, huh?”

Bank showed up to vent his frustration at a meeting of the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks just a few days after Mayor Daley introduced his much ballyhooed amendment to the building code to protect historically valuable buildings. “I’m very skeptical about the new law,” says Bank. “After what we went through, I’m very skeptical about anything the city says it’s going to do to save old buildings.”

The process that led to Daley’s proposed amendment, which the City Council is expected to pass sometime in the next few months, began last spring, when preservationists learned that the owners of the old Mercantile Exchange, the 1920s limestone building at the corner of Franklin and Washington, had been given a demolition permit by the city’s building department. That showed how vulnerable valuable buildings in Chicago are, says Jonathan Fine, cofounder of Preservation Chicago, a not-for-profit watchdog group that has lobbied vigorously to save the Merc.

The city ranks its buildings, dividing them into three basic categories: red, orange, and green. “Red’s the highest marking, meaning the building has national value,” says Fine. “Next comes orange, followed by green.” Any building the city designates as a historical landmark can’t be demolished (unless the city unlandmarks it, but that’s another issue). “An orange building has by virtue of its designation some historical significance and is, at the very least, worthy of being considered for landmark status,” he says. “We need to stop tearing down orange buildings because that’s the pool from which we get our landmarks. If you allow too many to be destroyed we will have nothing left to save.”

The color rankings are based on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, a survey of buildings conducted over the course of a dozen years in the 1980s and ’90s by a group of idealistic young preservationists, some of whom worked without pay. “They had no real budget to work with–a lot of them got to where they had to go by public transportation,” says Fine. “I’m not putting down the survey. The fact that it was published at all is amazing. The fact that it contains so much good stuff is also amazing. But we have to recognize that there are many valuable buildings not on that list.” City officials frequently turn down preservation requests on the grounds that a building isn’t listed in the survey–even though the same officials admit the list is incomplete. “It’s a curious catch-22, isn’t it?” says Bank.

Preservationists often feel they’re at a major disadvantage when it comes to getting the city to invoke its power to designate landmarks. “We just don’t have the clout of developers,” says Bank. “If a developer wants to tear down a building, the city’s going to look for every excuse they can find to let him.”

The Merc, for instance, is owned by CC Industries, a firm controlled by the Crowns, one of the city’s wealthiest and most powerful families. Last February the city’s building department gave CC Industries a permit to destroy the Merc, even though the company hadn’t announced what would be built in its place. Planning commissioner Alicia Berg says she didn’t know the building department had issued a permit until her department was notified by preservationists. A spokesman for CC Industries said last August that the company’s liaison with the city had been Lee Bey, one of Mayor Daley’s deputy chiefs of staff (and a former architecture writer for the Sun-Times)–though the liaison for most developers, especially in the Loop, is someone in the planning department. Preservationists like Fine said it was an outrage that the planning department, which oversees the process of making buildings landmarks, had been left out of the loop on a matter of such importance.

At first no one in City Hall, not even Berg, seemed upset at the prospect of losing the Merc. Mayor Daley didn’t mention it. Berg, Bey, and other officials said there was no reason to blame the system for the pending loss. They said the building department had had no reason to notify the planning department of the demolition request because the Merc wasn’t a landmark. And it wasn’t a landmark because it wasn’t worthy of being a landmark–if it were, the city would have made it one. “The landmarks commission is dedicated to saving the best of the old buildings,” one planning official said in August. “We can’t save every old building in Chicago.”

That attitude had persisted through the summer, while Fine and Michael Moran and other preservationists continued their campaign to save the Merc. Fine and Moran also pressed the city to create a system under which the building department would automatically notify the planning department of proposals to demolish orange- or red-coded buildings. “We met with Alicia Berg and Brian Goeken [the planning department deputy commissioner who oversees landmark issues], and we told them we weren’t going away and this issue wasn’t going to go away,” says Fine. “We said we were going to make their lives miserable unless the system was reformed.”

Over the next few months the city’s position slowly changed. “The mayor and his political people are really very cautious–they want to eliminate any reason for criticism,” says one City Hall insider. “The last thing they want is more protests or stories in the newspapers about valuable old buildings getting knocked down. They don’t want to look like they’re weak on preservation, especially with a mayoral election right around the corner.”

Whatever the reason, on December 3 Daley announced a proposal to amend the building code to require an automatic 90-day hold on demolition permits for red- or orange-coded buildings. “City moves to save historic buildings,” read the headline for the Tribune’s story on the proposal. Reporter David Mendell wrote that Daley had directed city lawyers to draft the proposed amendment after he learned that the building department had failed to notify the planning department of the proposal to demolish the Merc. “City officials have conceded they dropped the ball on the mercantile exchange,” Mendell wrote. “‘When the mayor first heard of [the Merc], he was concerned that different parts of his administration weren’t coordinated,’ said Alicia Berg….’We care too much about our architectural heritage to let things like this slip through the cracks. We just think this is the right thing to do, and we just had to spend some time to work it out.'”

“Everyone knows what’s going on here,” says one preservationist who asked not to be identified. “Everyone can see that they’re just trying to save the mayor. If Daley was really so upset he’d have introduced this amendment way back in March.” And if he had, a lot of buildings might have been saved; 20 orange-coded buildings have been torn down just since June.

Publicly most preservationists have been quick to hail Daley. Fine says the amendment will at least give them a fighting chance to save valuable buildings: “In the past city officials have said, ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do to save this building because a demolition permit’s been issued.’ Now they can’t say that anymore. Now they can’t hide behind ignorance. Now they have to make some tough decisions. This gives us due process. With a 90-day hold we have a chance to go to the landmarks commission and say, ‘Look, this building needs to be saved.’ Then both sides will make their case, and the commission will have the chance to do some really courageous landmarking.”

Daley’s amendment wouldn’t have saved the terra-cotta building Bank and his neighbors were concerned about, which stood at 5306 W. Lawrence. It wasn’t rated orange. It wasn’t even included in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. “It was a great old building that’d been around since the 20s,” says Bank. “It was still functioning. The units were leased. There were a couple of doctors there and a travel agency.”

In January a tenant told Bank the landlord was preparing to demolish the building. “I don’t know what he planned to put there–he still hasn’t said,” says Bank. “He told the tenants that the building was in lousy shape and it wasn’t worth fixing up.”

In February, Bank wrote a letter to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. “It’s a two-story Gothic Revival, designed by A.L. Himmelblau,” he wrote. “Please tell us how we can apply for Landmark Status so that we can preserve what is left of our neighborhood’s history and character.”

The local alderman, Patrick Levar, of the 45th Ward, asked the city to assess the building and two others in the area to see if they should be made landmarks. Goeken wrote back to Levar on March 29 in a letter that was published in the weekly Chicago Northwest Side Press: “None of the three buildings were documented as having individual architectural or historical significance by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey.”

Undaunted, Bank and his neighbors pushed to have the building saved. “I don’t care if the building’s not on the survey–the city admits that the survey’s incomplete anyway,” says Bank. “This issue has to do with the character of the area. The city’s allowed too many great old commercial buildings to be destroyed–not just here, but all over Chicago. We’re losing the flavor of what makes us unique. We’re turning Chicago into a suburb.”

Bank and his allies collected nearly 600 signatures on petitions asking the city to save the building. But in early July the wrecking crews arrived. “There was no warning,” says Bank. “They just came in one day and tore it down. It’s just a hole in the ground strewn with rubble. And you know what really gets me–we never even got our hearing.”

As far as the city was concerned, the demolition made the matter moot. But Bank wouldn’t drop it, showing up for the December 5 landmarks commission meeting. “Back in February I filled out a request to seek landmark status for the 5306 W. Lawrence building… designed by noted architect Abraham Himmelblau, who is noted in the landmark commission’s own Chicago Historic Resources Survey, as are 11 buildings that he designed,” Bank told the commission. “Thus you can imagine my shock when Brian Goeken was quoted in the Northwest Press as saying that the building has ‘no individual architectural or historical significance.’ I have one thing to say to Brian Goeken–read your commission’s own book. It only makes it sadder that the 5306 building no longer stands. The building was torn down before we could gather enough evidence to meet the landmark commission’s ever-changing criteria.”

After he finished speaking, Bank watched as the commissioners moved on with their business, which included giving landmark status to The Republic, a statue in Jackson Park. “What a joke,” he said after the meeting. “Nothing against the statue–I’m sure it’s a wonderful statue. But here we are begging them to save old valuable buildings which developers want to destroy, and they’re landmarking statues in the park. It’s ridiculous. Who’s going to demolish a statue? They landmark things that aren’t threatened, while all these valuable buildings get destroyed.”

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