Commission On Landmarks Fails To Protect Historic Chicago

By D. B Lake, The Chicago Times

September 8, 2022

CHICAGO – In a shameful decision, the Commission of Chicago Landmarks failed to vote on granting landmark status to the historic Consumers Building and Century Building both located on State Street.

Both buildings have been vacant since their controversial 2005 acquisition by the federal government through eminent domain and face demolition due to possible safety concerns both structures present federal employees working in the adjacent Dirksen Federal Building.  Both structures were proposed for demolition in 2022 at a cost of $52 million.

The impressive Everett McKinley Dirksen United States Courthouse by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1964.
Photo: US General Services Administration

The Consumers Building (1913), located at 220 South State Street, and the Century Building (1915), located at 202 South State Street, are both pure examples of Chicago School architecture that came to prominence after the Great Chicago Fire (1871) and gave rise to the modern skyscrapers we visit every day in our great city.

The Chicago Department of Planning and Development presented to the commission on the architectural significance of the two buildings in support of granting landmark status.  Several preservationists urged the commission to grant landmark status and argued that demolition of the buildings would lead to the rejection by UNESCO in declaring the State Street district a World Heritage Site.

The Consumers Building was designed by the famed Chicago architectural firm Jenney, Mundie & Jensen and is part of the Loop Retail Historic District.  Throughout the 1920s and 1940s, the building was home to various companies such as Carnation Milk, Liberty Mutual, and the Pullman Company.  Preservationists warn that demolition of the Consumers Building will destroy its original interior that is decked out in Carrara marble and magnificent bronze fixtures.

The Consumers Building, Chicago. Photo: Tdl1060, via Wikipedia.

The Century Building, designed by the still very active Chicago architectural firm Holabird & Roche, is also part of the Loop Retail Historic District.  Originally christened as the Buck & Rayner Building and later renamed for the Century Trust and Savings Bank, the Century Building retains much of its original terra cotta ornamentation.

The Century Building, Chicago. Photo: Tdl1060, via Wikipedia.

According to the Preservation Chicago, “The Century Building is historically unique for two important reasons. First, the distinct vertical expression of the building’s exterior elevations portends the transition from the Chicago School buildings of the late 19th century to the early decades of the 20th century. Emphasis of verticality is achieved with strong vertical bands and understated recessed spandrels. Second, the overall design of the façade ornament is a rare example of Neo-Manueline (inspired by the historic Portuguese style) influenced architecture in the Midwest. The proliferation of complex ornament around building openings, such as windows and doors, features shields with dragons, botanical motifs, and pinnacles, and contributes to the diversity of the architectural environment within the Chicago Loop.”

Despite the historic significance of both buildings, Landmark Commission Chairman, Ernie Wong, refused to call a vote on granting preliminary landmark status on the buildings.  Wong believes further study is needed to determine specific safety concerns.  No one mentioned that the Dirksen Federal Building, designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, has co-existed with the two historic buildings since 1964.  In fact, retaining the Consumers Building and Century Building along with the Dirksen Federal Building will preserve a living example of the evolution from Chicago School to Second Chicago School architecture for generations.  Surely, safety concerns can be remedied without destroying Chicago history.