Within Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, among the urban canyons of soaring glass & steel office buildings, there is a unique and rare collection of architecture: the commercial buildings erected in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. These are commonly referred to as the “Post-Fire” era buildings, built from 1872 up until the advent of modern building materials and advanced construction techniques. These unprecedented approaches to commercial architecture facilitated the birth of the multi-story “skyscraper” in the early-mid 1880s, notably William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building erected in 1883.
Post-Fire buildings’ architectural style is typically Italianate in varying degrees, and virtually identical to those destroyed in the fire. This is significant as it aesthetically forms a portal to the look of the “Pre-Fire” downtown Chicago building stock before it was completely obliterated. Functionally, the majority of the buildings served as wholesale commercial lofts, with each floor housing a different manufacturer of products appropriate for the era: leather goods, textiles, household amenities like pianos, steam heaters and boilers, and iron & woodworking machinery…
According to City of Chicago’s Landmarks Commission surveys, 75 of these buildings still remained in 1975. Fourteen years later, a new survey was done (prompted by the highly controversial “un-landmarking” and demolition of the McCarthy Building for Block 37 development) and showed less than 25 remaining: a staggering number of 50 had been demolished in just a decade and a half, during the “dark ages” of decay in Chicago’s downtown area. These occurred even with growing historic preservation awareness and municipal measures and ordinances in place to “protect” Chicago’s vulnerable historic architecture. Twenty-five years later in 2015, I have been able to identify 21 surviving buildings, displayed in the map below.
Of these 21, only 10 are recognized and protected as Chicago Landmarks. Some of the other 11 are “orange-rated” (or recognized as “historically significant” in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey [CHRS]), and a handful are not even “buildings” proper, but preserved façades with the original building demolished in recent redevelopment on the site. The rest hold no historic recognition, or even inclusion in the CHRS for unknown reasons.
The piece ends with a call for preserving more of these buildings. It would be interesting to have a broader discussion in Chicago regarding this: how many leaders and residents would support such preservation? Is Chicago so committed to economic and residential growth in the Loop that some of these buildings could be “sacrificed”? On the other hand, the preservationists could make a public case for why going beyond these 10 protected buildings is necessary. And would it be better to make a case one by one for the remaining buildings or to argue for all of them at once? Of course, the process of preserving buildings doesn’t just rest on the merits of individual structures but involves a social and political process.