THE CHICAGO BUILDING SOUNDS LIKE a place you ought to know, if you know Chicago, but try putting your finger on it. Even natives of Chicago, a city where office buildings carry the same cultural weight as, say, churches in Paris, may not recognize by name the drab heap of terra cotta on the corner of State and Madison Streets, winking neon diamonds at passersby from the windows of Carter Jewelers. This was a prime business comer around the turn of the century, when tenants could look down from their triplebay windows at the Schlesinger and Mayer department store across the street, now Carson Pirie Scott. The building itself, designed in 1904 by Holabird and Roche, was in the height of Chicago fashion, glowering down on pedestrians from beneath a flat, heavy cornice in a way that said "hog butcher to the world, buddy."
But fashions change, leaving the windows dark, the lobby doors locked, the of-flees empty above the second-floor premises of Famous Footwear. The news on the comer is that, owing to a vote in the Chicago city council last week, the Chicago Building is now an official city landmark. Probably more people would have noticed had the vote failed, and the owners followed through on a plan to eke a few more dollars from their languishing investment. Then the building would have been known all over Chicago as "the one with the giant Toys "R" Us sign on it."
This would not have been totally out of character for Chicago, a city with a tradition of both building and tearing down great architecture. The city of Louis H. Sullivan (whose magnificent Garrick Theater was demolished in 1961), Daniel Burnham and Frank Lloyd Wright has only 110 designated landmarks--compared with 949 in New York City-but even that may have seemed excessive to some aldermen, who recently voted to make it harder to designate buildings for preservation. Under the old law, if the Landmarks Commission recommended protection for a building, it took effect automatically unless the city council voted it down, thus enlisting bureaucratic inertia and political cowardice on the side of Art. The new law requires an affirmative vote in the council within a year, or the building loses protection forever--a change Ron Emrich of the Landmarks Preservation CounCil of Illinois calls "a frontal assault on the city's history."
It was, at least, a frontal assault on a 101-year-old coach house in a historic district of grand old homes on the North Side. A day after the vote in early March, a city official signed a demolition permit for the coach house-by mistake, an embarrassed Mayor Richard Daley later explained--and bulldozers reduced it to rubble to make way for an addition to a private school. Many Chicagoans were appalled, although apparently not those on the city council. "This," says Alderman Burton Natarus, whose district includes many potential landmarks and unhappy owners, "is capitalism."
Still, the furor had its effect, and last week the council voted to protect four parcels on a list of $0 awaiting preservation-including an old apartment house and the Essanay Studios, where Charlie Chaplin once toiled. But no action was taken on 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive, the glass-walled luxury apartment towers designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1952; and the council has yet to consider other properties, including the small wooden house where Walt Disney was born in 1901. As for the Chicago Building, it's safe for now from the ravages of commerce, although it was, of course, commerce that called it into being in the first place. If you want to see it in all its somber, decrepit glory, thanks to the city council, you're in luck. And maybe the best way to honor it is to buy a watch and a pair of shoes while you're there.