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Preserving the city's cultural patrimony
Far more measures needed to protect prized buildings
By Blair Kamin
Tribune architecture critic
Published November 12, 2006
For anyone who loves Chicago architecture, the scene at 630 S. Wabash Ave. can only be described as gut-wrenching.
A jagged corner of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler's destroyed Wirt-Dexter Building rises beside the elevated tracks like a giant shard. Two yellow backhoes lift mounds of brick and singed wood timbers with their huge claws, depositing them in big red trucks with a sickening thud. Workmen hose down the remains of the building, a modest commercial loft structure that Chicago's landmarks commission once called "an irreplaceable link in the chain of work of one of the nation's most important architectural partnerships."
Scenes like this are becoming all too common.
The succession of fires that has destroyed three Adler & Sullivan buildings in Chicago this year, casting a pall over the 150th anniversary of Sullivan's birth, presents a daunting challenge to city officials: How to prevent fire from sending more of Chicago's architectural treasures to the graveyard?
The stakes are enormous. Tourists by the planeload come here to visit the birthplace of modern architecture. In the city's neighborhoods, where houses are crammed cheek-by-jowl, the safety of individual homes depends upon contractors carrying out work on historic buildings without setting them aflame.
Ultimately, however, the stakes are about art. Louis Sullivan was the father of modern architecture. Every time Chicago loses one of his buildings, the city says goodbye to an irreplaceable part of its cultural patrimony.
Preservationists have rightly criticized city officials for doing too little to protect Adler & Sullivan's treasures, though they admit that no amount of regulation can stop an arsonist.
Police say they are investigating the most recent blaze, which last Saturday destroyed the North Side home thought to be Adler & Sullivan's last surviving wood-frame house, as a possible arson. Torches used in repairs were blamed for the fires that destroyed the Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue in January and the Wirt-Dexter Building last month.
A jolted Daley administration now appears to be coming to grips with the tragedies and determining how to avoid them.
"We have been in communication with the Buildings Department and the Fire Department," said Constance Buscemi, a spokeswoman for the Department of Planning and Development and its Commission on Chicago Landmarks. "Collectively, we are looking at what could be done with regard to not just landmark buildings but older buildings that have heavy timbers and the use of open flames."
In the past, the destruction of great Adler & Sullivan buildings in Chicago has produced widespread outrage and lasting reform.
The senseless demolition of their Garrick Theater Building in 1961 and Chicago Stock Exchange Building in 1972 helped spawn the creation of Chicago's preservation law, the city commission responsible for enforcing that law as well as a leading advocacy group, Landmarks Illinois, that fights to save historic buildings.
A clear message
Indeed, Sullivan's mark is encrypted like genetic code in the symbol of Landmarks Illinois. The group's logo is a drawing of the Stock Exchange's magnificent entry arch, which was saved from wrecking crews and now graces the grounds of the Art Institute of Chicago. The logo's message is clear: This building died so that others might live.
But will the same be true of the three Adler & Sullivan buildings that succumbed to flames rather than the wrecker's ball?
The Wirt-Dexter Building and the George M. Harvey House, the three-story Lakeview home that burned last Saturday, were not masterpieces. Even the Pilgrim Baptist Church, a handsome neighborhood landmark renowned as the birthplace of gospel music, does not rank with such monuments as Adler & Sullivan's pioneering Wainwright Building skyscraper in St. Louis or Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott & Co. store at State and Madison Streets.
Yet a city is more than a collection of greatest hits. These buildings not only lent matchless character to their neighborhoods. They also told the story of Adler & Sullivan's aesthetic development -- and how it influenced subsequent generations of architects