Lament for a landmark, tragically lost to misguided preservationism

27 October 2006
Categories: Chicago

This week another devastating fire cost Chicago an important piece of its legacy. The Wirt Dexter Building, built in 1887, stood at 630 S. Wabash until Tuesday, 24 October 2006. A modest six-story commercial block, it was designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan—making it the second Adler & Sullivan structure to be lost in 2006, after the Pilgrim Baptist Church in January.

When the city put the Dexter Building on the Chicago Landmarks list ten years ago, it was unequivocal about the Dexter’s significance:

[T]his building represents an irreplaceable link in the chain of work of one of the nation’s most important architectural partnerships, that of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. The building’s unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building, and the use of a cast-iron structural system permits larger window openings than would have been possible through the use of masonry alone. The distinctive, perforated, cast-iron beams on the rear facade, for example, anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later. (Chicago Landmarks page, emphasis added)

And now it’s gone, destroyed in a fire carelessly started by workers using acetylene torches to cut up an old boiler in the basement. That both fires were caused by contractor fuck-ups is deplorable. The reason why they were doing this work only makes the story all the more tragic.

The Dexter’s owner, 76-year-old Lorraine Phillips, saw the building as “her retirement.” She was “widely known in preservationist circles” (Chicago Tribune, 10/26/06) for her repeated pleas for funding to restore the well-worn building to its former glory. Failing this, she was in the process of selling the boiler for scrap to generate a little cash flow.

Phillips was seriously misguided when it came to the Dexter, because her two goals for it—restoration and retirement fund—were mutually exclusive.

First and foremost, an old landmark structure like this is unlikely ever to be a money-maker. If Phillips had truly wanted to retire on it, her best bet would have been to sell it for a chunk of cash and re-invest that in something with a steady income—like a mutual fund, not a landmark.

Second, it’s clear that her vision for the restoration was both prosaic and out of touch. To quote from that same Trib article:

She had long dreamed of restoring the building and George Diamond’s Steakhouse, once a classic upscale Chicago restaurant and celebrity rendezvous.

When it opened in the 1950s, George Diamond’s trademark was its flaming red carpet and velvet paintings in a dining room that seated 600.

Under her tenure, the restaurant was closed, then briefly opened again in 2000 before closing without recapturing its former grandeur.

Her nostalgia for a joint that had its heyday around the time the Rat Pack was still a fivesome completely clouded her judgment of what was right for this particular building in this day and age. The South Loop has been booming lately, and she should have handed the Dexter off to a developer who could have put in condominium loft apartments above a retail space to house, say, a hip new restaurant without a trace of painted velvet in sight. Or perhaps she could have sold it to nearby Columbia College, which could have put it to good use.

Instead, Lorraine Phillips had it all wrong. Holding title to a landmark structure like the Dexter is not ownership—it’s stewardship. Everything done to it must be in the building’s best interest, not the owner’s—because its historic value is something all Chicagoans share. Now this legacy of one of Chicago’s greatest architectural duos, Adler & Sullivan, is gone forever, and it’s a loss the city can ill afford. Once the home of so many of their works—the Stock Exchange, the Victoria Building, the Garrick Theater, among others—the list of Chicago’s major surviving Adler & Sullivan designs can now be counted on one hand.

Meanwhile, where is city hall when it comes to performing its watchdog duties? How are these often unlicensed, uninsured, and/or ill-trained workers allowed to ply their questionable trade within the Chicago city limits? The answer seems to be that the city chooses to fatten its coffers with property taxes and hand out TIF zones to its most-favoured aldermen, rather than strive to safeguard its own architectural heritage, the inheritance of the people of Chicago.

A final irony: I heard on the radio that this year the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Louis H. Sullivan’s birth. If so, this is the first I’d heard of it, and the city seems as effectual at promoting this commemoration as it is at protecting its priceless landmarks.

 

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