MAS CONTEXT: From Resources to Rubble: Evaluating Chicago’s Demolition Delay Ordinance in its Twentieth YearChi

“Two blocks west of City Hall sits Chicago’s most infamous empty lot. From 1927 to 2002, this was the site of the Old Mercantile Exchange, known colloquially as the “Butter and Egg” Building. Designed by architect Alfred S. Alschuler, the massive structure was designed to house what was once the United States’ largest futures trading market for butter and eggs. Its classical revival-inspired exterior was accented with low-relief scenes of farming and animal husbandry. High above, at the building’s seventeen-story cornice, were rows of ornate cow head busts. In design and size, the building rivaled any number of similar downtown buildings that have been adaptively reused for offices, hotels, and housing. Purchased by the Crown family in the 1940s, trading at the Old Mercantile Exchange Building ended in 1972, but the Old Merc continued to be occupied into the new millennium.

“In February 2002, a demolition permit for the Old Merc was issued by the City of Chicago’s Buildings Department, much to the surprise of the Department of Planning and Development, and Chicago’s community of preservationists, including Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, and former members of the Chicago Landmarks Commission.

“In 1990, the building had been identified as orange-rated during citywide fieldwork that took place in part of a civic initiative to look for potential historic landmarks. Initiated in 1983, the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS) was a decades-long municipal effort that rated buildings using a color-coding system. Warmer colors, like red and orange, were given to buildings that had the highest level of significance, while cooler colors, like yellow, yellow-green, green, and purple, were given to buildings with lesser significance or those that had been altered over time. A final category–blue–was provided to capture buildings that surveyors considered significant after 1940.

“The CHRS’s goals were to evaluate Chicago’s stock of historic buildings for potential landmarks, and the results of the data are reflective of the time period in which the field of historic preservation viewed landmarks through the lens of time. The CHRS identified over seventeen thousand buildings considered to have architectural or historic importance out of Chicago’s approximately half million structures, but it also failed to evaluate buildings consistently across parts of the city, severely undercounting the South and West Sides, and under-evaluated vernacular architectural types, such as worker’s cottages.

“The CHRS carried no legal weight, and as active consideration for landmark status was the only measure to prevent demolition, the Old Merc could be demolished as of right. This loophole caught the attention of then Mayor Richard M. Daley, who declared in a March 20, 2002, City Council meeting that Chicago’s system of color-coding buildings needed overhauling.” (Blasius, MAS CONTEXT, April 2023)

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