Last year, Preservation Chicago announced the selection of the Central Manufacturing District’s Pershing Road District as part of our Chicago 7 Most Endangered list. This year, the Central Manufacturing District’s Original East District (CMD East) has been selected for inclusion. CMD East was in fact the precursor to the Pershing Road District and served as a first chapter in the story of the development whose financial success ensured the construction of CMD Pershing Road just over a decade later.
The Central Manufacturing District was the nation’s first planned industrial park, a revolutionary design that gathered many of the city’s manufacturing powers together in one localized region. The concept and idea was such a well-executed experiment that it further spurred on Chicago’s industrial might and inspired imitations throughout the nation in the first half of the 20th century. Its significant historical background is further bolstered by the robust architectural heritage found throughout CMD East. Designed in a variation of styles that include Art Deco, Gothic Revival, Prairie School, Classical Revival, and Mid-Century Modern, Central Manufacturing District’s Original East District is unlike any other architectural complex and grouping in Chicago.
CMD East is a crucial and irreplaceable artifact of industrial history and design both in Chicago and the United States. Unfortunately, without designation as a Chicago Landmark District, CMD East is threatened by a combination of demolition and neglect. While recent efforts to help protect the district have increased, those efforts are still insufficient. In an effort to acknowledge the importance of this site and the need for its continued preservation and maintenance, CMD East was listed in 2015 on the National Register of Historic Places with support from Preservation Chicago and our statewide preservation partner, Landmarks Illinois.
In 1902, Frederick H. Prince, an owner of the Chicago Junction Railway (CJR), and A.G. Leonard, president of the nearby Union Stock Yards Company, founded what would come to be known as the Central Manufacturing District (CMD). At once a solution to Chicago’s unstoppable industrial expansion as well as a savvy economic move on the part of these two industrial magnates, the CMD East was a radical experiment in city planning.
The following Roman Catholic Churches are to be consolidated, closed or sold and are of great concern to us at Preservation Chicago and to the larger communities of our City.
Despite CMD East’s industrial purpose, the visual beauty of the buildings, overall design quality, and detailing were also important factors, as still evident and witnessed today in the many structures located in this complex. Advertising materials created to entice local businesses to CMD East highlighted the overall appearance of the district. Handsomely paved roads, manicured parkways, and elegant lamp posts were featured prominently in this new industrial park, as were the architecture and overall characteristics of the warehouses themselves. CMD East boasted its own Architectural Department office on West 35th Street, which collaborated with business owners on the design of their new properties. The administrators also assembled a team of highly talented architects to bring this new industrial center to life, including A.S. Alschuler, Postle & Mahler, and Samuel Scott Joy. Many of these same architects would later be commissioned to design an addition to the CMD on West Pershing Road, along with smaller nearby CMD spinoffs.
The buildings of CMD East were constructed in a variety of sizes suiting each company’s specific needs. Mostly consisting of pressed brick or concrete, these structures were then adorned with ornate details, often in terra cotta, unlike many typical industrial buildings of that time. These warehouses and offices embodied architectural trends of the 20th century and exhibited trademark features of the Art Deco, Late Gothic Revival, Prairie School, Mid-Century Modern and Classical Revival movements.
CMD East’s attention to aesthetics aside, the district enjoyed great popularity thanks to the innovation and introduction of an all-inclusive offering of services—the first of its kind. Notable among these were unparalleled electric wiring, postal delivery, street cleaning, telegraphic connections, private water lines, preventative fire protections, private centralized banking, and even a social club. Amenities such as these were understandably appealing to smaller manufacturers who would have struggled to facilitate such a wide range of logistics on their own. As a result, this “package deal,” meant to aid manufacturing and factory operations, became one of the biggest motivators to relocating to CMD East.
Hundreds of companies have called CMD East home over the past century. Household names like the William Wrigley Company, the Walgreen Company, Standard Sanitary, Spiegel (of catalog and mail order fame), and Westinghouse Electric all operated out of CMD East in its early days. However, as the years passed, CMD East lost little of its appeal and continued to attract a roster of big-name tenants including: Sears Roebuck, Goldblatt’s, Procter & Gamble, Sylvania, the Glidden Company, the Oppenheimer Casing Company, Jewel Food Stores, and the Larkin Soap Company. The demolition of the Larkin Soap Company’s building this year is not the only lamentable architectural loss in that business’s history: the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Larkin Administration Building, which served as the centerpiece of their Buffalo headquarters, was controversially and regrettably demolished in 1950.
The greatest danger confronting the CMD East is that of rampant demolition unrestricted by any historic protections. Nowhere is this clearer than along the district’s western boundary of South Ashland Avenue, which is marked by multiple vacant parcels where once stood impressive hubs of industry. A 32-acre lot at the corner of South Ashland Avenue and West 35th Street, owned by real estate investment company Avgeris and Associates, has been the site of some of the most widespread demolition in CMD East. These losses include the Wrigley Company’s historic factory and the Larkin Company Building, which housed both the Larkin Soap Company and Jewel Food Stores during its long history.
The demolition of the Wrigley Company’s factory was the final act in a series of missteps that could have been easily prevented by a Chicago Landmark designation. In 2002, the City of Chicago agreed to provide the Wrigley Company $16 million worth of incentives to remain in Chicago, build additional facilities on Goose Island, and keep their historic factory open. However, the city never secured a written promise from Wrigley. Once Wrigley was acquired by Mars Inc. in 2005, it was announced that the factory would be sold. Its demolition began in 2013, a year after being purchased by Avgeris & Associates, with the company claiming that the razing was “safety related.” In the absence of any historic protections, the demolition moved ahead with no ordinances in place to delay it.
The most pressing issue facing CMD East is demolition, a danger that can be countered by designating it a Chicago Landmark District. Although CMD East is indeed listed under the National Register of Historic Places, this honor still leaves it vulnerable to the wrecking ball—a reality made clear by this year’s loss of the Larkin Company Building. Preservation Chicago wholeheartedly supports the protection of the area’s remaining structures through the creation of a CMD East Historic Landmark District. The recent Landmarking of the Spiegel Administration Building is an encouraging sign that Landmark status can and should be extended to the remaining structures of the CMD’s Original East District.
Furthermore, there are numerous buildings that exist within or on the periphery of the official CMD East boundaries outlined by the National Register of Historic Places that we at Preservation Chicago feel are worthy of inclusion in future advocacy efforts. Even if these structures do not fall within the official scope of CMD East’s development, they contribute to the historical and architectural continuity of the district. We would be remiss to ignore these buildings as part of any future Landmark designations as they strengthen the district’s cohesion and paint a fuller picture of CMD East and its environs. (Link to list)
In keeping with the spirit of the Central Manufacturing District’s mission to support smaller businesses and serve the Chicago area, we feel that CMD East offers opportunities to invest in the nearby McKinley Park and Bridgeport communities. Vacant structures could easily be adaptively reused as a myriad of uses including: housing, dining, commercial offices, art and performance studios, and educational spaces.
To further support adaptive reuse developments, the City of Chicago must make it policy to deny demolition permits when future plans have not been approved and financing has not been secured. Since the Chicago Historic Resources Survey overlooks countless historic buildings, policies like these could function as additional roadblocks to demolition so as to avoid the unimpeded loss of our built environment. Demolition as a first option leaves our city scarred by vacant lots, accelerating disinvestment and blight. Instead, requiring clearly defined proposals for what a developer or owner plans to do with a historic property is imperative for the retention of these irreplaceable structures, both in CMD East and across Chicago.
We also support the option of employing architecturally sensitive infill development to densify CMD East and eliminate many of the vacant lots in the area. Replacement developments such as the proposed Amazon distribution center or the ComEd training center next door solve the problem of vacant parcels but detract from the visual and historic fabric of CMD East. Through thoughtful design and community-sensitive uses, we can create additional space for local communities that is still true to the spirit of this revolutionary district. Reuse developments of industrial areas have been shown time and again to be popular destinations for local businesses and communities, both worldwide and here in Chicago. We are confident the same is possible at CMD East.
Read the full Central Manufacturing District – Original East District article from the 2021 Chicago 7 Book including history, threats, and recommendations at www.PreservationChicago.org.