THREATENED: The Complicated Saga of the Century and Consumers Buildings (Chicago 7 2011, 2013, 2022, 2023, 2024)

Century and Consumers Building Explainer Video. Image credit: Chicago Architecture Center

“Chicago’s State Street houses a number of America’s earliest and most historic skyscrapers. These skyscrapers, recognized as the ‘Chicago School’ of architecture, represent the creativity of engineers and architects working in steel frame construction to both maximize light through distinctive window patterns, and to draw the public into the buildings (and the services they provided) through unique applications of Classical ornamentation. While the architecture of these buildings is well regarded, it is their adaptability that has proven to be a true point of character. While built to house commercial offices, they have proven to accommodate modern uses—an architecture of the past that fits the future city. The Century and Consumers Buildings, owned by the federal government since the early turn of the twenty-first century, are a part of this creative matrix. Yet, the federal government, in an act of inconceivable uncreativity that disregards movements towards adaptive reuse and rehabilitation, intends to demolish them.

“In 2005, the United States General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency tasked with managing federal property, purchased the Century and Consumers Buildings. The acquisition, the GSA stated, would provide the GSA with additional office space in the Loop, and would provide a safety buffer for the neighboring Everett McKinley Dirksen US Courthouse.

“At the time of the GSA’s acquisition of the Century Building, located at 202 South State Street, and the Consumers Building, located at 220 South State Street, both buildings were poised to join that urban ecosystem and add to the vibrancy of the streetscape between Jackson Boulevard and Adams Street, much like the restoration of the Reliance Building had done five years earlier. Across the street, a former 1920s Woolworth store on the block housed a Foot Locker and Lady Foot Locker. A top grossing McDonalds was located within the 1936 Streamline Modern Benson & Rixon Building, next door to the Consumers Building. Roberto’s, a menswear shop, sold flamboyant suits out of a curving glass storefront between the Century and Consumers Buildings. DePaul University was set to renovate the former Lytton & Sons department store into the College of Communication.

”Yet, as State Street continued to thrive, all four buildings, almost half of the block, remained unoccupied.

“After nearly twenty years of vacancy, the Century and Consumers Buildings continued to deteriorate, a situation of the GSA’s own making. In waiting to repurpose or dispose of the buildings, the GSA performed only basic repairs and remediation. Buildings of the age and complexity of the Century and Consumers Buildings require specialized maintenance, no matter their use status or condition, but the most effective tool against deterioration is to return buildings to use. The buildings had been mothballed, and a sidewalk canopy had been installed to prevent the terracotta, the primary façade material on both the buildings, from falling on pedestrians below. The buildings had been noted as endangered by Preservation Chicago, the citywide historic preservation nonprofit, while they continued to face an uncertain future.

“It was under these circumstances that an almost inconceivable plan of action for the Century and Consumers Buildings was announced. Senator Dick Durbin had secured $52 million dollars in federal money to demolish them, including 212 and 214 South State Street. ‘Simply put, there has been no plan put forward for private development that has adequately addressed the security risk,’ Senator Durbin stated in an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2022. Once demolished, the GSA would replace them with a landscaped secure lot.

“The public broadly and completely rejected the idea that demolition was the only option. No demolition of a building (or buildings) of similar size and height had been proposed in Chicago since the razing of the Old Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building twenty years earlier, and not since the days of urban renewal had the demolition of viable buildings been funded by the federal government in this manner in Chicago.

“The historic significance of the Century and Consumers Buildings is not in question. They have been included on the endangered buildings lists of Preservation Chicago, as well as Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In May 2023, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted to recommend local landmark status for the Century and Consumers Buildings, an action that signaled the City of Chicago’s willingness to take a stand for preservation against the interests of another government agency, while also providing assurance to the GSA that the Landmarks Division was willing to exercise flexibility regarding adaptive reuse and site security. In the Environmental Impact Statement, the GSA stated that it would have no position either for or against landmarking, but that the agency, while respecting the Chicago Landmarks designation, would be ‘bound to the outcome of the Section 106 process rather than the local landmark process.'” (Elizabeth Blasius, MAS CONTEXT, 3/25/24)

Read the full story at MAS Context

Read all seven Chicago Sun-Times Century and Consumers editorials at Chicago Sun-Times

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