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Endgame for one of Chicago's Great Public Places?
 

     

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 -by Lynn Becker

[January 11, 2008] - Will Holabird and Root's classic Art Deco Chicago Daily News Building be squeezed and its public plaza destroyed for a new office tower from Sam Zell?

 

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin

 

First Thomas Corfman in Crain's Chicago Business, and now Susan Diesenhouse in the Chicago Tribune, are reporting that billionaire Sam Zell, who apparently still doesn't have enough money even after the sale of his Equity Office Corporation and takeover of the Tribune Company, may now be intent on shoehorning a new office tower between the Chicago River and the 1929 Daily News Building, now known by its address, 2 North Riverside Plaza. Inevitably, such a project would require the destruction of the broad plaza now to building's east, as well as of the two large bustles framing the plaza among Madison and Washington. Diesenhouse reports Zell has hired the architectural firm of Solomon, Cordwell Buenz to "explore the site's development potential."

Daily News Building, Holabird and Roche, architects

The wings of the Daily News Building form the perfect complement to the similar end wings of the Civic Opera Building, directly opposite across the river. Those wings, fronting the Civic Opera's tall central setback tower, resulted in that structure being dubbed "Insull's Throne", after Samuel Insull, the utilities tycoon who was behind the building's 1929 construction. (And the model for the story of an opera house built by Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welle's 1941 film.)

More importantly, the Daily News plaza is the most generous and appealing public space anywhere along the West Loop leg of the Chicago River, despite suffering Daily News Building, Chicago, Holabird and Roche, architectscontinued indifference and neglect. I can't recall ever seeing the central fountain operational (a situation that predates Zell), and in 2003 the plaza was the site of a particularly goofy 3-D log cabin ad for Washington Mutual, shown here.

I doubt he was behind the log cabin, but the iconoclastic Zell is notorious for raised middle finger gestures of contempt like refusing to restore, remount - or event account for - the mural painted by John Warner Norton for the ceiling high above the Daily News Building's 180-foot-long concourse, depicting, in three parts, Gathering the News, Printing the News, and the Transporting the News. Sometimes called Chicago's Sistine Chapel, it was claimed to be the longest mural in the world. Since its 1993 removal, the mural has been moldering in a warehouse, and an omerta of silence has descended over its fate.

Built on the site on a former Indian trading post, the Daily News Building was the first skyscraper to be built on air rights above railroad tracks (smoke from the locomotives traveled up the building's 26 stories and exited via a stack on the roof.). Holabird and Daily News Building, Chicago, concourse entranceRoot's creation is a Chicago classic. It's a brawny rectangle, clad in Indiana limestone, whose sharp lines are sculpted and softened by a series of graceful setbacks, and handsome bas reliefs. What the Palmolive building did with verticality, the Daily News did with the horizontal. It's a structure of singular poise and beauty.

And, of course, even after nearly eight decades, completely without landmark protection. In 2000, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote about reports Zell was considering converting the building to condo's, or inserting a condo tower on the site of the plaza, or even demolishing the Daily News Building for a completely new skyscraper. Anywhere else, those kind of reports would have been a wake up call for protecting one of the city's best buildings.

And in Chicago? In the seven years since, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has done . . . nothing. The Daily News Building is still not a designated Chicago landmark. Sam Zell could tear it down and replace it with a casino, should he suddenly develop a yen to add gaming to his far-flung empire.

The Daily News plaza was the first to recognize how the Chicago River was changing. Chicago Daily News Building, plaza, Holabird and Roche, architectsThe river's stigma as a festering waterway jammed with commercial traffic was changing rapidly. People were beginning to catch on to the river's potential as a valuable civic amenity. For the first time, a major project didn't turn its back on the river, but embraced it, with a broad plaza from which to better enjoy its charms.

The Daily News Building Plaza, and the building itself, don't need to be sacrificed; they need to be restored to their historic glory. As central Chicago, and especially the West Loop, grows ever more dense and congested, we don't need less open air and sunshine. We need more. Now is not the time to decimate one of Chicago's greatest public spaces.

For that not to happen will require a balance of hard-knuckle politics - the landmarking process needs to begin NOW - and delicate negotiations. Sam Zell will never allow himself to be seen as soft or stupid. He's known for heaping venom on anything that falls short of his brand of rigorous of no-holds-barred commerce, but his record also includes instances where, under the right circumstances - the Wharton School, Lurie Gardens - he's shown himself to be capable of substantial generosity.

Somewhere between Zell's contempt for goo-gooery and substandard returns, and his mensch better nature, a compromise must be found. It should remembered that the Palmolive Building has undergone a very successful conversion to high-end condo's without compromising the building's classical lines by adding balconies. And in the end, what better way to commemorate a street-smart Chicago kind of guy than to put his name on a plaza that's just beneath the terrace where he leverages his competitive advantage by holding outdoor meetings in the chill dead of winter?

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lynnbecker@lynnbecker.com

© 2008 images and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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