The battle to preserve downtown’s rare post-Great Chicago Fire buildings against an onslaught of high-rises and parking podiums is poised for a major victory this week. On Thursday, the Commission on Landmarks will take the first step toward creating a new landmark district to protect 16 former mansions and row homes on the city’s Near North Side.
“We’ve been pushing for this for a number of years,” said Ward Miller of the advocacy group Preservation Chicago. Though not a new issue, Miller believes the tipping point came in 2016 when developers proposed demolishing historic buildings at 42 and 44-46 E. Superior Street for a 725-foot-tall combination hotel and residential tower.
“A lot of residents at the meeting were not only concerned about the height and density but what was being lost,” explained Miller. “These sorts of buildings make the neighborhood so more livable for their scale. They provide historical context as well as places for small businesses such as restaurants, cafes, art galleries, and barbershops to thrive.”
In the case of the threatened Superior Street buildings, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly ultimately rejected the tower, citing issues over traffic and parking. The developers, however, pushed forward with permits to tear down the structures, prompting the alderman to introduce a zoning change to delay demolition. The move allowed preservationists time to gather grassroots support and the city to take action to protect the properties and their historically neighbors.
The district will include Streeterville’s Les Nomades restaurant, a cluster of row houses on Erie Street that were recently threatened by a proposed expansion of the Dana Hotel, and a building at 716 N. Rush Street. The latter served as the personal home and studio of Henry Ives Cobb—the architect of the Newberry Library, the Chicago Athletic Association, and the former Chicago Historical Society building (now Tao nightclub).
Although the proposed 16-structure district is comparatively small in its scope—for example, the recently approved Pilsen landmark district contains some 800 buildings—preservationists are optimistic that measure will clear the way for other properties to be added in the future.
“We’d certainly love to expand this district to other significant former mansions like the Pizzeria Uno and Due properties,” added Miller. “It’s important to recognize that there is great history here and honor the local businesses that have helped preserve these special buildings.”
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks is set to vote for or against a preliminary recommendation for the Near North district on Thursday. If approved, a final determination from the commission will likely take place in the next six to twelve months, followed by a vote from the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks, and Building Standards and final approval by the full Chicago City Council.
The complete list of addresses in the proposed landmark district can be found on the Landmark Commission’s monthly draft agenda.