Groups unite around plan to save State Street buildings
A coalition of organizations, united around what they call a ‘sustainable vision’ to save two State Street skyscrapers from the wrecking ball, plans to propose on Wednesday that they be turned into an archive center for research scientific.
About 20 religious orders as well as the Dominican University of River Forest have expressed interest in taking up space in the towers, built in the early 20th century, said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. He said non-religious organizations, such as museums, could also join what’s called the Chicago Collaborative Archive Center.
The federal government owns the vacant towers, in the 200 block of South State Street, and wants them demolished, saying they pose a security risk to the nearby Dirksen Federal Building. Defenders of their safeguarding argue that storing the archives would minimize any security threats and allow windows to the federal building to be sealed off.
“A collaborative archive of this proposed size is rare in the country,” said Christopher Allison, historian and director of the Dominican University’s McGreal Center. “It would become a major hub for archival-based research and consolidate valuable sources into one space.”
Miller said the various groups would form a tax-exempt nonprofit to manage its affairs and raise funds, as well as apply for grants to start the project. But he said the costs of the redevelopment are unknown. The federal property manager, the General Services Administration, manages the buildings.
“I think we would really engage the GSA to be our partner,” especially in maintaining the terracotta skin of the buildings, Miller said. JLK Architects and engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti contributed to the preservation plan.
In early May, the GSA told the Sun-Times that it will “engage with potential advisory parties and evaluate viable alternatives” for the buildings as part of a review required by the National Historic Preservation Act. The agency has emphasized the safety concerns of Federal Court staff. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., earmarked $52 million for the demolition and insisted the buildings, with some windows facing the judges’ chambers and jury rooms, be removed.
But Miller and others argue that an archive center, with limited staff and tightly controlled access, is an ideal use for the situation. They said it was a better alternative than demolition. The destruction of the buildings would leave an empty stretch on State Street, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Chicago Loop Alliance, representing downtown businesses, also prefers to save the buildings.
Various Franciscan and Dominican orders are interested in archival space, Miller said. The project appeals to the orders because they could share the costs of preserving the precious archives. Miller said an interested organization, the Episcopal Church Archives, may account for most of the space in the larger of the two structures, the 22-story Consumers Building at 220 S. State St. It dates of 1913. The 16-story Century Building, at 202 S. State St., was built in 1915.
The preservation plan also calls for the renovation of two old storefronts between the towers, also owned by the federal government. Miller said the space in between could become a common entrance, perhaps with a visitor center or a small conference room.
“There is strength in a collaborative archive. The value of individual collections in such a repository is enhanced by the presence of others,” said Holly Fiedler, Provincial Archivist, Sisters of St. Francis, Sacred Heart Province. “There are certainly many challenges to make this vision a reality, but we are taking concrete steps to achieve the ultimate goal.”
Security concerns killed a plan by private investors in 2019 to convert cramped buildings into small apartments. Many windows in the consumer building offer a view of the Dirksen Center. The problem is less noticeable with the Century Building, whose walls closest to the Federal Building are windowless.