Pork returned to Congress this year, and Illinois had quite the haul. Among the earmarks for the state in the latest federal budget, Illinois legislators notched $450,000 for a YWCA domestic violence center, $1 million for a Chicago El station, $660,000 for a project to study climate change and agriculture … and one item meant not to build but to destroy: $52 million to tear down a pair of century-old, terracotta-clad skyscrapers in Downtown Chicago.
That grant is the work of Sen. Dick Durbin, who scored the earmark to level a half-block of the Loop because the buildings there offer a dangerous vantage point onto the courthouse next door. At least, so says Durbin, the FBI, ATF, and the U.S. Marshals Service, which have argued that the towers’ position on the same block as the Dirksen Federal Building creates “significant public safety vulnerabilities.”
Never mind that the condemned towers were built in 1913 and 1915, and the courthouse in 1974, and all three have happily co-existed across 90 feet of sky ever since. Times have changed, and taxpayers are now set to fund what looks like an architectural, environmental, and economic debacle in the name of counterterrorism.
It’s not even clear the plan makes sense from a security perspective. The widespread application of this standard—that a tall building near a courthouse is a security risk—would require rigging American downtowns with thousands of pounds of TNT to liberate American government buildings from their contexts. Some experts think the reasoning doesn’t hold up. “There’s more to this than just a building too close. Either they want the land to do something else or there’s a specific threat or there’s some politics,” said Randy Atlas, an architect with a specialty in security who has worked on courthouses. “Every metro downtown has a federal courthouse, often within 100 feet of an adjacent building.”
Kristine Bishop Johnson, a judicial planner and principal at the architecture firm HOK, said the solution was “unusual.” The protection of sightlines into courtrooms, jury rooms, and judge’s chambers is often part of the planning process, she noted. But the General Services Administration, the federal government’s landlord, has a budget for capital improvements to historic buildings. “What kind of precedent are you setting in Chicago if you take down the surrounding properties?” she asked. “There’s probably a similar risk that could be identified in any urban high-rise facility.”
The grant comes at a fraught time for Chicago: Downtown is struggling to adapt to the post-pandemic status quo. The reduced presence of office workers has stunted the recovery of the neighborhood’s restaurants, shops, and theaters. The last thing it needs is another vacant lot, Chicago Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey wrote last month. “The buildings’ demolition would create an economic and pedestrian dead zone on State Street, something neither the street nor the city can afford. And it would be a shameful waste of some really good Chicago architecture.”
No doubt the towers are that. The 21-story Consumers Building and 16-story Century Building are representative of the last days of the Chicago School, the movement of boxy, steel-frame, masonry-clad buildings whose most famous practitioners were Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham. In this case, though, it’s less the individual structures that matter than the sum of their parts: They are part of Chicago’s extraordinary cluster of pre-modern skyscrapers, which don’t just constitute a cultural treasure and a popular tourist attraction. They’ve also served as the building blocks for a downtown revival that began in the 1980s, since their small floor plates and big windows make them easy to convert for residential use.
That was once the plan for these two buildings as well. Acquired during the George W. Bush administration by the GSA to create a safe perimeter after a man was arrested for plotting to blow up the Dirksen courthouse (the FBI helped hook him up with an undercover agent who sold him 2,000 pounds of fertilizer), the Century and Consumers Buildings sat vacant for years. In 2015, after a planned expansion of the federal complex was scuttled, the GSA put them up for auction “to find the most optimal use for these historic buildings.” By 2017, the GSA and the City of Chicago had struck a deal with a developer who would spend $141 million to rehab the structures into more than 400 apartments.
But that summer, Judge Ruben Castillo raised concerns that the reused buildings would pose a security threat because a planned roof deck would see into his chambers. By September, 2019, the city had pulled the plug on the deal, and the GSA began making plans for demolition.
For the architectural historian Elizabeth Blasius, the demolition seemed “antediluvian.” It was “Durbin renewal,” she said, likening the idea to earlier federally funded demolition projects that left city cores vacant for years. It’s not such ancient history in Chicago: In 1989, the city leveled an entire block of buildings that wound up sitting empty for almost two decades as deal after deal failed to materialize. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, demolished in 2003, is still an barren lot. More recently, the state tried to demolish the Helmut Jahn-designed Thompson Center nearby before backing off after the pandemic. Were the Century and Consumers Buildings in bad shape, as Durbin said in an argument for their demolition? Yes, Blasius conceded—but only because the GSA has let them molder for almost two decades.
Ward Miller, the director of Preservation Chicago, helped bring the city the adaptive reuse proposal for apartments five years ago. If Chicago has squandered the opportunity to create hundreds of housing units, he says, it could still avoid the environmental waste of sending thousands of tons of steel and concrete to the landfill. Miller is focused on a new idea that would secure the buildings and keep the feds happy: an archive center for religious orders. That would allow a secure environment and create a reason to block off the west-facing windows. Miller is also trying to establish downtown Chicago’s architecture as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and he is worried these demolitions will threaten his case.
But demolition would not just be an architectural loss, an environmental waste, and a missed opportunity. There’s also the question of what happens once the site is a vacant plot of “secure” landscaping: The Dirksen is 90 feet away, but it is not much further to neighboring structures including the Monadnock Building, one of America’s finest early skyscrapers. “The difference between 75, 100, or 200 feet for a rifle is none,” said Atlas, the architect and security consultant.
It is also not clear why the standards being applied to the Dirksen are not relevant to the country’s other federal courts. Virtually every city has a downtown courthouse surrounded by offices, hotels, and apartment buildings.
Most of the architectural guidance for counterterrorism has been focused on vehicle bombs, and for blast protection (unlike for rifle fire) every foot matters. That’s why, after September 11th, the GSA decided to mandate 50-foot setbacks for new courthouse buildings. It’s also why, for a 272-page guide on protection against terrorist attacks published in 2007, FEMA decided to put Chicago’s Federal Plaza complex, which includes the Dirksen Building, on the cover! Its use of bollards and planters was considered a case study in defensive architecture.
Which brings me to the thorniest part of this 90-foot standoff: If the Century and Consumers Buildings are irreplaceable artifacts of their time, the Dirksen Federal Building is much more exalted. It is one of three buildings that make up Federal Plaza, the modernist landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe.
The GSA says the idea of modifying this stern steel icon “didn’t meet the operational and security needs of the Dirksen courthouse staff.” The type of bulletproof glass needed to resist a high-powered rifle is not the same stuff you see at a liquor store: It costs upwards of $10,000 a pane, and it can run up to three inches thick, which would mean adapting the building’s mullions and adding thousands of pounds of new weight to the curtain wall.
“It’s expensive and it’s complicated but there’s precedent in historic federal buildings that have gone through the same process,” said Johnson, of HOK. “It’s definitely possible.”
Even in the best of circumstances, however, the U.S. government is ambivalent about using high-grade bulletproof glass to secure judges’ chambers, noting that it has several drawbacks—including, potentially, looking so conspicuous that it draws attention to the people it’s supposed to protect.
Architectural preservation has been criticized lately by scholars who say it’s a tool of wealth generation for tony neighborhoods, with judgments decoupled from any real sense of history. That is not the case for Downtown Chicago. Buildings like these don’t come around every day. Demolishing them is bad enough; demolishing them for nothing is worse.