MCKINLEY PARK — With other buildings in the Central Manufacturing District reduced to rubble and gone forever, a local preservation group wants to highlight what’s left of the city’s once-mighty industrial core.
“We could really just pack those buildings with incredible ideas that could generate wonderful concepts … even if we took just one building and dedicated it to a small startup, I think we’d see a good outcome,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago.
Miller's group recently released its “Chicago Seven,” a list of what it calls the most threatened and endangered buildings in the city. This year’s list included the McKinley Park portion of the Central Manufacturing District, a series of hulking buildings located along Pershing Road between Western and Racine avenues.
Miller envisions the refurbished buildings as offices for the city’s nonprofits “that do really good work on shoestring budgets,” or as new homes for programs like After School Matters, the city-backed Gallery 37 arts program or even a startup incubator like 1871 in the Merchandise Mart Downtown.
“I don’t want to pick on McKinley Park and Bridgeport, but maybe we haven't seen the same type of development there than we’ve seen in other places in Chicago. ... If we put out the good ideas, the dreamy ideas if you will, I really think the Central Manufacturing District is part of the solution," he said.
But one use that can likely be ruled out is what made the area special in the first place.
Robert Klairmont, vice president of the realty company that owns most of the Pershing Road properties, said the buildings would be better used as apartments or condominiums, not warehouses and factories.
"Times have changed. Vertical, multistory use was state of the art back then. Nowadays, people want what's called huge cube space. Imagine you're a warehouse guy and you have to unload stuff to the sixth floor and the elevator can only handle one forklift at a time," he said. "But if I could make the industrial owners want to be there, believe me I would."
Widely believed to be the nation’s first planned industrial park, the 265-acre district was crucial to the city’s history and identity.
The district’s first buildings along Ashland Avenue — roughly 14 miles from the north and south borders of the city, and halfway between Lake Michigan and the city’s western limits — provided access to nearby Union Stock Yards and the Chicago River's south branch, making them an attractive logistical option for American companies.
Planners accommodated those captains of industry — steel, iron, paper, beer and electrical equipment among them — with a connected series of buildings complete with its own police force, fire department, rail lines and ritzy club for executives.
Together, the network of buildings served for decades as a brawny example of world-class industrial planning.
“There is great satisfaction in feeling that representatives of industries seeking new locations have only to talk with present tenants of the District to be convinced of the service given,” the district’s founders wrote in a history published in 1915.
But the march of progress only hastened the district’s decline.
As architectural writer Lee Bey noted, the manufacturing industry began to rely less on rail and waterways and more on expressways, where new industrial parks began to sprout.
Today, most of the Pershing Road buildings are owned by Imperial Realty and occupied by a smattering of more than 50 small businesses representing only 18 percent of the available 1.2 million square feet, Klairmont said. The city’s fleet and facility department also keeps offices there.
Chicago Public Schools moved its headquarters to Downtown from its home base in three of the structures back in 2000.
And the Ashland Avenue corridor is a shell of its former self — a spectacular January 2013 fire demolished a furniture factory leaving what architectural blogger Lynn Becker calls a “yawning gap in the Ashland Avenue streetwall of once proud factory buildings.”
Earlier this year, wrecking crews began tearing down the Wrigley Gum factory to make way for what could be a strip mall anchored by a big box store.
In an ironic twist of fate, the city had eyed the old Wrigley building for a new technology manufacturing center but the deal fell through when Wrigley abruptly moved its Global Innovation Center to Goose Island, the site of a just-announced high-tech hub paid for in part with federal money.
While nothing can be done to preserve those ruined structures, groups like Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois hope to see the rest of the buildings restored to their former glory.
Some of the Pershing Road buildings are under consideration to become part of the city’s effort to get its network of boulevards listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The designation wouldn’t necessarily protect the buildings from the wrecking ball, but it would give private company’s certain incentives, like federal tax credits, to help rehab the buildings, said Lisa DiChiera of Landmarks Illinois.
That group is also pushing for a bill in Springfield that would allow developers to layer state tax credits in with the federal perks.
"It's a great opportunity, now more than ever," DiChiera said. "Between the economic progress of Bridgeport and even McKinley Park, there's an opportunity to think more creatively about how these buildings can be used."