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Demolished Burnham Building 'Slipped Through Cracks,' Preservationist Says

By Casey Cora | October 9, 2014 5:48am
 A building designed by one of the city's famed architects has met the wrecking ball.
A building designed by one of the city's famed architects has met the wrecking ball.
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Flickr/ Aurimas

CHINATOWN — Preservationists say a recently demolished building designed by famed architect Daniel Burnham "slipped through the cracks" of a city system designed to safeguard historically significant structures.

"When one of these slips through, we lose something special," said Ward Miller, director of Preservation Chicago.

Designed by the D.H. Burnham & Co. architecture firm in 1908, the brick building at 2059 S. Canal St. opened as a riverside power house for Commonwealth Edison and later became a factory for Allied Metals.

Casey Cora says the building was overlooked to be placed on a preservation list:

Most recently, it was used a boat storage facility managed by the Canal Street Marina and Yacht Yard.

Mark Reigle, who helps runs the boat yard, said the building was struck by lightning in a summer storm.

The "violent" lightning strike fried the building's electricity, caused a parapet to fall down, sent bricks raining down to the ground and made the structure dangerously unsound.

"Big fiasco," Reigle said.

Miller said the resulting demolition of the Burnham building, along with another city-authorized teardown of a North Side farmhouse, "illustrates the limitations" of the city's reliance on what's known as the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, an effort started in 1983 to analyze the historical significance of some 17,000 buildings built before 1940.

A building's inclusion on the survey can stave off demolition for 90 days while city planning and development leaders discuss alternatives, a department spokesman said.

More than a dozen buildings designed by Burnham-led firms are included in the survey, but the Canal Street building was omitted.

It's unclear exactly why the city surveyors overlooked it, but Miller has a couple of possible explanations.

One is that the building had actually changed addresses over the past century.

It was originally situated on Grove Street, a small diagonal roadway that intersects Canal just north of Cermak, but was later given a new Canal Street address.

It's also possible, Ward said, that canvassers conducting the citywide survey in the 1980s and 1990s didn't have access to the waterfront industrial site and skipped over it.

But it's a moot point now, anyway.

Wrecking crews started the demolition in August and the structure was lost to history.

"Even though it was a small building it had a commanding presence at Canal Street and the riverfront," Ward said, noting the former building's position at the confluence of the South Loop, Chinatown, Pilsen and Bridgeport neighborhoods.

"Here we lost a very nice building, one that could've told us more about Daniel H. Burnham. Whenever we lose a building by a seminal architect, these are great losses because now you're unable to see their full body of work," he said. 

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