LINCOLN PARK — Demolition over the weekend at the old Children's Memorial Hospital site began removing a white terra cotta building that was apparently supposed to be retained.
"Apparently" because, according to developers, it sort of was and sort of wasn't, said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, on Monday.
"There's something kind of tricky going on here," Miller said. "This one was to be preserved, but to be reconstructed, and maybe using the terra cotta, maybe not."
According to Miller, developers insisted the building at the southeast corner of Fullerton and Lincoln avenues, also known as the Annex or the original home of the hospital's White Elephant Resale Shop, had to be moved back to allow for more room on the sidewalk, so it was to be removed, preserved as much as possible and reconstructed.
Developer Dan McCaffrey agreed with that assessment Monday, but quickly added, "This one couldn't be saved." He also insisted demolition had been agreed to previously in the development plan.
McCaffrey said, "Terra cotta is like a china, so it's impossible to bring that much of that type of building down and put it back up." It had reached "a point of obsolescence," he added.
"I love the building," McCaffrey insisted. "So I said let's build one that looks just like it." It will not, however, actually be terra cotta, but will have the look of terra cotta.
A view of the proposed Children's Memorial development at Fullerton and Lincoln avenues suggested the white terra cotta building there was to be retained. (McCaffery Interests)
"They have told the community and all of us that they are retaining these buildings, but this one may be reconstructed — it's a gray area," Miller said. "For love or money, we could never understand why this white terra cotta building needed to be removed and shifted back to increase the sidewalk and be reconstituted." Even then, he added, developers left it unclear whether the original facade would be preserved, recreated or "replicated with another material."
Miller called these sorts of operations "facade-ectomies, for lack of a better term."
Miller said, "They could have probably left it alone and renovated the building and just left the sidewalk the same."
According to McCaffrey, however, the building had to be moved back to allow more sidewalk because the city also wanted a bike lane there. The demolition on it that began this weekend was entirely according to plan.
The office of Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) emphasized that the building was always going to be first removed and pointed to language in the agreed-upon development plan: "The existing building will be demolished and a new building will be constructed on this site that closely resembles the exterior of the former Annex Building, using ... cladding materials, aluminum windows and steel canopies. The new building will be constructed to allow for wider sidewalks along West Fullerton and North Lincoln avenues."
"That sounds inconsistent with what I was told a year ago," said Josh Glazer, president of the Mid-North Association, including a historical district just to the east of the Children's Memorial site where "if we want to change a window we have to get approval from City Hall and the Landmarks Commission."
The Mid-North Association joined in suing the developer to prevent construction, but the suit was dismissed, according to Glazer on procedural issues "and we never got to the merits."
Glazer added, "Everybody knows the building, the White Elephant building, everybody knows it. So it's difficult to square the intense scrutiny the homeowners to the east face with the drastic demolition" going on at Children's Memorial.
Miller said the problem was exacerbated by widely distributed renderings which suggested that building, and also the Nellie Black-James Deering buildings at Fullerton and Orchard Avenue, might be retained when it was clearly the developer's intent to remove them and build something similar. "It was really hard to distinguish," he said.
Miller pointed to the White Elephant building and the resale shop's later home, across the street in another white terra cotta building at Lincoln and Halsted Street, saying, "Those facades really form a Georgian gateway for the landmark Mid-North district and the Fullerton row houses and the commercial district to the west on Halsted."
Saying, "I'm a bit of a historian," McCaffrey said he had always sought to retain the look of those older buildings in any new construction.
That didn't sit well with Glazer. "I don't know what their intent was," he said. "But we got played, not only by the developer but by the city.
"Now they're tearing down this terra cotta building, which is not a sensitive approach from a landmarks-historical perspective," Glazer added. On retaining the look if not the actual buildings, he said, "I wish them luck. I hope they do that. [But] they're changing the neighborhood in ways that are irretrievable."
McCaffrey said the demolition process was going "excellent now," with construction set to begin in early spring. "A short two years from now, it'll be a magnificent difference in the community. And I hope to god a lot of people will say, 'Now what were we getting all fussed up about?'
"You can't please everybody," McCaffrey added, "but you're obliged to try."
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