From left to right, Carl Street Studios at 155 W. Burton Pl.; the proposed demolition site at 159 W. Burton Pl.; and an Andrew Rebori-designed art moderne gem at 161 W. Burton Pl.

Save Our Story - Save Our Street

August 05, 2015

What an interesting month it has been. We’re sorry it’s been a long time since the last blog post, but as most of you are already aware, there’s been much going on about the Carl Street Studios on Chicago’s Burton Place the past several weeks.

At the beginning of July, we received a frantic message from Trish VanderBeke, condo association president of Carl Street Studios (155 W. Burton Pl.), alerting us to a developer taking everyone completely off guard by announcing his intention to demolish the building right next door at 159 W. Burton Pl. Through the mail, no less. Granted, in this messed up city, that’s all he needed to do. Never mind the block is on the National Historic Register. Never mind almost every house on that block is coded “orange” (meaning it is worthy of protection) by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. Never mind the human thing to do is to discuss your plans to completely alter the fabric of a charming historic neighborhood with the neighbors instead of just sending letters and applying for a demolition permit post haste.

But alas, these are the times we live in, as all over the city, hungry (some might say greedy) developers are tearing down historic gems to replace them with ticky-tacky McMansion-style homes and condo buildings so they can turn a quick profit. Rehabbing vintage homes is for losers these days, apparently. The antagonist in this saga is a young developer, and someone who has been quoted as uttering the endearing words “money is what matters.” We feel for him—he is only human, after all, and we are all fallible—but it didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t in the mood to grow into a fuller human being through this unfortunate chain of events.

At first, we made nice with the developer, inviting him, along with Chicago Art Deco Society Vice President Amy Keller, to tour Edgar Miller’s Glasner Studio on Wells Street, just so he could see what it is he was disturbing in our tight-knit community. Usually people gasp a bit when seeing Miller’s masterpiece, and though we understand the developer was coming into the situation a bit on the defensive, he was visibly unmoved. It was clear from the get-go that we were taking the wrong approach with him, but we sent him on his merry way with a copy of The Handmade Home under his arm. Surely he threw it on the fire for kindling later that evening.

 

159 W. Burton sits snugly against an artistic rehab by Andrew Rebori at 161 W. Burton

Everyone wondered what we should be doing. Should the immediate neighbors lawyer up? What about the alderman? How long would the demo permit take to get? Could the Landmarks Commission step in? So many questions without answers were floating around, and in the meantime, it seemed as if the fate of the building and block was all in the hands of an uninformed, uncultured, and uncaring individual who was looking to turn a quick profit off of a neighborhood that was formed in blood, sweat and tears over decades. Then the developer would move on and leave in his wake an ugly condo building with new owners who would surely not be interested in retaining the cultural integrity of the block any more than they would be interested in living and caring for a vintage apartment building.

Then things got interesting. A meeting was called on Wednesday, July 8th. Held in a basement level unit at Carl Street Studios, it was mostly attended by neighbors from Carl Street, 161 W. Burton Pl. (the building on the other side of the proposed demolition), and a handful of concerned neighbors from elsewhere on the block. We also attended the meeting along with a small group of other Edgar Miller fans and long-time Old Town residents. The atmosphere was tense, but after a taste of wine and pizza supplied by the Carl Street residents, the meeting moved forward with an assessment of where we stood and what could possibly be done. It was clear that we would have to take a multi-tiered strategy: negotiate with the developer before he received his demo permit, push somehow for landmarking the block, and use our wits to get the word out to the greater Old Town and Chicago community that there was a crisis needing everyone's attention.

About halfway through the meeting, in walked Alderman Walter Burnett Jr., who had been invited but no one expected would actually show up. A pleasant man, he carefully chose his words, knowing that everyone was hanging on his statements and wanting more from him than he felt capable of giving. He was hesitant to interfere with property rights, he said. Of course, we weren’t talking about some long-time ward property owner, but a developer who believes a city’s neighborhoods are a canvas upon which he should be allowed to work his will, however destructive to the cultural fabric. Still, Mr. Burnett promised he would allow landmarking to go forward, which brought a sigh of relief to the room. This meant only that he would propose it. It would be up to everyone in attendance to figure out how to convince the Landmarks Commission to take it up at their next meeting, and there was and is still no guarantee that a landmarking decision will stop the demolition of the building at 159 W. Burton.

 

The next step was to move ahead with marketing our plight. A young architect named Sophie Kohn, who only visited the Carl Street Studios for the first time in June, quickly volunteered her free time to help set up the website www.SOS-SaveOurStory.org. This she did purely out of love for the architecture of Burton Place and a passion for historic preservation. Trish VanderBeke had t-shirts and postcards ordered with a logo designed by Bill B., a neighbor and teacher who thankfully had some free time on his hands and who has also contributed immensely to keeping the website up-to-date with news articles and photos, among his other many contributions to the cause. A petition was started on Change.org (it currently has been signed and commented upon by over 1600 people). By the Dearborn Garden Walk on July 19th, Bill and Alan Artner, former art critic for the Chicago Tribune, were ready with an information table and their steadily hoarsening voices as streams of architecture fans heard of the sad and scary news that had befallen the block.

 

Bill B. and an assistant spread the word outside Carl Street Studios during the Dearborn Garden Walk

In the meantime, Amy Keller of Chicago Art Deco Society and Keith Stolte, another officer of the Carl Street Studios Condo Association, continued to press the developer, still without demo permit, to alter his plans and keep the integrity of the block intact. Ideally, the neighbors wanted the developer to keep the building as-is and simply do a gut-rehab. This would save the adjacent buildings from potential damage resulting from the demolition and carving out of an enormous new basement, and it would maintain the pristine historic aesthetic of Burton Place. Alternatively, knowing the developer had already refused to consider such an option, they hoped to persuade him to at least keep the façade in place and force his plans for optimizing square footage into the rear of the lot.

Of course, we mentioned the developer’s temperament above, and he wasn’t particularly interested in any compromise. He said it would be too costly, it would take too much time to revise his plans, and besides, he could do whatever he wanted within the current zoning constraints without compromising at all.

 

This brings us to what happened last week. For one, the developer did receive his demolition permit, finally. At this point, however, news had already spread and many media outlets were already running with the story. Furthermore, it is our understanding that there are potential talks of a buyout offer being proposed to the developer, which if true, would mean saving the building and him getting the money he craves without doing any of the work. Not too bad a deal for him. We suspect this is why he still hasn’t begun to erect scaffolding, now a week later.

On Friday last week, we also got word that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has agreed to take up the proposal for the entire West Burton Place District to become a Chicago Landmark. The Commission meets tomorrow, Thursday August 6th, at City Hall, Room 201-A, at 12:45pm. Contrary to popular belief, however, landmarking the block won’t necessarily prevent the developer from going ahead with demolition, because he applied and received his permit before any of this process began. There is also no guarantee that at tomorrow’s meeting the commission will vote to approve the landmarking to go forward, though we have every intention to make an effective argument that it should.

 

 

So where are we now? Our director, Zac Bleicher, will be speaking at the Landmarks Commission, along with many other experts who will attest to the cultural and architectural importance of the block. We are crossing our fingers that a mystery buyer will come out of the woodwork and extricate the developer from his folly. And we aren’t experts on the development process, but one does have to wonder how such a delicate demolition can go forward without involving extensive engineering studies and potential legal litigation.

Hopefully by the next time you hear from us, Burton Place will be on its way to landmark status, and the old Victorian at 159 W. Burton will still be standing as proudly as it does today, between Edgar Miller and Sol Kogen’s beautiful yet fragile Carl Street Studios, and its other art deco and art moderne rehabs that pepper the entire block.

To voice your concern and support landmarking for a West Burton Place District, please write to landmarks@cityofchicago.org