In matters of real estate, they say three things matter most: location, location, location. That’s certainly holding true in the case of two downtown buildings whose fates are being debated by preservationists and the federal government.
The 1913 Consumers Building at 202 South State St., and its neighbor, the 1915 Century Building, were designed by two of Chicago’s most storied architecture firms. But multiple federal agencies have concluded the towers’ locations just east of the Dirksen Federal Building render the country’s largest federal courthouse vulnerable to attack and pose too much of a security risk to keep.
Jason Wojdylo was chief deputy U.S. Marshal of the Northern District of Illinois when the decisions about these two buildings were being made, from 2018 to 2020. He shares the conclusions of the security assessments by the FBI, ATF and other government agencies – as well as Sen. Dick Durbin, who wrote an op-ed for the Sun-Times – that the proximity of vacant, decaying buildings with clear sightlines to the Dirksen Federal Building is a threat to the workers inside. Moreover, Wojdylo says the cost of renovating the buildings is prohibitive.
“The buildings have been vacant since 2005 … they are in disrepair. The façade continues to fall from the building,” Wojdylo said. “The estimates to rehabilitate these buildings … we would be looking into the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Still, preservationists say the buildings can be repurposed in a manner that preserves safety for the Dirksen and its employees.
Sun-Times architecture critic and member of the editorial board Lee Bey, who also wrote an op-ed urging that the buildings be saved, said he appreciates the worries about safety, but the approach the government has chosen is at odds with past attempts to save the buildings as well as the intent of the Dirksen Federal Building’s famed architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
“The thing that puzzled us was the heavy lift to restore these buildings, the GSA wouldn’t have had to take,” Bey said. “There was a deal in place where the GSA would tender the buildings to the city in 2017. The federal center is in the middle of downtown … the plaza was open and free … by and large, they pushed for openness. So it was a mystery to me as an architecture critic why they would take this route instead.”
Wojdylo contends the removal of the buildings would actually help restore the Dirksen Federal Building plaza to reflect van der Rohe’s original intent.
“Years ago the entry was reengineered to be on the Dearborn side, but the true front is on State Street,” Wojdylo said. “When we eliminate these buildings, the federal government could create the openness that was part of the design.”
But Bey believes that empty space on State Street will have effects beyond the Dirksen Federal Building.
“To lose to 20th century skyscrapers designed by two of the founding fathers of Chicago architecture is always a loss. To have it replaced with a plaza, a security buffer, takes away some of the vitality of State Street,” Bey said. “We know from Block 37 … what that does to a street … it’s just an empty space, and that’s something I think State Street can ill afford.”