The federal government is moving to tear down a vacant three-story building it owns on State Street, a property adjacent to two historic early skyscrapers the city has also eyed for demolition, WTTW News has learned.
The General Services Administration — the federal agency that manages the government-owned buildings — estimates demolition of 208 to 212 S. State St. will begin on April 14. It’s set to take four to six weeks, with on-street safety barriers in place during the demolition.
“A recent conditions assessment found the non-historic building, which has been unoccupied for several years, is not structurally sound and presents risks, including potential facade collapse that would endanger pedestrians and street traffic,” the GSA said in a news release published after WTTW News requested comment. An agency spokesperson said the demolition will cost $3.2 million.
The move is the latest development in a fight over historic preservation and courthouse security.
The government has also been pushing to demolish the Century and Consumers buildings, two early 20th century skyscrapers located to the east of the Dirksen Federal Building. Because of their proximity to the federal courthouse, Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer has called for tearing them down, citing the “grave security risk” they pose and the challenge of repurposing them after years of vacancy.
“GSA is continuing its discussions with stakeholders on the future of these three buildings, which will not be affected by this demolition,” the agency said in its release.
The property the government plans to demolish this month, a 1920 structure known as the John R. Thompson Company Building, is one of two small properties nestled between the Century and Consumers buildings.
“These buildings have been allowed to fall into disrepair by our own government,” said Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago. That organization just listed the Century and Consumers skyscrapers on its 2023 list of the most endangered buildings in the city. “This is really demolition by neglect. You would expect so much more from the GSA.”
Miller said a proposal to turn the taller historic properties into an archive and research center for a group of religious organizations would preserve architecturally important buildings, prevent a huge gap in the streetscape along State and address federal officials’ security concerns.
Miller said that while he understands the Thompson Company Building has become a hazard, the teardown is “really disappointing to us. But in many of the schemes, it was thought that this smaller building would most likely be demolished” because its original facade has been refaced so many times.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks decided at a September meeting not to vote on whether the Century and Consumers buildings should get landmark protection, which preservationists have been calling for. But a presentation by commission staff indicated the buildings have significant historic value, with Chicago Commissioner of Planning and Development Maurice Cox describing them as worthy of landmark status.
The government is currently working through a legally mandated review process to determine the impact of wrecking the Century and Consumers buildings. The building it plans to tear down this month has no such protections.
Lee Bey, a longtime architecture critic and member of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board who’s advocated for preserving the Century and Consumers buildings, said any such repurposing likely would have involved tearing down one or both of the smaller structures between the vintage skyscrapers.
“In that regard, it’s a loss, but not a big one,” Bey said. “I think that the unnerving thing is since all those buildings are together, you have to wonder if … the Century and Consumers buildings are in trouble, as well. Taller buildings like those are more complex — when they go bad, they can go really bad.”
Last month, the GSA closed off the sidewalk in front of the four buildings it owns at the southwest corner of State and Adams streets, citing the danger that crumbling facades pose to pedestrians.
“That they were allowed to sit on State Street and rot this way over the years is just a shame,” Bey said.