Two blocks west of City Hall sits Chicago’s most infamous empty lot. From 1927 to 2002, this was the site of the Old Mercantile Exchange, known colloquially as the “Butter and Egg” Building. Designed by architect Alfred S. Alschuler, the massive structure was designed to house what was once the United States’ largest futures trading market for butter and eggs. Its classical revival-inspired exterior was accented with low-relief scenes of farming and animal husbandry. High above, at the building’s seventeen-story cornice, were rows of ornate cow head busts. In design and size, the building rivaled any number of similar downtown buildings that have been adaptively reused for offices, hotels, and housing. Purchased by the Crown family in the 1940s, trading at the Old Mercantile Exchange Building ended in 1972, but the Old Merc continued to be occupied into the new millennium.
In February 2002, a demolition permit for the Old Merc was issued by the City of Chicago’s Buildings Department, much to the surprise of the Department of Planning and Development, and Chicago’s community of preservationists, including Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois, and former members of the Chicago Landmarks Commission. In 1990, the building had been identified as orange-rated during citywide fieldwork that took place in part of a civic initiative to look for potential historic landmarks. Initiated in 1983, the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS) was a decades-long municipal effort that rated buildings using a color-coding system. Warmer colors, like red and orange, were given to buildings that had the highest level of significance, while cooler colors, like yellow, yellow-green, green, and purple, were given to buildings with lesser significance or those that had been altered over time. A final category–blue–was provided to capture buildings that surveyors considered significant after 1940.
The CHRS’s goals were to evaluate Chicago’s stock of historic buildings for potential landmarks, and the results of the data are reflective of the time period in which the field of historic preservation viewed landmarks through the lens of time. The CHRS identified over seventeen thousand buildings considered to have architectural or historic importance out of Chicago’s approximately half million structures, but it also failed to evaluate buildings consistently across parts of the city, severely undercounting the South and West Sides, and under-evaluated vernacular architectural types, such as worker’s cottages.
The CHRS carried no legal weight, and as active consideration for landmark status was the only measure to prevent demolition, the Old Merc could be demolished as of right. This loophole caught the attention of then Mayor Richard M. Daley, who declared in a March 20, 2002, City Council meeting that Chicago’s system of color-coding buildings needed overhauling.
“We had a Preservation Chicago member who was active in the theater community who had all of these 1920s-era costumes, so we put them on and marched from the Old Merc to City Hall,” says architect and former director of Preservation Chicago Jonathan Fine describing a protest at the Old Merc. “The City knew that they had to do something, and they knew we weren’t going away, and we were getting a lot of press.” On December 4, 2002, an amendment to the City of Chicago building code was presented to City Council. The Demolition Delay Ordinance, passed in January 2003, stated that buildings or structures rated red or orange in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey would not receive a demolition permit before the Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Planning and Development had a 90-day review period with which to “explore options to preserve the building or structure, including, but not limited to, possible designation of the building or structure as a Chicago Landmark.”1 The 90-day period could be extended by mutual agreement between the applicant applying for a demolition permit and the Department of Planning and Development. If a reasonable alternative to demolition could not be found, then the hold could be released after 90 days, and the applicant would receive their demolition permit. An option to waive the 90-day demolition delay period existed if the demolition of a building or structure was necessary to remedy a condition immensely dangerous to life, health, or property.
“The ordinance was imperfect in many ways,” continues Fine. “We wanted the green-rated buildings in there too, and we wanted the addresses tied to the pin numbers, and they weren’t. They were tied to the street addresses, which in many cases were wrong, but if you tied the historic building to the pin number you knew exactly what building you were looking at.”
Theoretically, the amendment would provide a level of protection for the 9,900 buildings identified as red or orange on the CHRS. Yet, the survey was never intended to protect buildings from demolition, and the Department of Planning and Development had not been keeping organized or searchable data on how many of those buildings had been demolished prior to the implementation of the Demolition Delay Ordinance. “The CHRS was meant to be a planning guide” adds Fine, “but it was never used that way.” As buildings were demolished, the individual survey forms were either marked as demolished, or the forms were discarded outright.
In January 2003, the Chicago Tribune released “A Squandered Heritage,” a three-part series by Blair Kamin and Patrick T. Reardon. Using a similar “windshield-survey” technique as the original CHRS teams had used to evaluate buildings, the Tribune investigation found that more than 200 buildings rated red, orange, yellow, or green on the CHRS had been demolished prior to any discussion of a demolition delay ordinance.2 Yet, the investigation could not rely on data from the city, as it could not put together a list of demolitions. “A Squandered Heritage” called out the Daley administration for its efforts to landmark buildings downtown, while buildings on the South and West Sides—particularly residential buildings—were being demolished with impunity. Kamin and Reardon’s investigation showed that these demolitions, more frequent under the Daley administration than previous mayors, were rapidly depleting Chicago’s affordable housing stock, with a damning conclusion that “the amendment is unlikely to have much impact.”
The epilogue of the series, published in December of 2003, reported that in its first year of implementation, the ordinance only led to the landmarking of one building out of the twenty-six that were reviewed under the Demolition Delay Ordinance. By the end of the year, the Old Merc was demolished, beginning its two-decades long iteration as an empty lot.
As the 2003 Demolition Delay Ordinance turns twenty, the predictions made in “A Squandered Heritage” have proved correct. The Demolition Delay Ordinance has allowed preservation groups time to mount public advocacy campaigns, to attract the attention of local media, and to communicate with building owners, neighbors, and aldermen on the financial and cultural benefits of preservation. It has provided landmarks commission staff with additional time to review and research red- and orange-rated buildings, and to coordinate with building owners on strategies to retain historic elements, either through revising building plans or, as a mitigation strategy, architectural salvage. Despite what it was created to provide the City of Chicago, the Demolition Delay Ordinance has saved almost no buildings from demolition.
A report published in 2016 titled Building on Chicago’s Strengths: The Partnership for Building Reuse examined the value that older buildings lend to Chicago’s neighborhoods as well as how the city can overcome barriers to building reuse and unlock development potential. Organized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Urban Land Institute, along with local leaders in historic preservation, the report identified “decreasing building demolition and resources waste” as a goal, and stated that Chicago’s Demolition Delay Ordinance “functions much like demolition delay ordinances in other cities, but applies to only a small portion of the city’s fabric.”3 According to data provided by Chicago Cityscape, 40,616 building permits were issued by the City of Chicago, with 801 issued for demolition. Only 18 permits were subject to Demolition Delay under the ordinance.
In two decades, close to five hundred buildings, primarily two- and three-flat residential structures, have been released and then demolished after the Demolition Delay hold elapsed. Only a small number of individual buildings that have fallen under the Demolition Delay Ordinance have been designated as Chicago Landmarks over a twenty-year time period, including the Shrine of Christ the King/St. Gelasius Catholic Church, The Richard Nickel Studio, The Ken Nordine Mansion, and the Lake Street Schlitz Tied House/La Luce Building. It is impossible to determine if these buildings were landmarked as a result of their review under demolition delay, or other factors, like advocacy efforts. When demolition has served as a catalyst to create local historic districts, such as the Armitage-Halsted District and the Newport District, it has been only after the destruction of one or more contributing buildings had occurred.
Data regarding exactly how many red- and orange-rated buildings have been demolished is not available from the city, as there is no collected list of demolitions. There is no way to filter through positive outcomes that occurred through mitigation, what buildings that fell under Demolition Delay eventually became landmarks, or what buildings were demolished due to safety or condition issues without counting them each individually by year. A website managed by the Historic Preservation Division containing the CHRS data is static, with the Old Merc, among other buildings that have been demolished in the twenty years since, still appearing within the data. Information on what has been demolished or landmarked is only reliably found on the city’s Zoning and Land Use Map, which has no functionality to search for landmarks or demolitions by either year or color code. This chronic data problem makes the successes of the Demolition Delay Ordinance difficult to quantify, yet the failures are easy to recognize in both the razing of physical buildings and the efforts put forth by citizens, neighborhood, nonprofit organizations, and alderpersons that despite their energy and enthusiasm, do not have the policy backbone to support their endeavors.
In order for the Chicago Landmarks Commission to make a recommendation for a building to be designated as a Chicago Landmark, it must meet two or more of seven criteria given in the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance. While the intention of the CHRS was to look for potential landmarks, the color coding does not align with the criteria as codified in the ordinance. This translation between the color coding, which required only that red- and orange-rated properties “possess some architectural feature that made them historically significant” versus the requirement that landmark designation meets two or more specific criteria, is not exact.
The bar for landmark status is both culturally and technically high, yet the value of a building cannot be understood in a binary where potential and existing landmarks are the only buildings worth evaluating for renovation or reuse over demolition. Yet, the only permanent, citywide measure to evaluate or mitigate building demolitions is the 90-day Demolition Delay Ordinance, which only covered the less than 10,000 buildings rated red or orange in the CHRS.
There are other reasons why a building is valuable beyond its contributions to architecture, and arguably more urgent ones, including impacts on housing availability and affordability, environmental resilience, cultural history, and neighborhood cohesion. Reducing demolitions in Chicago will require a coordinated effort. Demolition was not, and is not, exclusively a historic preservation problem in Chicago.
Renovating or adaptively reusing existing buildings provides an opportunity to maximize the use of embodied energy—the sum of all the energy required to extract, manufacture, deliver, and install the materials needed to construct a building.4 A building’s structural and façade systems represent the largest quantity of embodied energy, and older buildings required more materials, and at a larger quantity, to perform the task of “standing up” than newer buildings. While new buildings might be constructed of materials using renewable energy sources as well as recycled and local materials, the embodied energy of a demolished building ensures that any new building, regardless of how “green” it might have been designed to be, begins at a deficit. Building on Chicago’s Strengths: The Partnership for Building Reuse stated that it takes from 10 to 80 years for a new building to overcome, through efficient operations, the negative climate change impacts related to the demolition and construction process.5
The City of Chicago requires fifty percent of the debris related to demolition be recycled, but only if the building is a “residential building with four or more units that includes the demolition of at least one outside wall” or if a non-residential building is 4,000 square feet or less. The overwhelming majority of buildings demolished in Chicago overall are two- to three-flat buildings, meaning that these materials are not recycled and end up in area landfills.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a whopping ten percent of materials in US landfills relate to construction and demolition (C&D) debris.6Ninety percent of that ten percent is demolition debris.
While demolition permit applications in Chicago do require approval of the Buildings Department, there are no fees attached to the loss of embodied energy, nor are there incentives for recycling or reusing materials.
According to an investigation from the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University, between 2013 and 2019 Chicago lost 11,775 housing units via the demolition of two-, three- and four-flats, or 4.2 percent of all units. Nearly three-quarters of them were replaced with single-family homes or are no longer used for housing, with some becoming vacant lots or side yards for adjacent owners.7
Demolition often occurs because a building has substantial condition issues, either as a result of prolonged vacancy, deferred maintenance, or an abandonment of property owner responsibilities. Since 1974, the Community Investment Corporation has been working with banks and nonprofits in order to partner with owners of two-, three-, and multi-unit buildings, providing resources to help those building owners purchase, rehab, refinance, or make energy improvements in order to mitigate the factors that may lead to a demolition permit. “When buildings are torn down in the areas we work in, they have deteriorated,” says Jonah Hess, director of Community Initiatives, Inc. at the Community Investment Corporation. “We look to intervene at the point where intervention is feasible.”
After seeing the effects of demolition on the gentrifying areas of Pilsen on Chicago’s Near South Side and along The 606 trail, a linear park spanning across neighborhoods on Chicago’s Northwest Side, a demolition surcharge was enacted by the Department of Housing that required an applicant pay a surcharge of $15,000 to demolish single-family buildings, or $5,000 per housing unit (up to $15,000) to demolish apartment buildings in the pilot area. This program began in April 2021, and was effective enough to be extended into 2024. The fees feed into the Chicago Community Land Trust, which creates a pathway for homeownership for low- and moderate-income Chicagoans.
The demolition permit process does not require an applicant to indicate what type of construction project (if any) will follow a demolition project. When demolition of a viable building is a component to a project that requires complex funding or permitting, that demolition may happen as a first step, but the subsequent steps may not occur. This has led to situations where, as in the case of the Old Merc, an empty lot sits for decades without development. The proliferation of vacant lots has caused harm to neighborhoods across Chicago and has caused the City of Chicago and Cook County to miss out on the tax revenue created by viable, occupied buildings.
Short-term improvements could be made by the Chicago City Council to the existing Demolition Delay Ordinance, increasing its effectiveness immediately. Lengthening the 90-day hold to 180 days could help reduce demolitions, allowing not for more time to determine if a building might be worthy of landmark designation, but for more time to connect current building owners to renovation- or preservation-minded buyers. Buildings in Chicago listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) or contributing to a National Register District could be added to the Demolition Delay Ordinance, as local landmark districts do not mirror National Register Districts, and a National Register listing does not prevent a building from being torn down by a private owner. This would be beneficial in regards to the Sheffield District, a large district listed in on the NRHP in 1976 but never landmarked locally. The area primarily contains buildings that were rated green during the CHRS fieldwork. In 2019, Landmarks Illinois tracked teardowns in the Sheffield District and found that a third of the district’s building stock had been demolished.8
Foundationally, any current or future Demolition Delay Ordinance cannot be based on the 40-year-old data of the CHRS, which was never intended to be utilized to prevent buildings from demolition, and largely omits buildings built after 1940. The demolition policies of Chicago’s peer cities should provide a guide. For example, the City of Los Angeles requires a 60-day public notification period for any building greater than forty-five years old prior to the issuance of a demolition permit, while New York City allows demolitions as of right, as long as a building is not landmarked or pending landmarking. The City of Charleston, South Carolina, requires approval of a Design Review Board for any structures that are fifty years old or more in designated urban corridors that the review board has established.
Yet Chicago’s demolition problem might ultimately not be resolved via incentives or surcharges once a building owner applies for a demolition permit but much earlier, by encouraging and incentivizing care and maintenance within a building’s active life and on a scale that focuses on the type of buildings under threat of demolition. That kind of change will only come with a broadening understanding of our heritage, our resources, and our capabilities as a city.
The author would like to thank Jonathan Fine, cofounder and former executive director of Preservation Chicago, and Dunni Cosey Gay and Jonah Hess of the Community Investment Corporation for their interviews. Thanks to Eric Allix Rogers and Preservation Chicago for providing the images.