Future in question

Future in question
Built in the 1920s, the Wrigley Building has been called the jewel of the Magnificent Mile. It was designed to house the Wrigley company's headquarters. (Tribune photo by David Zentz / June 19, 2005)

We live in Daleyland. Or Wonderland. Sometimes, it seems as if it's the same place.

Mayor Richard M. Daley's recent assertion that the city will not seek landmark status for the iconic Wrigley Building takes us straight through the looking glass and into the realm of the ridiculous. It reveals how utterly arbitrary the process of conferring protected status on Chicago's architectural treasures can be.

The mayor made his comment on June 18 after the Tribune's Thomas A. Corfman revealed that the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. is exploring its long-term real estate needs, including a move from its historic headquarters building at 400 and 410 N. Michigan Ave. If the company does move, real estate sources said, the Wrigley Building might be turned into luxury condominiums.

Asserting that the city continues to have no interest in pursuing landmark designation for the Wrigley Building, Daley said of the Wrigley family: "That family has really kept that icon up. . . . There isn't one piece of public taxpayer money involved. That's pretty significant."

This was a classic Alice-in-Wonderland argument -- an insidious way of turning reality on its head.

Nowhere in the official criteria for designating Chicago landmarks does it say that a building's owners can avoid the restrictions that come with landmark status by maintaining their properties without public funds.

A potential landmark must meet at least two of seven criteria established by the city. Among them: being an important work of architecture (which the Wrigley surely is -- the building, a skillful transformation of Spanish and French precedents, is a major 1920s skyscraper and even appeared on the cover of the Art Institute's 1987 book, "Chicago Architecture 1872-1922").

Here is a sampling of the other standards:

- Whether a building is a critical part of the city's heritage (check: The Wrigley inaugurated a spurt of development north of the Chicago River in the 1920s).

- Whether a building was designed by an important architect (check: The Wrigley's architects were Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the firm that succeeded the practice of Daniel Burnham).

- Whether a building is part of a distinctive city district (check: The Wrigley is one of four great 1920s towers that create an extraordinary visual drama around the Michigan Avenue bridge).

- Whether a building has a unique visual feature (check: If the Wrigley's clock tower isn't unique, then what is?).

It is absurd for the city's roster of protected structures to incorporate such everyday structures as warehouses, powerhouses, bridges and ballparks but not a major commercial monument such as the Wrigley Building.

How can Wrigley Field be a landmark, but not the Wrigley Building?

In recent years, the city has pursued the enlightened policy of taking pre-emptive action, as condominium conversions loomed, to protect significant historic structures, such as the wall of historic buildings along Michigan Avenue that lines Grant Park.

Nobody wanted to see balconies, with bicycles and barbecue grilles, gracelessly stuck onto the walls of these notable structures. Nobody should wish such a fate on the Wrigley Building. And that is to say nothing of the potential issue raised by the blazing spotlights that make the building a beacon at night: There could be pressure to turn them off if they keep condo residents awake.

As one longtime city observer wrote in a letter to me: "Do you remember the dark Wrigley Building during one of the severest energy crises? Very sad."

The city's inconsistency on designating landmarks, as made clear by Daley's comments on the Wrigley Building, is sadder still.

Think tanks: Originally designed to hold water for fire protection and manufacturing needs, water tanks etch a distinctive skyline silhouette in both Chicago's downtown and its neighborhood commercial districts. The city once had thousands of the picturesque rooftop structures and hundreds remain, yet only about 130 of the water tanks are known to be actively used today, according to Tim Samuelson, the city's cultural historian.

Now the Chicago Architectural Club and the City of Chicago are sponsoring a design competition to explore the reuse or preservation of historic water tanks. Santa Monica, Calif., architect Thom Mayne, who was just in Chicago to receive the 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize, will chair the jury for the contest. The top three plans will receive prize money of $3,500, $1,000 and $500. The deadline for submittal is Oct. 11. For details, see www.chicagoarchitecturalclub.org.

Happy 125th: Throughout its life, the venerable Chicago architectural firm of Holabird & Root has made an enormous impact on the Chicago cityscape. Its sparkling list of credits includes the Marquette Building, the original Soldier Field, the Chicago Board of Trade, the Palmolive Building and the Northwestern University Law School.

The firm has never hewed to a single aesthetic ideology. Instead, it has consistently turned out high-quality designs in styles ranging from Chicago School to Beaux-Arts to Art Deco to postmodern and modern.

This year, Holabird & Root is turning 125, and the public, fittingly, will have a chance to partake in the celebration of the firm that has done so much to shape its surroundings. On July 16, the Chicago Architecture Foundation will open a retrospective exhibition on the firm's work, featuring photographs by Hedrich Blessing. The exhibition will appear in the foundation's John Buck Company Lecture Hall gallery. It runs through Feb. 12, 2006.