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Landmark altercation: Who speaks for the Saint Benedict?



The shops and restaurants in the Hotel Saint Benedict Flats are bustling these days. But in two months they're expected to close forever. The bulldozers will come along, and the 100-year-old Gothic five-story apartment building on Chicago Avenue one block west of Michigan will be demolished. Most likely it will be replaced by a parking lot.

Preservationists don't want to lose a building they consider a city treasure; the building's owner, David "Buzz" Ruttenberg, says good riddance to a run-down relic that's worth more razed than it would be rehabbed. For the moment, city officials apparently agree with Ruttenberg.

In the last four years, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks has rejected two requests to save the building by granting it landmark status (a city-designated landmark cannot be demolished). If the Saint Benedict falls, it will be one more example of the city's inability to preserve its dwindling stock of historically important properties.

"This is a classic case of a conflict between public good and private gain," says Amy Hecker, a commission member who supports saving the building. "You see this conflict coming up repeatedly, and there's no easy way out."

When Ruttenberg and his partners bought the building two decades ago, they did not believe it had any historical value. "This is what we call a land investment--that's why I bought it," says Ruttenberg, a well-connected developer who numbers the Webster Place and Esquire movie theaters among his projects. "Its value is its location. It's just down the street from Michigan Avenue. It was never my intention to keep the building indefinitely."

According to Ruttenberg, the building was a money loser when he bought it. It houses several first-floor storefronts, none of which has a ground-level entrance. That means customers have to enter by walking up the front stoop. Only some of the apartments are rented. Moreover, Ruttenberg says, the building is falling apart.

"The prior owners apparently did not keep it up with the standards I would expect," says Ruttenberg. "The electrical power wasn't up to code. The boiler had problems. The windows leaked cold air. The roof leaked. The building had not been surface-cleaned in years. The hallway carpeting was decrepit. The doors on the outside did not have proper security. And the basement was infested with vermin. We fixed a lot of this up. But you still can't change the fact that the apartments are little and dark. It's a sight."

By all accounts, Ruttenberg has run the building well, and even managed to attract several successful businesses, including a Korean restaurant, a bagel bakery, and a coffeehouse.

But his maintenance costs have been high and his taxes skyrocketing, Ruttenberg explains. He and his partners have averaged an annual profit of about 3 percent on the building--a pittance in the downtown real estate game.

"If you're going to remodel and gut, you would have to assume rehab costs of about $80,000 to $100,000 an apartment," says Ruttenberg. "There's about 40 apartments. You can't charge enough in rent to make that up. My real estate taxes alone are $125,000 a year. The land is deemed as being very valuable even if the building is not. Any way you look at it, we can't make enough money to justify the expenses of saving this building."

Besides, he has other options. Loyola University has talked about buying the property and using it to expand its Michigan Avenue campus. If that deal doesn't work out, Ruttenberg can always use the space as a parking lot (he currently has a request before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals to do just that). Or he could erect a convenience store. Any of these deals would yield more money than he's making now, says Ruttenberg.

"I resent the accusation that I don't believe in preservation," says Ruttenberg. "My family's been in business for 40 years. If you look at our track record, you'll see we've rehabbed many buildings. But under no circumstance will I keep the building standing. It's just not sound or reasonable."

Nonetheless, since 1985 a movement has been growing to save the building by having the city grant it landmark status. Acting on the request of several not-for-profit preservationist groups, staff members of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks began searching for evidence of the building's historical significance. Specifically, they wanted to know who the architect was, whether any famous people had lived there, whether it had ever been the site of a famous event, and what role its design might play in the history of Chicago architecture.

After weeks of investigation, the staff discovered that the building had been erected in 1882. Its developer was Patrick Sexton, its architect James Egan. These two are relatively unknown today, but at the turn of the century they were among the city's most influential builders. Using their connections, they won contracts to build a number of public buildings, including the old County Hospital, County Jail, and City Hall.

"Although [many of Mr. Egan's] buildings have long since been demolished and replaced, at the time they were obviously conspicuous and important commissions assigned only to an architect of considerable stature," the commission's staff wrote in its report on the hotel. "Egan died in 1914. Like Sexton, he is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston, for which he had designed a Gothic entrance gate."

The building--called a hotel by its original owners to take advantage of certain tax breaks--was one of many apartment units then being constructed for the city's well-to-do renters.

"It's the oldest and largest early Victorian apartment building in Chicago," says Vincent Michael, Chicago programs director for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "That makes it one of the ten oldest in the country. They basically did not build this kind of building for the middle and upper classes, because there was an attitude that you didn't put people in apartments. The idea was that it encourages promiscuity and communism. That attitude began to change in Paris and carried over to New York. You can see that the architect took great care with the design. They have granite columns and Indiana limestone, they made the building very finely appointed to convince tenants that they were living in a high-class building, not a tenement."

In time the area around the building changed. Now squeezed between a bunch of fast-food restaurants and the skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue, the Saint Benedict is the only building of its generation still standing in the area.

The case first came before the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in 1986; from the start, Ruttenberg opposed landmark status. He trotted out several witnesses who testified that the building was not historically significant. The preservationists countered with several witnesses of their own.

"I don't call it the Hotel Saint Benedict Flats--I think of it as 50 East Chicago Avenue," says Ruttenberg. "If you look at the front of the building, you'll see that over the years tenants have put all sorts of signs and placards on. They've changed this building dramatically. It's not pristine. It's unfit to be a landmark. It's just an old building."

In November of 1986, the commission agreed. After that, Ruttenberg applied for and apparently received a demolition permit. That permit expired, so this year he applied for another. It was then that preservationists made another move to save the building.

"Owners are usually against landmark status because it limits their options," says Michael. "But the commission is not supposed to consider economic hardship when it hears a case. They have to consider whether a building is worthy of being a landmark. If they decide it is, then they hold a hearing where the owner pleads his economic-hardship case. After that, there's all sorts of things the city can do to help him. He can get a tax break to fix the building up, or a grant. Or maybe the city will buy it from him."

On Wednesday, February 7, more than 50 people crowded into a tiny hearing room, and the commission listened to their pleas to save the building.

"Chicago is being faced with an ever-increasing loss of landmarks," testified Carol Wyant, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council. "Too often it is only after the loss is assured that citizens realize what has happened. Let us not be known as the city that allowed the most valuable architectural heritage in the United States to be destroyed. We must protect these irreplaceable landmarks."

When the testimony was over, David Mosena, who as the city's commissioner of planning has a seat on the nine-person Landmarks Commission, said it really didn't matter what the commission decided because Ruttenberg had already received his demolition permit. A staff member then objected that Ruttenberg did not yet have a permit.

Commission chair Peter Bynoe took the floor to say that the status of Ruttenberg's permit didn't matter anyway. "I have a great difficulty [with] bringing back cases," Bynoe said. "We considered this matter in 1986. Nothing has changed between 1986 and 1990. I have a procedural problem. I don't think we should set a precedent [for reconsidering cases]."

Nevertheless, committee member Marian Despres moved to schedule another hearing to look into preserving the building. A tie vote meant her proposal failed: one person was absent, two abstained, and Mosena, Bynoe, and Thomas Gray voted against it. "That vote was the nail in the coffin," says Hecker, who along with John Baird supported Despres' proposal.

But that afternoon, Sun-Times reporter Alf Siewers went to City Hall and discovered that Mosena was in fact wrong. He wrote a story saying Ruttenberg does not have a demolition permit. So on Tuesday, February 13, the commission voted to open new hearings.

"I would love to see the building saved, but I also have a fiduciary responsibility to the city," says Mosena. "If we delay demolition after the owner has his demolition permit, he can take us to court. That costs the city money."

Ultimately it's not Mosena's job to save buildings, it's to oversee city planning. But realistically, he's also supposed to protect his boss, Mayor Richard M. Daley. If it looks as though Daley will get nothing but bad press from the building's destruction, Mosena may be forced to try and save it. For the preservationists, that means rallying the troops.

"As far as the commission's concerned, these matters are supposed to be tried on the facts of the case--is the building historically valuable?" says Michael. "But it doesn't hurt to have a lot of people speak out for it. We've got to bring everyone out."

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