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Big and Beautiful

Can anyone save the old Mercantile Exchange Building from the endless tide of development?

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Thirty years ago the body of preservationist Richard Nickel was found beneath the rubble of the old Stock Exchange at Washington and LaSalle. He'd been part of a futile fight to save the Louis Sullivan building, and he was inside photographing and trying to salvage some of the last remnants when the building collapsed on him. The exchange's trading floor was preserved and put on permanent display at the Art Institute, along with a plaque paying tribute to Nickel, who was hailed as a hero by everyone from writers to aldermen.

"You'd think the city would have learned a lesson from the exchange fight," says Michael Moran, a member of Preservation Chicago. "You'd think they'd learned a lesson from Nickel. But no. They're making the same old mistakes. The city never seems to learn."

Moran and his allies see themselves as modern-day Nickels as they fight to save the old Mercantile Exchange building, a 17-story limestone edifice at the corner of Franklin and Washington. They've held marches and rallies, gathered signatures on petitions, and bombarded Mayor Daley with letters, postcards, and E-mails. "Architecture is the soul of our city," says Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. "I feel we're fighting for the soul of the city."

It is, they acknowledge, an uphill fight. The Merc is owned by CC Industries, which is owned by the Crowns, one of the wealthiest families in Chicago. Fine is an architect with a small practice in West Town, and Moran is an orthopedic surgeon whose patients are mostly working-class African-Americans from the south and southwest sides. They formed Preservation Chicago last October, and it has no office, no paid staff, and no budget.

Fine and Moran see Mayor Daley as their only real hope, unlike Nickel, who was openly contemptuous of the first Mayor Daley. But they would undoubtedly agree with the sentiment Nickel expressed in a letter written near the end of his life, quoted in Richard Cahan's book They All Fall Down: "Isn't it the responsibility of a mayor of a city to be concerned for our spiritual welfare as well as physical? Why aren't these agencies responsive, and why must individual citizens have to fight for everything?"

Moran thinks Daley has often been an ally of preservationists, and as proof he runs through a list of buildings the mayor ordered preserved after they'd been targeted for demolition. "Mayor Daley was supportive on the Goldblatt's building near Ashland and Chicago Avenue and Saint Boniface Church at Chestnut and Noble," he says. "The key is to get his attention."

Moran also thinks Daley needs to create an "alarm system" that would be "triggered when owners of valuable buildings seek to have them destroyed." He points out that the city OK'd the destruction of the old Mercantile Exchange in February--before preservationists even knew its owners had applied for a demolition permit. "CC Industries did everything by the book," says Fine. "They applied for a demolition permit, and they got it. It's not in their interest to notify the public of their demolition plans. I expect more of the city."

Fine says the city never made the old Merc a landmark, which would have required its owners to get special permission even to alter it. Instead, he says, "it's one of several thousand orange-rated buildings in the city's survey of historically valuable buildings. Red-coded buildings are the highest level. They have national significance--say, a Frank Lloyd Wright. Orange-coded buildings are the next level. They have historical significance."

For the past few months Fine and Moran have been asking Daley to set up a system under which the building department would inform the planning department of any proposal to destroy an orange-coded structure. "The city's made no reply to our proposal," says Moran, "which we think is essential if we're going to be serious about saving architecture that's worth preserving."

He and Fine believe the old Merc is such a building. Designed by Alfred Alschuler and built in the 1920s, it is, says Fine, "a classic Road to Perdition structure that gives Chicago a distinct look--Phoenix or Houston would die for such a building. It was the headquarters for the Mercantile Exchange, and a lot of people called it the Butter and Egg building, since dairy futures were traded there. On the outside walls you can see reliefs of chickens and eggs--that's the whimsy of some of these great old buildings, where form follows function."

In the 1920s, he goes on, "most of the people doing the building were the actual owners. They wanted the buildings to reflect themselves. Everything's different today. You can see the changes in the buildings going up all around us. You don't have individuals building drugstores, for instance. You have corporations doing the building. You've got corporate bean counters printing out a flowchart to see when the architecture will pay for itself. Architecture today has become a depreciable asset. It's something to write off on your taxes. It's not something that you use to enlighten mankind."

Fine says he and his allies didn't discover the old exchange had been targeted for demolition until March. "One of the members of our board got a call from a tenant in the building, who told him, hey, guess what, they've got a permit to tear down the Merc."

They weren't the only ones surprised. "We called the head of the landmark division and told him about the permit," says Moran. "He was dumbfounded--he didn't know anything about it. He said, 'No way.' Then he made his own calls and found out it was true."

Within a few weeks Preservation Chicago met with Alicia Berg, commissioner of the city's planning department, who told them there was nothing she could do. "Berg said she wasn't going to get involved," says Fine. "I asked her if she had seen any plans for what CC Industries was going to put up. She said she had seen no plans."

The preservationists walked away from the meeting dismayed. "Aside from the issue of preserving a valuable building, I wondered about oversight," Fine says. "Where are the watchdogs in city government? Who's watching over the development of the Loop?"

He also wondered how the city could allow a huge chunk of valuable, tax-producing property--the building covers almost half a block--to be destroyed without knowing what would replace it. "The Merc's a functioning building," he says. "At the time they got their demolition permit it was 97 percent occupied. So what's going to go in its place? Doesn't this concern the city's Department of Planning? Don't you think they'd ask to see some drawings or commitments from tenants who would go in there?"

Moran worries the site will become another Block 37, the lot on State between Washington and Randolph that's been vacant for almost 15 years, ever since the city allowed developers to tear down old but functioning buildings after other developers promised to build an upscale skyscraper. "As I understand it, the commercial real estate office market is soft," he says. "You've got Trump proposing to build another skyscraper downtown. Where are all these tenants coming from? Shouldn't we be asking these questions--at public hearings--before allowing a functioning building to be destroyed?"

A CC Industries spokesman says there's no cause for Moran or anyone else to be alarmed, because the company has plans to build a 30- to 40-story structure and have it fully occupied within a year. "We have had discussions with prospective tenants, and we have done some preliminary planning," says Rick Nassau, president of the company's real estate division. "But not until we have further discussions with tenants will we release sketches or drawings."

According to Nassau, the company has worked closely with Lee Bey, the mayor's deputy chief of staff. "I'm somewhat surprised that there would be protest because this is not a landmarked building," says Nassau. "We looked at alternative uses for the building, but it does not accommodate other uses. Our real goal here is to create something that will be a source of pride to the city and the architecture community. It will add value to the city."

Department of Planning spokesman Pete Scales says there's nothing the city could have done to stop CC Industries from receiving a demolition permit. "It's their right to begin demolition," he says. "It's not a landmarked building." And he doesn't think it ought to be. "The landmarks commission is dedicated to saving the best of the old buildings," he says. "We can't save every old building in Chicago."

He says the city generally does a good job of protecting valuable buildings from demolition. He admits that the planning department didn't know CC Industries intended to tear down the old Merc until after the building department had issued the permit, but he says the building department had no reason to contact them, "because, again, the Merc's not landmarked. There's an automatic flag that comes up on landmarked buildings. Since this is not landmarked, there was no flag."

Asked about CC Industries' plans for the site, Scales says he hasn't seen any drawings and doesn't know what tenants a new building might attract. But he says CC Industries has assured the city that it intends to build "a first-class, A1 office building." And he says there isn't much the city can do now: "They have their demolition permit. There's basic property rights here."

Few preservationists believe the city is so powerless. And they insist there's a lot the city still could do. It could tell CC Industries it won't issue a building permit and give any one of a number of reasons. It could start proceedings to retroactively landmark the building, something it has done before. "I understand that the Crowns are a pretty powerful family, but so are the Daleys," says Moran. "Do you really believe that Mayor Daley couldn't save the Merc? Come on."

But Bey recently told Tribune reporters that Daley has no intention of getting involved: "At this point the mayor is not considering giving it a second look."

Nevertheless, the preservationists are hoping to build enough public pressure to persuade the mayor to change his mind. With that aim they've been holding lunchtime rallies outside the old Merc. On August 21 about 50 protesters showed up carrying signs and they all marched east to Daley Plaza chanting, "Save the Merc! Save the Merc!" Two women in flapper outfits--Dia Cirillo and Shari Matzelle--danced the Charleston at the plaza. "The clothes they're wearing are marvelous examples of 1920s style," said Bill Buster, a fellow preservationist. "Much the same as the Merc."

The group gathered dozens of signatures on their petitions, and after an hour or so disbanded. "It's sort of embarrassing sometimes to do these public protests, but we have no choice," says Moran. "There's no voice that consistently and loudly represents us in city government. The developers are well represented. But we have to go to the streets and rally support from everyday people, and either throw ourselves on the mercy of the mayor or pressure him into doing the right thing. It's the only way we have a chance to save these great buildings."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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