Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Century Building at 202 South State Street

JWB, 2010
Walking west on Adams this morning while giving a tour to a group of great kids from Oak Lawn High School, I passed 202 South State Street once again.  I look at this building dozens of times each year, either walking up Adams with a tour group or waiting for the bus at the corner of State and Adams.

It’s not a pretty sight to see a magnificent old building in such an advanced stage of deterioration.

Things are so bad for 202 and the building just to the south that Preservation Chicago has named 202 and 220 South State to its 2011 “Chicago 7,” the list of most endangered buildings in the city.  Regarding the two towers, Preservaton Chicago stated, “Commanding an imposing presence on the 200 block of South State Street, two historic terra cotta buildings, located at 202 and 220 South State Street respectively, could be lost to future redevelopment by the Federal Government. The irreparable damage that demolition of these historic buildings will have on South State Street cannot be underestimated.”

One would think that the building’s owner could be forced to do something about the condition of the structures.  And that would probably be the case were it not for the fact that the owner is the federal government, which seized 202 and 220 after the 2001 terrorist attacks under the law of eminent domain.  The idea was to create a plan that would act as a buffer to protect the Federal Center just to the west.

JWB, 2010
But nothing has been done and according to the General Services Administration, “Upper floors are currently in a mostly deteriorated state and largely gutted. Almost all previously-existing partition walls and light fixtures have been removed. Remaining historic material includes paneled mahogany closet doors in the southwest corner of each floor, decorative wooden moulding above each elevator bank, radiators on several floors, a few remaining light fixtures, decorative ceiling beams, and fire escape doors. Many of the mechanical systems have been removed or are non-operational.”

Finished in 1915, 202 South State was one of the last commercial buildings to go up in the heyday of State Street development. It was designed by the firm of Holabird and Roche and its white terra cotta exterior exhibits a fascinating combination of the organization of Chicago School buildings, the ornamentation of beaux arts buildings, and the emphatic verticality of Art Deco buildings just over the horizon.

Stabilized and cleaned up it could be just as magnificent as Burnham and Atwood’s Reliance Building just down the street at the corner of State and Washington.

Buck & Rayner, a drug firm that pre-dated the Chicago fire, commissioned the Twentieth Century Building, a name that was changed to the Century Building in 1917 when the Century Trust and Savings Bank signed a 20-year lease for the second story.  It was a “shops” building with a variety of merchants and service providers located throughout its 16 stories. Buck and Rayner boasted of a cafeteria that had a “100,000 dollar ventilating plant” and was “68 degrees cool in the summertime.”

In 1949 Home Federal Savings purchased the Century and in the early 1950’s ordered extensive changes, especially in the lower portion of the building and its lobby.

The original design is clear enough, though, if you look carefully and ignore the ticky-tacky veneer applied on the first two stories to keep the elements out.

JWB, 2010
First of all, as you look at the Century’s State Street frontage, you can’t miss its soaring verticality, that emphasis aided by its extreme narrowness – only 42 and-a-half feet.  According to Preservation Chicago, “Emphasis of verticality is achieved with strong, deep verticals with understated recessed spandrels.”

That vertical emphasis, of course, would become one of the principle features of the Art Deco buildings that would begin to be built a half-dozen years after the Century’s completion.

As the GSA’s assessment of the Century’s significance pointed out, “the distinct vertical expression of the exterior elevations of this building and others by the firm [Holabird and Roche], notably the North American Building, portend the transition from the Chicago School buildings of the late 19th Century to the Art Deco of the 1920s. This change is prominently exhibited in the Tribune Competition of 1922, in which the first three places were won by architects who accented the vertical in their designs.”

The Century is also notable for its ornamentation, a system of decoration that sets it apart from its contemporaries.  Holabird and Roche came up with terra cotta details that can be classified as Neo-Manueline, a recreation of the artistic style that developed during the reign of Manuel I of Portugal in the early part of the sixteenth century.

JWB, 2010
Preservation Chicago’s discussion of the style asserts, “The proliferation of complex ornament around building openings, such as windows and doors, features shields with dragons, botanical motifs and pinnacles, and contributes to the diversity of the architectural environment within the Chicago Loop.”

But, of course, none of it matters if the building continues to fall into itself.  Even in 2000 the city quickly abandoned a plan to participate in the re-purposing of the building into residences. The cost of repairing the exterior terra cotta was prohibitive at that time, and things have only gotten worse in the next decade.

In 2003 the GSA contracted with four big-name city architects – Ralph Johnson, Tomas Beeby, Joe Valerio and landscape architect Peter Lindsay Schaudt – to propose possibilities for the government’s newly seized property on the east and north sides of the Federal Center. []  The project yielded six distinct plans, contained in a slick GSA report which blogster Mike Doyle (Chicago Carless) scanned and which you can find here

Only two of the six proposals favor keeping the State Street buildings, according to the 2006 report.  What a tragedy it would be to lose these historic structures to what Preservation Chicago calls “a lifeless void that will suck the energy out of one of downtown’s most vibrant intersections.”

But, I suppose in a certain way tearing them down would be the equivalent of a mercy killing.  202 South State is – was – a magnificent example of Holabird and Roche’s design prowess when the firm was at the top of its game.  To stand at the bus stop across the street and watch the building continue to deteriorate from month to month is almost too much to bear.


Jill said...

This was very interesting and very sad at the same time. Perhaps some parts can be saved in time.

Rommy Lopat said...

I finally had a sec to read some of your archived material, and read about these buildings. What is the current status? We gotta save Holabird and Roche's work! Surely Mayor Emmanuel knows someone in DC who can help?

Chicago Old and New said...

As far as I know the building still sits vacant and in limbo. Funds are kind of scare right now. . . the government seems to be having money problems. It's a shame. It could be a natural beauty like the Reliance up the street.

Ish Muhammad said...

In its final years of occupancy, it served as studio space for a lot of Chicago artists. And HQ to several NPOs. It was perfect spot for artists. Special shout out to Juanita who understood us artists and gave us a good deal!

SSKUMUR said...

This is by far the most beautiful home. I love everything about it. Thank you for sharing, what a treat, so sad to see these homes empty. Just wonder how full of life they would have been during their time of opulance with their owners. The tea parties, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Thanks again!
Century exterior