Landmark to be torn down

By Patrick Smith

A city of Chicago landmark and a key piece of the Historic Michigan Boulevard District, will be demolished because the Chicago Department of Buildings declared it eminently dangerous on Nov. 12.

The YWCA building, 830 S. Michigan Ave., was built in 1894 and is one of the oldest buildings in the historic district, which stretches from Randolph Street to 11th  Street on Michigan Avenue.

The building slated for demolition was the first YWCA constructed in Chicago, and was designed to provide safe and affordable housing for young women. Today the exterior of the building shows its years of neglect, with scaffolding marring its front and all of the windows boarded up.

“This building had been allowed to deteriorate year after year by its owners,” McClendon said.

Lisa DiChiera, the advocacy director for Landmarks Illinois, said that the possibility of constructing a new building while keeping the historic front had been studied, but the price was too steep.

“That was evaluated and determined not feasible,” DiChiera said. “It would be feasible if someone had millions of dollars to spend on this building, but no one does.”

The president of South Loop Neighbors, Dennis McClendon, said that his group “fights to protect the Michigan Boulevard Historic District.”

“This would obviously be a pretty great loss to the street wall,” McClendon said of the demolition.

According to DiChiera, Michigan 830 LLC cannot be blamed for the building’s condition, which she called “a travesty.”

“The current owner, this is what they inherited, so it’s really not their fault,” DiChiera said. “The building has been sitting, rotting for over 30 years. It’s definitely a case of demolition by neglect, primarily over years of ownership by the Johnson Publishing Company.”

Johnson sold the building in 2006 to developer Warren Barr, who planned to turn the building into condominiums. Barr was unable to complete his project, which was plagued by unpaid debts and was derailed by the collapse of the housing market. He sold 830 S. Michigan in September 2008 for $17.55 million to its current owners.

The Johnson Publishing Company, 820 S. Michigan Ave., is the world’s largest African-American owned and operated publishing company. It publishes Jet and Ebony magazines. The company’s headquarters are directly north of the former YWCA.

But not everyone was as wistful about the demise of the YWCA building as DiChiera and McClendon.

“I think they should tear it down because it’s a danger,” East-West University student Jermaine Austin said while observing the building from a few doors down, outside of the university. “It’s a busy street; there are a lot of people who walk past it.”

East-West University, 816 S. Michigan Ave., is two doors down from the doomed landmark.

Landmarks Illinois had the building on its 2008-09 Chicagoland Watch List, a tally of historic landmarks in danger of demolition, but even though the group considers the YWCA an important landmark, DiChiera said that there were “so many strikes” against the building that it is unsalvageable.

“I know [the owner’s] original intent was to try to rehab the building, but in addition to the problems of neglect, it had problems from its initial construction,” said DiChiera.

According to DiChiera, 830 S. Michigan Ave.’s foundation is too shallow and its remarkable façade is not properly adhered to the building. Still, she said it is a shame that the building will be torn down because it is going to create a “big hole on the Michigan Avenue street wall, which is the face of the city.”

However, Austin said that he would rather look forward than backward, and that there could be a number of uses for the lot now occupied by the neglected landmark.

“[East-West] has some size issues, we could definitely use that space for a bigger library,” Austin said.

Whatever takes the place of the historic YWCA building, McClendon said his group would try to make sure it would not clash with the existing façade.

“Anything that’s built there should respect the vocabulary of the Michigan Avenue street wall,” McClendon said.