Chicago, City of Many Prize Buildings, On Verge of Destroying a Key Example

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LIKE people in cities everywhere, Chicagoans bare their dreams and ideals to the world through their architecture.

But a dispute over whether to demolish the interior of a building has revealed far more than any skyscraper about the devotion of Chicagoans to their city's beauty and history.

Preservationists are trying to rally a broad coalition of citizen groups in a rear-guard effort to prevent a developer from destroying the Arts Club of Chicago and neighboring buildings on the ``Magnificent Mile'' of North Michigan Avenue.

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The club wants most of all to save its building's heart, an interior design by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the last director of the Bauhaus and one of this century's greatest architects.

The city last month issued a demolition permit to a developer who aims to level the club and its surrounding block to make way for a complex of shops and movie theaters. Then, on Oct. 19, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks deemed that the interior was unworthy of its protection.

The threatened interior has elicited dozens of responses from architects and architectural historians throughout the world, including one who compared the space to the Sistine Chapel. But the landmarks commission was unmoved.

Instead, it was offended by the outsiders' suggestions that it could not recognize the value of the design, says Seymour Persky, a member of both the commission and the club.

The wrangle over the Mies interior has flared with charged rhetoric: claims that rank greed is destroying precious art; allegations from both sides of dereliction, corruption, or ulterior motives.

But the stakes in this case are unusually high, say champions of the Mies design.

Chicago is widely believed to surpass all other United States cities in the caliber and diversity of its architecture. Its streets are lined in buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Mies. The destruction of one prized relic means imperilment for all, say the interior design's defenders.

Although lacking the scale of a building, the Mies interior is a striking statement in minimalist light and space. A visitor to the club walks past the drab exterior's gray brick, through doors set in a tall glass wall, and into a travertine vestibule. There, a white, steel staircase of spare lines leads upward to a large gallery.

In the sunlight, the limestone walls and white trim of the staircase glow in soft, gold-like clouds, suggesting a purifying ascent from the gray, profane street to the bright, sublime art gallery.

The commission, some say, made its decision suspecting that the club was defending Mies's legacy in part to ensure it would not have to leave the building. ``Club members were looking to the Landmarks Commission to drag their chestnuts out of the fire,'' says Mr. Persky, chairman of Parliament Enterprises, Ltd.

Club spokeswoman Leslie Buchbinder-Figa denies that the club holds such a veiled motive. Club members and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois assert that the city granted a demolition permit in September without allowing for sufficient public debate over the value of the interior. Moreover, they criticize the Planning and Development Department for being unaware that the Buildings Department planned to issue a demolition permit.

But Charles Thurow, deputy commissioner for the Department of Planning and Development, says that the demolition permit was granted according to proper administrative procedure and that plans to demolish the block have been public knowledge for five years.

For many, the wrangle highlights an insufficient public concern for architectural heritage. ``The city is still development-oriented and politically it pays much more attention to developers than to people concerned about preservation,'' says John Vinci, a Chicago architect.

Chicago leads other US cities in protecting its prized buildings, but its efforts fall short of those by Rome, Paris, and other European cities, says Mr. Thurow at the planning department.

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