Corporate dollars boost architectural preservation

Corporate commitment to preserve historic landmarks is on the rise. From the predominantly throwaway custom of the past, city officials, building owners, and architects alike are working to renovate structurally sound and significant buildings.

In this city, support for preservation goes for beyond lip service. Businesses have earmarked corporate dollars for major renovation projects, such as the city's 1888 Rookery Building.

The Continental Bank, despite its financial problems and subsequent bailout by the federal government, is pursuing its extensive restoration of the South Loop building that holds landmark designations from both the National Register of Historic Places and the city of Chicago itself. Estimated cost of the project is $26.6 million, with completion expected in 1987, under the leadership of Continental's new chairman and chief executive officer William S. Ogden.

Present plans are to use the restored Rookery, which was once a mainstay of Chicago's financial district, for bank business, particularly appropriate because the predecessor, Illinois Trust & Savings Bank, occupied the first floor in 1887. Unused space will be leased to other firms, bank officials say.

Thus, the nearly century-old Rookery will exemplify what many leading architectural preservationists believe is the basic requirement for commercial rehabilitation -- marketability. Says Wilbert Hasbrouck, a historic restoration architect-engineer: "The bottom line has to be the structure's ability to bring a return on the investment for rehabilitation-restoration."

To ensure a successful rehabilitation, Mr. Hasbrouck says, the architect must have the appropriate training and experience.

"Most historic buildings originally made good use of their space, but through the years insensitive remodeling has destroyed the character of that space and reduced usable square footage," Mr. Hasbrouck explains.

Space lost to haphazard remodeling can be recovered by good restoration, he adds. Mr. Hasbrouck cites the city's Delaware Building in the North Loop area, reclaimed after years of neglect. The Delaware Building has been carefully restored to its 1874 Italianate charm and houses a two-story fast-food restaurant, decorated in Victorian style, as well as upstairs law offices near Chicago's courts.

Mr. Hasbrouck also is involved in the extensive restoration of the 1984 Reliance Building, the first skyscraper to use the glass-curtain-wall construction method.

Designed by Burnham and Root with Columbian Exposition architect Charles Atwood, the Reliance Building will house retail enterprises on the lower floors with offices above them. When completed, the Reliance Building will be "the crown jewel of Chicago's North Loop," Mr. Hasbrouck says.

Chicago architect Lawrence Kahn of Bernheim, Kahn & Lozano, says that the 1981 Tax Recovery Act "has spurred developers and architects to look at older existing buildings as a financial incentive for rehabilitation rather than emolition." Mr. Kahn's partner, Fred Bernheim, agrees, adding that "public opinion has also swung behind the restoration of old commercial buildings."

Two key questions need to be asked before rehabilitation of a city's older buildings can start, according to Mr. Bernheim.

* Does the project make economic sense?

* How does its rehabilitation fit into the fabric of the surroundings?

"Rehabilitation is an architectural science, and like any professional we develop a feeling with experience that we have to convey to the client," he believes.

Before selecting an architect, Mr. Kahn urges prospective commercial rehabilitation clients to consider two points: Does the architect have the experience and references to do the job well? Will he be realistic and frank about costs?

Carolyn Johnson, director for statewide programs of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, points out the benefits of restoration for city neighborhoods.

"Where historic preservation used to be the province of higher-income sections, we are seeing it spread to low-to moderate-income neighborhoods," she says.

Ms. Johnson sees an important sociological benefit in city historic rehabilitation. "Even in neighborhoods where people are transient and have modest incomes, if the buildings aren't treated as temporary and disposable, the people themselves won't feel that way," she says.

The Landmarks Preservation Council executive points to the once-posh South Shore Country Club built in 1916 for the wealthy South Siders of Chicago. Originally scheduled for demolition by the city's park district, the club was to be replaced by a maintenance-free field house.

Instead, Ms. Johnson says, the people expressed their need to preserve both the handsome structure and the grounds as a community asset. The park district now will renovate the club "as a visible symbol of that area's beauty and architectural inspiration."

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