Chicago hope: Saving its architectural icons

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Sleek skyscrapers dominate this city's skyline, but the squat old water tanks nestled between them are the latest rescue mission for preservation groups.
After the Great Fire of 1871, hundreds of the wooden tanks were installed atop commercial and apartment buildings to guarantee a supply of water for firefighting. Mechanized pumps made them obsolete, and only about 130 are in use.

Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, a non-profit group, says that when he sees water tanks in skyline views in movies or TV shows, "you know instantly that it was shot in Chicago."

To call attention to the vanishing tanks, the city and the Chicago Architectural Club sponsored a competition to identify new uses for them. The winning proposal, now on display at the Chicago Cultural Center, suggests transforming them into energy-producing wind turbines. Other, more fanciful ideas include turning them into giant planters or beehives.

The tanks are part of Chicago's industrial history, says Jim Peters, director of planning for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "Church steeples and water tanks in most neighborhoods are the icons of the skyline," he says.

Change is painful for some residents. People here resisted installing lights for night baseball at Wrigley Field until 1988 amid threats that the Cubs could move elsewhere. Preservation groups went to the Illinois Supreme Court in an unsuccessful effort to block renovation of Soldier Field, the 1924 home of the Bears football team.

Art Plonka, a benefits administrator and amateur archivist, spends his spare time taking photos of disappearing landmarks. "We're losing a lot more than just buildings," he said as he documented the ruins of Pilgrim Baptist Church. "We're losing the soul of the city."

Libby Mahoney, chief curator of the Chicago Historical Society, says the city must change to survive. "So there's always this tension between the old and the new," she says. "These recent losses really heighten awareness that we are a special city. ... I'm hoping it will stir people to learn more about their city and then take steps to protect these places."

On Wednesday, another symbol of Chicagoans' reverence for the past was moved to the Historical Society. The No. 1 "L" car, which started runs on the city's elevated railway in 1892, will be a centerpiece of the society's new exhibit space when it opens in September.

More than 6,500 properties - including buildings, houses, monuments, entire neighborhoods and a lighthouse - have been designated landmarks by the City Council. Landmark status doesn't preclude alterations or demolition, but the city's landmarks commission reviews all proposed changes.

Peters says Mayor Richard Daley has "done an incredible job" saving historic buildings. The South Water Street market is being converted to apartments, the 1912 Medinah Temple is a department store, and a Montgomery Ward warehouse houses offices and apartments.

But Fine says too much emphasis has been put on saving historic buildings downtown and not enough on the city's neighborhoods. "We are losing graystones, we are losing brick two-flats and three-flats," he says. "We are losing all of our frame houses. It's all to build bigger and larger and fancier and, in many cases, uglier."

The city hasn't announced plans to salvage the remaining water tanks. The city's cultural historian, Tim Samuelson, says the goal was to "raise public awareness ... that these are important and should be preserved." Several building owners have called since the competition to say they hope to retain the tanks, he says.

What to do with tanks?

Time is running out for the older wooden tanks, which rot quickly after water is removed. The wood is vulnerable to insects and weather. The cypress, redwood, fir and cedar planks are prized by furniture makers. Some tanks have advertisements painted on them, and a few are used as antenna towers for cellphones.

A tank with a diameter of 18 feet holds 25,000 gallons of water and weighs almost 123 tons.

Chicago, which was incorporated as a town with 350 residents in 1833, has evolved as its economy changed. The 1871 fire destroyed a huge swath of the city. In 1971, the last of the stockyards closed. Factories and steel mills disappeared a generation ago as the city became a corporate and financial center. In 1973, the 110-story Sears Tower was completed, giving downtown a new profile.

"In a city that grew up fast and changes quickly ... some of the old institutions and businesses and buildings that represent the past are a good thing to hold on to," Samuelson says. "It's kind of like looking at old family pictures."

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