Friday, December 4, 2015

In Chicago, an overlooked midcentury gem vanishes

I saw and photographed this midcentury beauty during a quick weekend drive through Chicago's Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs back in 2011.

It's the American Management Association's Executive Conference Center, 8655 W. Higgins Road, right on the north edge of the city. Built in 1971, the building looks like a scaled-down work of Edward Durell Stone--particularly Stone's 1959 U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

Given its location in an ocean of parking lots and near a parking garage, they could've gone with a bland structure--who would notice? Instead, someone had the good sense to give us a nice little surprise in a quiet spot where the city meets suburbia.

I never did go back to photograph the conference center a little more seriously. No need to bother now though: The building was demolished a few weeks ago.

Frank Butterfield, director of the Springfield office of the preservation group Landmarks Illinois, posted the bad news on the Facebook page of Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond.

His post was in response to images I'd put there, inquiring about the building. Frank found a demolition permit to wreck and remove the two story building. Then a short time later, he posted this photo of his own:

Gone. At 45.
 Groups like Landmarks Illinois, Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond and the international group DoCoMoMo are speaking up for postwar buildings. And praise to them. But we're still losing far too much midcentury architecture here and across the country. 

Structures like the AMA building--away from downtown, or in suburbia where landmark ordinance are toothless if they exist at all--are the most endangered. And while the birthplace of modern architecture should know better than this, the city lacks a real survey of postwar buildings. Without one, the city's ability to identify and protect these structures is severely curtailed.

And so is our ability to learn more about these buildings before the bulldozers roll. Who designed the AMA Center? What's went on structurally or architecturally that might've made the building worthy of saving? A survey can help us find that out.

If there were a postwar survey in place for the building, application for a demolition permit would have triggered a crosscheck prompting city landmarks officials to investigate if the center is worth saving. A survey of pre-1940s Chicago buildings has performed the same function for a decade now. And Landmarks Illinois' online survey of postwar buildings in suburban Chicago provides a current model.

The youngest of the postwar buildings are approaching 40. That's make-or-break time in the life of a structure. Without a postwar survey, we better get used to seeing more vacant parcels like the one above...where thoughtful pieces of architecture are wrecked as if they were no more than abandoned garages.