OLD TOWN — Neighbors say the Old Town Triangle’s historical integrity is under threat by an “unprecedented” decision to remove a former stable’s landmark status, allowing a developer to build onto it with two modern floors.
Developer Howard Weiner plans to partially demolish the one-story building, which later became a garage at 1810 N. Wells St., to build a modern three-story addition to the property.
But the building, which was built in 1883 as a horse stable, was designated “contributing” to the neighborhood’s Historic Landmark District status in 1984, meaning it has maintained features from the post-Great Chicago Fire period and is protected from demolition or additions like the one in Weiner’s proposal.
However, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ Permit Review Committee voted unanimously on Thursday that the former stable’s historic designation was incorrect because the building had been severely altered since the landmark’s intended era.
According to Larry Shure, a staffer for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the building once had a second floor that was demolished in 1940, and the front facade was later replaced with new bricks.
“Because the current appearance of the building does not reflect the characteristics intended to be preserved by the district designation, it cannot be considered significant,” Shure said.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) was outraged by the decision and called it “an affront to everything that the Old Town Triangle Landmark District has stood for in the last 43 years.”
“The people who fought the demolition of the Old Town Triangle in the ‘70s during urban renewal didn’t fight for ‘landmarking lite,’” Smith said.
Old Town became one of Chicago’s first designated historic districts in 1977 in an effort by community activists to preserve the neighborhood’s smaller scale and character.
In the ‘80s, neighbors and architects — including Walter Netsch and Kevin Sarring — catalogued every building within the district and classified them as “significant,” “contributing” or “non-contributing” to the landmark status. These buildings were nationally registered.
According to Smith, who pleaded for the committee to delay its vote, this is the first time in Old Town’s history that a property’s landmark status has been undone. She called it an “existential threat to Old Town’s character.”
“We will have to put in a lot of work to keep this threat from happening more,” Smith said. “I’m sure there are other buildings in Old Town about which the same could be said, and we’re sure developers will be snooping around the neighborhood looking for them.”
Weiner’s proposal is part of a larger, retail and residential development spanning four buildings from 1810–1820 N. Wells, including the garage, a three-story building, a two-story coach house behind it and a two-story building.
Weiner told the committee his team has engaged the Old Town Neighbors Association since last November and presented dozens of iterations for the garage over several meetings.
“We are preserving all four walls of this property at a tremendous expense out of respect and deference to the neighborhood,” Weiner said.
But neighbors of the old garage building said they never knew the developer planned to alter the building’s landmarking status until a Sept. 22 meeting hosted by Smith and the developer.
Since then, more than a hundred neighbors have sent letters to the alderman, Commission on Landmarks and Department of Planning and Development asking to reschedule the landmarking vote so the community had more time to discuss it.
Smith said she also reached out to staff at the mayor’s office and the landmarks commissioners to ask that the hearing be delayed.
Neighbor Diane Gonzalez, a history buff who was one of the neighbors working with architects to designate the building in the ‘80s, said the garage tells a history about transportation in Chicago.
She said veterinarian Philip Quitman, an immigrant from Berlin, opened the stable after serving as the special messenger for General Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. The stable later became a garage and then an automotive repair shop.
“Transportation has always been at the heart of this building and we feel there needs to be more time to discuss this change to a very important building in our neighborhood,” Gonzalez said.
Cathy Roesch, an Old Town resident of 16 years, said the de-designation was also unfair to neighbors who have always abided by the landmark guidelines.
“I’m one of hundreds in this neighborhood who follow those guidelines and we’re confused about why all of a sudden there’s a change in them,” Roesch said. “With the city so quick to de-designate this property, when will it stop?”
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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