City Backs Radical Remake Of Michigan Ave. Landmark

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Officials from the landmarks division of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development are giving support to the proposed dismantling of the historic Farwell Building at 664 N. Michigan Avenue.

The Farwell, designed by architect Philip Maher, is a legally protected city landmark ornamented in a mixture of French revival and art deco styles.
It formerly housed the Terra Museum of American Art.

The proposal, submitted by Chicago-based Prism Development Company, calls for the building to be “peeled like a grape,” according to Chicago architecture writer Lynn Becker. Prism plans to remove the Farwell’s limestone façade, tear down the 11-story building, and reapply the facade to the new structure it hopes to build—a luxury condo development named The Ritz-Carlton Residences.

The Ritz-Carlton Residences will be managed by Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. It plans to offer 86 luxury condos, as well as office and retail space and parking.

Some preservationists maintain that if Prism is allowed to proceed, it effective signals the end of landmark protection in Chicago. The fact that six stories of the Farwell would be used for parking has only made them angrier.

“We fear that bowing to what is convenient for a developer will set a dangerous precedent that will be repeated again and again with other historic buildings,” said Jonathan Fine, president of the advocacy group Preservation Chicago.

“Each commissioner voting on the Farwell proposal needs to be aware that they are not just voting on the fate of one building, but setting a precedent that will turn the clock backward and handcuff the city’s power to protect its landmarks,” added Becker.

Although the McGraw-Hill Building at 520 N. Michigan Ave. was similarly stripped and reassembled in 1998, preservationists point out that in that case only the facade had landmark status. The Farwell Building would be the first such landmark to be radically changed, they said.

Jon Rodgers, principal at Prism, along with city planning officials, said that the proposed renovation will save the elderly landmark.

“We had two independent engineers, and they both concluded that the building is falling apart,” Rodgers said. “The exterior facade is being held together by a system of metal pins, because the original structure system has eroded away completely. The mansard roof is being held together by chicken wire.”

Rodgers maintained that the project, expected to finish by the summer of 2009, will “breathe new economic life” into the Farwell Building.

Officials were originally skeptical of the Farwell plan, said Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of the Planning Department’s landmarks division. But once engineers hired by both the city and Prism had outlined the building’s deterioration, it was obvious that this was the best way to proceed, he said.

“I did not foresee bringing these recommendations,” said Goeken. “It’s a preservation matter of last resort.”

The landmarks division will lend its support to Prism’s plan at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ Thursday meeting, where commission members are expected to vote on it.

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