What’s that building? Century and Consumers buildings

The federal government has held a pair of century-old State Street buildings in limbo for 17 years and is now planning to spend $52 million to demolish them — a plan preservationists are trying to stop.

The buildings are the 22-story Consumers Building built in 1913 and, a few doors north, Century, originally called the 21st Century, which is 16 stories and was built in 1915. Between these two handsome old high rises are two barely noticeable low buildings, a three-story and a four-story, at 212 and 214 South State St.

Two slender high rises with nice architectural details, the Consumers and Century buildings are part of what made State Street that great street in the 20th century.

Consumers, at State and Quincy, is clad in white terra cotta, with rounded corners and diamonds and bars emblazoned in the spaces between the layers of windows. It was designed by the architecture firm Jenney, Mundie & Jensen.

Consumers building. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

Century, at State and Adams, is also clad in creamy white terra cotta, but it’s more detailed here. You can’t tell at street level, because the bottom floors have been completely changed, but the ornamentation, which includes knights’ helmets, coats of arms, lions, ropes and torches, is called Manueline or Neo-Manueline, named after a 16th-century king of Portugal, when and where the style originated. It’s not common in Chicago, but according to a profile by the Government Services Administration, the design may have come from the imagination of architect John Root of Holabird and Root, who was “extremely interested in obscure historical styles.”

Century building
Century building. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

If you look at the two from the other side of State Street, in the space between them you can see their more modern neighbor, the Dirksen Federal Courthouse, a 30-story tower by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built in 1964. If the black glass and steel courthouse looks like it’s looming behind them, that’s because it’s the one causing the uncertainty about them these past 17 years.

Century and Consumers buildings
Century and Consumers buildings. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government heightened security around federal buildings, including the Dirksen courthouse. There’s little “defensible space” on the east side of the Dirksen because the State Street buildings are so close. Because of that and a projection that the federal buildings would run out of space in 2009, the government started telling its six neighbors along State Street and one on Jackson in February 2005 that it would acquire them for a federal center expansion in 2007. Four of those seven neighbors were Century and Consumers and the two small buildings between them. The government spent $24 million to buy four, and seized three using its powers of eminent domain. Among those was the Century building, which a developer lost in foreclosure when his plan to turn it into a hotel failed.

In December 2005, the Chicago Tribune reported that the federal government would spend more than half a billion dollars on expanding the federal center. “The mammoth project could be a boon to State Street, replacing a dreary stretch,” the Tribune’s Tom Corfman wrote. He quoted a commercial real estate executive saying, “It’s unlikely that someone from the private sector is going to come along to make that kind of investment,” and, “The decisions that are made on this block are critical to the momentum that the street has enjoyed for the last several years.”

Century and Consumers buildings
Century and Consumers buildings. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

Sounds great, right? But 17 years later, it all rings hollow. The federal government is still sitting on the buildings it acquired for this grand plan, and as they sit in uncertainty, they add to the dreariness, instead of solving it.

Not only has the federal government not redeveloped the buildings, it blocked somebody else from doing it. In 2017, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration announced that a real estate developer, CA Ventures, would pay $10.38 million in a three-way deal involving CA and the city and federal governments. In a $141 million project, CA would put 429 apartments in the two buildings and a new 15-story connector between them.

Two years later, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration canceled the deal. The reason, the Tribune reported in December 2019, was that the FBI, the US Marshals and other federal agencies determined that “repurposing those properties would create significant public safety vulnerabilities threatening the public servants” and the general public using the Dirksen building.

That was almost two-and-a-half years ago. Earlier this month, when Preservation Chicago was preparing its annual list of the most endangered places in the city, they planned to include Century and Consumers to point out the buildings are still just sitting there waiting for a future use.

But then, according to Ward Miller, Preservation Chicago’s executive director, “we found out it was much worse.”

The federal infrastructure bill, they were told, included $52 million to demolish the Century and Consumers buildings, to create a secure plaza east of the Dirksen courthouse. It’s tucked into page 551 of a 2,741-page Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022, passed by Congress on March 14 and signed into law by President Joe Biden the next day.

Century and Consumers buildings
Century and Consumers buildings. Vashon Jordan Jr. / WBEZ

Throughout March, Miller and others have been trying to get members of Illinois’ congressional delegation to sign onto using the allocated $52 million for repurposing the buildings instead. They want to create a government archive center in the buildings, which would be a low-traffic use that might meet the security concern.

But with the Ukraine war and the hearings on Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, “there have been bigger issues in Washington this month,” Miller said. Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois’ senior senator, chaired last week’s Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Jackson.

“This is urgent,” Miller said. “We can’t lose these two [buildings].”

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

Vashon Jordan Jr. is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @vashon_photo.