Big Black Boxes and Iced Cakes: When Aesthetics Become Vague and Landmarks are Saved

January 11, 2011

Not too long ago, my good friend Jeff told me a story about how he was on a Chicago architectural boat cruise in the summer months.  The narrator of the cruise, an energetic student in his twenties, was commenting about how the light reflected off the new Trump Tower, and how the embellishments on the neo-Gothic Tribune building looked like “beautiful icing on a lovely white cake.”  When the narrator approached the IBM Building, he said (much to Jeff’s horror), “…and here’s where we start talking about who I like to call ‘Mr. Big Black Box.’”

“Mr. Big Black Box” is none other than the acclaimed and talented “less is more” and “God is in the details” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Around the time Mies created that “Big Black Box,” the City of Chicago recognized the importance of preserving its rich architectural past by enacting the Landmark Ordinance in 1968.  While the National Register already existed, the Ordinance actually provided certain protections to buildings designated as landmarks by requiring the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to approve any proposed changed or alterations to the structures.

The Commission takes “suggestions” for buildings to be considered for landmark status throughout the year, and concerned Chicago citizens, homeowners, and even organizations (like the one I belong to – the Chicago Art Deco Society) can make submissions for buildings to be considered landmarks.

The Ordinance, as it exists today, has certain criteria that must be met before a building can be designated a “landmark” by the Commission.  Landmarks – Criteria for designation, Mun. Code § 2-120-620.  Those criteria include the building’s architectural or historic “value” to the “heritage” of the City, the location (in terms of its relationship to a historic event), the identification with a famous historic figure, its exemplification of an architectural style or theme, and its unique appearance “representing an established and familiar visual feature” of the community.  The building must fulfill at least two of the above criteria, in addition to meeting an additional “integrity” criterion.  Mun. Code § 2-120-630.  It must have “a significant historic, community, architectural or aesthetic interest or value, the integrity of which is preserved in light of its location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, and ability to express such historic, community, architectural, or aesthetic interest or value.”

Granted, when it comes to aesthetic “value” or “integrity,” individuals will probably have a hard time agreeing – the terms lend themselves to a bit of ambiguity.  Much like my friend the boat cruise narrator and me – he sees a black box, and I see dramatic simplistic design.

That’s what the Illinois Appellate Court thought in 2009, when it found that the terms “value,” “important,” “significant,” and “unique” in the Ordinance were “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad.”  Hannah v. City of Chicago, 388 Ill. App. 3d 909, 916 (1st Dist. 2009).

In Hannah, the plaintiffs owned property in the Arlington Deming neighborhood in Lincoln Park and East Village.  In 2006, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommended that Arlington Deming be designated a Landmark District, and that same year the City Council designated the East Village as a Landmark District.  While there are certain benefits to being in a Landmark District, with those benefits come restrictions.  For example, individual owners cannot “opt-out” of a Landmark District, making it almost impossible for them to demolish their homes in favor of new construction, or make any additions or renovations not in keeping with the Commission’s standards for the Landmark District.  The plaintiffs, recognizing these restrictions, did not want to be bound by the landmark designation.

The City of Chicago filed a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case, which was granted by the trial court.  The Appellate Court found that plaintiffs’ cause of action for vagueness “sufficient to overcome a . . . motion to dismiss” and reversed the trial court’s dismissal and remanded the case to the trial court.  Hannah, 388 Ill. App. 3d at 921.  The City’s petition for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Illinois was subsequently denied.  Hannah v. City of Chicago, 232 Ill. 2d 580 (Ill. 2009).

It has been almost a year since the Appellate Court’s determination on the Ordinance, and the Hannah case remains active in the Circuit Court of Cook County.  The outcome of the case remains to be seen, but will no doubt impact the Landmarks Ordinance.

In the mean time, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks and City Council continue to protect those buildings designated as landmarks and take suggestions for landmark status.  However, because of the Hannah case, the Commission is careful only to take up those causes where the owner consents to the landmark status (else it would face yet another group of plaintiffs).  Most recently, the Chicago Art Deco Society submitted a suggestion for landmark status for the Chicago Motor Club, a beautiful example of Art Deco Design by Holabird & Root (formerly Holabird & Roche).  In keeping with the concerns of the Commission, the owner is happily pursuing landmark status.

Of course, having the backing of the community will help when it comes time for open comments from the citizens of Chicago.  I’m sure my friend the narrator will approve of the building’s decorative style – unlike the IBM Building, the Motor Club is no “black box.”

Photo Credit: Benjamin Lipsman


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