clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A look back at Chicago’s 7 biggest preservation wins of 2018

These victories are worth celebrating

In 2018 developers scrapped plans to build a seven-story apartment addition above Chicago’s historic Beaux-Arts Union Station head house.
Solomon Cordwell Buenz

While 2018 seemed dominated by the rise of shiny new skyscrapers and the speculative media frenzy surrounding Amazon’s HQ2 hunt, Chicago also secured a number of notable victories in the arena of historic preservation.

From the ambitious adaptive reuse of long-neglected giants to the last-minute salvation of irreplaceable community landmarks, there were plenty of moments worth celebrating. Here are Chicago’s biggest preservation wins of 2018.

Union Station

In June, developers took the wraps off an audacious plan to build a seven-story glass and metal apartment addition atop Chicago’s landmarked Union Station. The design drew ridicule from downtown neighbors, architectural journalists, and Twitter.

Responding to the criticism, the development team revised their proposal, axing the apartments for hotel rooms and a far less obtrusive single-story penthouse addition. The new plan transferred air rights above the station to an upcoming office tower—a move will further protect the 1925 structure from future vertical expansions.

“Sometimes it really does take a village,” Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago told Curbed Chicago. “In the case of Union Station, Chicagoans made their voices heard. If we hadn’t, I fear it would have been a very different story.”

Beyond the redevelopment battle, 2018 was a big year for Union Station and the preservation of its impressive great hall. In December, Amtrak completed a $22 million restoration of the terminal’s 219-foot-long skylight, interior plasterwork, and ornamentation.

Evanston’s Harley Clarke Mansion won’t face the wrecking ball after all.

Harley Clarke Mansion

The multiyear saga over the fate of Evanston’s 91-year-old landmarked Harley Clarke Mansion came to a dramatic conclusion in December when the City Council voted against an earlier measure calling for the building’s demolition.

The sudden change of heart was the result of grassroots preservation efforts and overwhelming voter support of a November referendum to protect the old English Tudor Revival structure. “Historic preservation victories are rarely any sweeter—or more democratic, small “d”—than this one,” wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Blair Kamin.

It’s unclear what’s next for the city-owned mansion. Harley Clarke will require an estimated $5 million and officials are cautious about transferring the lakefront parcel to private owners. Despite these uncertainties, preservationists can breathe a sigh of relief knowing the old English Tudor Revival structure is safe for the time being.

A rendering of the restored Uptown Theatre.
Lamar Johnson Collaborative

Uptown Theatre

After years of vacancy as well as advocacy from preservationist groups, Chicago’s Uptown Theatre will finally be restored to its former grandeur. In June, partners Jam Productions and Farpoint Development announced a $75 million plan to revive the 1925 Spanish Baroque Revival movie palace designed by architects C.W. Rapp and George L. Rapp.

The City of Chicago is firmly behind the Uptown’s restoration. In November, the Community Development Commission signed-off on $13 million in tax increment financing (TIF) assistance to support the project. The Chicago Plan Commission granted preliminary zoning approval to increase the venue’s capacity from roughly 4,100 to 5,800 people in December.

“It’s been more than 35 years since the theater closed to the public, which makes this the most anticipated restoration project in the city’s history,” said Chicago Department of Planning and Development commissioner David Reifman in a statement earlier this year. Work is expected to begin in summer 2019 ahead of an anticipated reopening in early 2021.

A seven-story white and beige building with strong columns and a massive structure.
A rendering of the Cook County Hospital’s restored main building.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Cook County Hospital

The preservation of Cook County Hospital’s 1914 main building reached an important milestone in 2018 as crews broke ground on an ambitious adaptive reuse project. Under the plan, the neglected Near West Side structure will be converted into a pair of hotels and its Beaux Arts brick, granite, and terra-cotta facade restored. The dual hotels are expected to open in 2020.

The lobby of Chicago’s Old main Post Office was restored to its former Art Deco glory.

Old Main Post Office

2018 was also a banner year for the ongoing rehabilitation for downtown’s long-vacant main Old Main Post Office. The historic 1920’s structure was awarded landmark status by the City of Chicago in April as developer 601W Companies continues converting the massive, 2.8-million-square-foot Art Deco building into modern office space.

The effort is already bearing fruits. This year Walgreens and Ferrara Candy announced upcoming leases in the building. Tenants are expected make the move in the second half of 2019. In the meantime, lucky visitors can admire the Post Office’s beautifully restored Art Deco lobby space.

Chicago’s historic Church of the Epiphany hosted a Nike pop-up basketball camp during its transformation to an events and performing arts space.

Church of the Epiphany

Though not as large as the Post Office or Cook County Hospital, the adaptive reuse of Chicago’s landmarked Church of the Epiphany was another bright spot for local preservationists in 2018. After years of vacancy, the handsome 1885 Romanesque structure at the corner of Ashland and Adams is finding new life as an event space and performing arts center. In August, Nike transformed the historic building into a dramatic pop-up basketball facility dubbed the “Just Do It HQ.”

The Thompson Center’s 17-story atrium is one of Chicago’s great public spaces, argue its proponents.

Thompson Center

Architect Helmut Jahn’s polarizing 1985 Thompson Center emerged as ground zero in a growing movement to protect Chicago’s threatened postmodern architecture. After staging a rally opposing Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner’s plan to redevelop the downtown building, preservationists scored a win in November when the state announced that the Thompson Center won’t be sold to the highest bidder and demolished—at least not for one more year.

While the temporary reprieve is welcome news for Thompson Center fans, it’s unclear where incoming governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s eventual replacement stand. In April, Jahn teamed up with Landmarks Illinois to create conceptual renderings showing how the dilapidated structure could be repurposed and expanded with a skyscraper addition at its southwest corner.

Jackson Park could shape up to be a big preservation battle in 2019.
Eric Allix Rogers, courtesy of Preservation Chicago

Looking ahead to 2019

The fate of Thompson Center isn’t the only open-ended preservation story to follow in 2019. Chicagoans will be paying close attention to Jackson Park where the Obama Presidential Center and a new championship-grade golf course could impact the 1871 Olmsted and Vaux-designed landscape. The former is at the center of an ongoing federal review and lawsuit.

“Whether or not the Obama Center ultimately ends up there, we need to look at protecting Jackson Park from further changes” said Preservation Chicago’s Ward Miller. Other threatened sites worthy of attention in 2019 include Bridgeport’s Ramova Theater, The Forum in Bronzeville, and the Moorish-revival style Guyon Hotel in West Garfield Park, added Miller.

In the meantime, Preservation Chicago is seeking nominations for the 2019 edition of its annual list of endangered buildings, parks, and public artwork. The organization is currently accepting recommendations from the public through January 7 via Twitter or email to