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Downtown Chicago’s rare 19th-century row houses saved by new landmark district

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Better late than never

A red four-story brick row house covered by ivy.
The former row house at 14 W. Erie is among the handful of buildings protected by the new Near North Side landmark district.
Jay Koziarz

Chicago’s Near North Side is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the city, but you probably wouldn’t know it from looking around. The area’s few remaining historic buildings are often hidden between the newer high-rises and parking garages that dominate River North, Streeterville, and the Magnificent Mile. In other cases, they’re simply torn down.

“These remaining 1870s and 1880s buildings represent what the area looked like just after the Chicago Fire, when Michigan Avenue was known as Pine Street,” Ward Miller of Preservation Chicago tells Curbed. “The neighborhood was once lined with these high-quality row houses.”

Preservation advocates like Miller scored an important victory on Thursday when the Chicago Commission on Landmarks awarded a final recommendation to create a new Near North landmark district to protect 15 former mansions, row houses, and multi-flat buildings.

The properties, along with existing landmarks like the Cable House and Nickerson House, represent the “best remaining examples of late-nineteenth-century residential architecture in the Near North Side,” according to a summary submitted to the commissioners. The buildings display a variety of architectural styles and influences such as Italianate, Second Empire, Queen Anne, Romanesque Revival, and Colonial Revival.

The new district is bordered by Chicago Avenue, LaSalle Drive, Grand Avenue, and Fairbanks Court. It includes notable properties such as the home of Les Nomades French restaurant, a cluster of row houses on Erie Street that were threatened by a proposed expansion of the Dana Hotel, and a Rush Street building that once served as the personal home and studio of architect Henry Ives Cobb.

Though in discussion for some time, the urgency to protect the Near North Side’s older buildings came to a head in 2016 when Symmetry Property Development proposed replacing the row houses at 42 and 44-46 E. Superior Street with a 725-foot-tall hotel and residential tower.

Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) rejected the River North proposal, citing concerns over traffic and parking. The developers then pushed forward with permits to tear down the structures, prompting the alderman to introduce a zoning change to delay demolition and include the properties in the landmark district.

The story took a wild turn last year when Chinese investors in the project reportedly sued the developer to get their money back. Symmetry still might try to redevelop the site by building around the vintage buildings, but Reilly described the situation as a “total mess” to Crain’s in September.

With a final recommendation from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the Near North district will face a vote by the city’s Committee on Zoning before seeking final approval from the full Chicago City Council.

“We’d certainly love to expand this district to other significant former mansions like the Pizzeria Uno and Due properties,” Miller told Curbed last March. “It’s important to recognize that there is great history here and honor the local businesses that have helped preserve these special buildings.”