demolition underway

Please Stop Demolishing Chicago’s History at the Finkl Steel Site and Elsewhere

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Not everyone loves rusty metal and aging industrial buildings; not everyone appreciates the beauty of a ruin.  We know that many people may not understand a pitch to preserve aging industrial buildings.  For everyone here at moss, however, the demolition at the Finkl Steel site is a tragic loss of a piece of Chicago’s history.  

We’ve talked about the destructive nature of unnecessary demolition here in Chicago on a residential level before: ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST: THE TINY TRAGEDY OF TEARDOWNS IN CHICAGO NEIGHBORHOODS.  The same loss of history and local vitality applies to needlessly destroying historic commercial and industrial buildings.   Moss has been distressed by the plans to demolish the Finkle Steel site (before even putting it up for sale) and a walk along West Cortland yesterday (passing from the Clybourn Metra stop to the Armitage Brown Line station), clearly showed how little of the Finkl manufacturing site still remains.

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missing wall

For a really great profile of the site and its history, check out this piece in Belt Mag. The situational irony is as thick on the ground as broken bricks, since, at the moment, the site can only be reused for certain manufacturing adjacent purposes.  The site is a Planned Manufacturing District (PMD) which limits the potential uses – it explicitly forbids residential use – and was created to protect the valuable manufacturing jobs offered by companies like Finkl.  In fact the Finkl Steel site represents the first such PMD, instigated by Finkl management in 1988, to protect the site from encroachment from nearby high real-estate values in Lincoln Park.  A number of ideas have been floated for how the site could be repurposed now that Finkl has moved out but none have moved beyond the proposal stage.

To be clear, the demolition underway at Finkl is not the work of a potential developer but the decision of the current owner – undertaken before the property is even sold. This premature demolition of the buildings on site feels like a calculated move to push for rezoning – a move that casually destroyed the historical value in these buildings and their historical use.

The factory spaces of the Finkl plant may not have been ornate or date from an architecturally beloved period and type, but they represented a vital segment of Chicago’s history.  Ruthlessly mowing down buildings as soon as their first use is expired destroys irreplaceable pieces of our past.

We feel confident that any designer would agree that to clear the site BEFORE THE PROPERTY HAS BEEN SOLD OR EVEN REZONED is an act of thoughtless architectural vandalism that deserves censure.

Some elements of the Finkl Steel buildings could have been preserved and repurposed once the eventual new use of the site is determined.  Now that opportunity has been lost.

We grant that process of demolition could be undertaken more carelessly.  The company hired to do the demolition, Heneghan Wrecking, has LEED certified supervisors who manage their material recycling and large signs at the site proclaim that more than 90% of the project will be recycled.  Well and good.  But reusing is always more efficient than recycling – it is clearly better to rinse and reuse a mason jar than to smash it and send it to be re-blown into new glass.  We certainly back up that sentiment with the choice to site Moss HQ in a repurposed utilities building.  The beat up brick and slighly rusty metal that surround us are aesthetic benefits – as is the flood of natural light which streams in through original windows. Older buildings have features its hard to replicate and add value that can’t be found in new construction.

Obviously, it is too late to stop the demolition of the Finkle Steel buildings, and the opinion of a few area designers would have little sway with the owners, even were it not a foregone conclusion.  However, we would be remiss if we didn’t at least recognize the inherent tragedy of destroying buildings like these.

a finkl and sons

  • While some of the buildings on site were certainly in need of demolition it is tragic that the entire complex was scraped. The discussion of whether this site should maintain its PMD status (and hopefully not become a car oriented strip mall) is another matter. I used to cut through the site (on that weird little piece of Southport) on my bike to avoid the Clybourn/Cortland intersection and loved the scale of the street in relation to the height of the buildings. It felt medieval European, which is perhaps what they were going for being a steel forging site and all. Im not one for nostalgia when it comes to design and zoning matters, but some attention to the volume of the built and negative space on that site could have benefitted its future use.