On 79th Street: Architecture lost when the walls came tumbling down

February 2, 2012

The last thing the South Side needs is another vacant lot. But that's exactly what it'll get in a few days when the wreckage of a three-story commercial building in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood is cleared away.

That's because the long-vacant 86-year-old building on the southeast corner of 79th and Halsted--a faded terra cotta beauty weakened by time and neglect--gave way under its own weight Tuesday and partially collapsed. Four passersby received minor injuries from the falling debris. I visited the site last night with my camera. The streets and sidewalks near the intersection are closed off for a couple of blocks in either direction, but I was able to get these images by setting up in the parking lot of a CVS pharmacy on the northwest corner.

Built in 1926 and designed by architect Edward G. McClellan, the building was a graceful example of a 1920s neighborhood mixed-use commercial building: retail space on the ground floor and a mixture of offices and apartments above. At three stories and crowned with an intact terra cotta cornice, the building was big enough to hold the corner with some visual authority. And the eyes could get lost in the scrolls, hatches, arches, crests and crisscrosses racing across the building's terra cotta-clad facade.

The building is listed "orange" in the Chicago Historical Resources Survey, the document's second-highest rating, signifying it had "potentially significant architectural or historical features." Walgreens occupied the corner ground floor spot when the building opened in 1926. From the 1930s until the 1960s, the Auburn Park branch of the Chicago Public Library was located in there.

Before the collapse, the only signs of life related to the building was a small tree--visible from 79th street--growing on its roof.

Here is a shot showing the detail of the terra cotta--and the portions of the doomed building that have been removed:

Here's what the building looked like intact, courtesy of Google Street view:

And a member of the crew from Heneghan Demolition at work amid the debris:

Just who owned this building while it fell into this state? The city of Chicago, which acquired the structure a decade ago in an effort to redevelop the once-vibrant corner. In 2004, the city invited developers to look at the building in hopes one of them would come up with a proposal to rehab and reuse the property and preserve its terra cotta facade. No takers. So the building just sat there, unused, with nothing happening in or around it.

Until now.