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Chicago Tribune Freedom Center

Although the Chicago Tribune is still printed at Freedom Center and reporters work out of the building, that won’t be the case for much longer. Bally’s plans to build the city’s first casino complex at the site.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? Chicago Tribune Freedom Center

In June 1979, the Chicago Tribune announced plans to build a giant new printing plant on the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Tribune’s then-publisher Stanton Cook said the $150 million facility would meet the paper’s printing needs “until the turn of the century.”

Two decades into the 21st century (well past Cook's expectations), the site, called the Freedom Center, is still printing the Chicago Tribune — and for the past decade the Chicago Sun-Times. Since early 2021, Tribune reporters and editors have also been working at the Freedom Center.

But the 30-acre site on the bank of the North Branch is where Bally’s plans to build Chicago’s first casino complex. Bally’s bought the Freedom Center for $200 million in November. Occupancy hasn’t changed yet, and no date for move-outs has been announced — but casino plans entail eliminating the Freedom Center.

The sale means another building tied to the city’s once-formidable newspaper industry will be gone.

The Tribune’s former tower on Michigan Avenue has been turned into condos, the Chicago Sun-Times building was replaced by the Trump International Hotel & Tower and the Sun-Times sold off its former printing plant on the South Branch of the river in 2011.

In the 20th century, newspapers were cash cows. The Tribune was fat with advertising, and bought and launched newspapers and radio stations all over the country. The paper was printed in the lower levels of the Tribune Tower from the 1920s until the Freedom Center opened in 1981.

Before the Tribune bought the riverfront land between Chicago and Grand avenues in 1967, the land was primarily railroad yards, according to research by Max Chavez, director of research at Preservation Chicago. Most of the site was the Chicago & Northwestern’s Erie Street Yards, with about two dozen sets of railroad tracks for parking passenger and freight cars.

By moving its printing plant, the Tribune was adding to the westward march of the Near North Side through formerly industrial River North and into River West. At the time, the site was across the North Branch from the giant real estate of another powerhouse, Montgomery Ward's, the retailer that had two enormous buildings along the east branch of the river and its headquarters office tower one block away. (Ward’s went out of business in 2000, and those three buildings have been rehabbed into condos and commercial space.) The Tribune’s acquisition of the land was the company planting its flag the next step west, on the far side of the river. The company planned to spend $150 million, the equivalent of almost $590 million today.

At the new site, the Tribune hoped to bring mammoth rolls of newsprint either by barge down the river or by rail, which was already onsite. But there was a hitch. Tests found PCBs, highly toxic industrial chemicals that were widely used for half a century ending in 1979, throughout the soil in the riverbed. The Tribune had hoped to drop the bottom of the North Branch, which was less than 10 feet deep, to 21 feet to accommodate big barges. That would have required hauling out 160,000 cubic yards of river bottom and storing it safely. Ultimately, the required state permit wasn’t granted, and the Tribune relied on rail delivery of rolls of newsprint.

In June 1981, a few months before the new printing plant opened, the name Freedom Center was announced. The newspaper’s reporter on the environment, Casey Bukro, submitted the name to a companywide contest. The name would remind people that “our country is unique for recognizing that a free and active press is one of the fundamental necessities for a democratic society,” Tribune CEO Charles Brumback said in the announcement.

The 21st century has been a lot harder for newspapers, and the Tribune hasn’t been immune. There’s been a series of ownership changes and reduction, including selling off the Tribune Tower in 2016.

During this century, the Tribune has tried to make more use of the Freedom Center site, from hosting its Ribfest on the property in 2010 and a production of Peter Pan in a giant tent in 2011, to touting the facility in 2017 as a likely spot to put Amazon’s second headquarters if the company picked Chicago (it picked Washington, D.C.). Tribune Media rolled out a plan to put 18 new buildings on 37 acres, including the present-day casino site south of Chicago Avenue and a second parcel the Tribune owns north of Chicago Avenue.

In the reshuffling of the old Tribune Media company, Dallas-based Nextstar became the owner of the Freedom Center site, and in November sold it to Bally’s for the casino company’s $1.7 billion casino project.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him on Instagram @true_chicago.

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