Although the battle to save the Mercantile Exchange Building was lost, the outrage that was caused by its destruction finally forced reform at City Hall.
For years before the Mercantile Exchange battle erupted, preservationist and other concerned citizens had been maddened by the continued loss of historic buildings throughout the city, and frustrated by the inability to obtain information with regards to pending demolitions.
However, that all changed in the spring of 2002 when a demolition permit was issued for the Mercantile Exchange Building, formerly located at the NW corner of Franklin and Washington Streets.
Preservation Chicago quickly sprung into action by creating a public awareness campaign called Save the Merc. Consisting of a series of street demonstrations and picket rallies throughout the summer and fall of 2002, the sustained pressure for landmarks reform ultimately compelled the city to create a new law, which both delayed the demolition of the city’s most historic buildings as well as opened the process to the public.
Based on recommendations made by Preservation Chicago, this new ordinance became law in January of 2003 and is tied to the city-financed Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS). Informally known as “the survey”, the CHRS was published in 1996 after 12 years of exhaustive research. Architectural historians fanned out across the city and evaluated the architectural integrity of every structure. All buildings built before 1940 were rated on their historical and architectural merit, and then broken down into color categories: Red is the highest ranking, followed respectively by Orange, Green and Yellow. Ultimately, over 17,000 buildings were listed in the survey, and over 8,700 of them were rated Orange. The highlights of the ordinance are as follows:
- When a demolition permit for a Red or Orange rated building is applied for, the Landmarks Commission is notified and the demolition permit is posted on the city’s public web site.
- Once posted, a 90-day hold is placed on the demolition permit, although the city may release the hold sooner, under certain circumstances.
- During that time, research of the historic and/or architectural merit is done to determine if the building should receive Landmark Protection. Alternatives to demolition can also be explored.
Though less than ideal, the Demolition Delay Ordinance has led to the preservation of numerous historic buildings over the years. But more importantly, it has created a new planning tool for city officials, preservationists and concerned citizens. Before 2003, few if anyone knew what an “Orange Rated” building was. Today, it in now and integral part of Chicago’s urban planning vocabulary.