It was a chilly Sunday afternoon on April 2, 2000. A diverse group of Chicagoans, picket signs in hand, assembled at a rally at the corner of Dearborn and Elm Streets on Chicago’s Near North Side. This informal group of activists, architects, preservationists and other concerned citizens was fighting to save a cluster of historic buildings, including the old Coe Mansion which housed the well-known Ranalli’s Restaurant. Despite their energy, enthusiasm and efforts, unfortunately all of these buildings were demolished. However, this painful loss demonstrated the urgent need to develop stronger and more effective strategies to preserve Chicago’s irreplaceable built environment. As the historic buildings came down, a new organization with a novel approach to the preservation movement, rose from the ruble.
Many who gathered that day were long-time activists and veterans of grass-roots preservation battles in their own neighborhoods. Numbering about twenty, this small group decided to join forces that day and collectively advocate for the preservation of Chicago’s historic architecture. This new group, though still nameless, pledged to speak with a unified voice that would publicly and forcefully challenge any city policy or action that allowed and encouraged the destruction of Chicago’s irreplaceable built environment
On October 23, 2001, this all-volunteer organization formally began operations as Preservation Chicago and immediately plunged into its first campaign. Dubbed the Vanishing Urban Corner, this initiative brought attention to the disturbing trend of national big box retail chains demolishing historically significant corner buildings. This campaign culminated in its successful fight to save from demolition the distinct 19th Century building at the northeast corner of State and Division Streets. The success of this inaugural advocacy effort by Preservation Chicago proved that even individual citizens, despite beings volunteers without wealth, power or position, could make a profound and tangible impact by working together with dedication and devotion.
Empowered by the success at State and Division Streets, Preservation Chicago began to engage in preservation advocacy efforts throughout the city. Although many outstanding buildings were lost, many more efforts were successful. Through it all, Preservation Chicago has remained an organization committed to the idea that all preservation is local. The most effective preservation efforts always begin within the community at the grass-roots level. After approximately 20 years, Preservation Chicago has grown from a rag-tag group of volunteers into a mature organization with an office and a professional staff. However, it still remains true to the founder’s original vision to work collectively with neighborhood organizations and residents to ensure that Chicago’s historic past will always remain a part of Chicago’s future.