The History of Preservation Chicago

It was a chilly Sunday afternoon on April 2, 2000. A diverse group of citizens, 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 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. Sadly, despite their best efforts, all of these buildings were demolished. However, out of that loss arose a new idea, a new movement, and a new organization.

Many who gathered that day happened to be veterans of grass-roots preservation battles in their own neighborhoods. This small group, numbering about twenty, decided to join forces that day and collectively advocate for the preservation of Chicago’s historic architecture. The new group, though still nameless, pledged to speak with a unified voice that would publicly and forcefully challenge any city policy that worked against historic preservation.

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 the distinct 19th Century building at the northeast corner of State and Division Streets from otherwise certain demolition. This inaugural struggle by Preservation Chicago proved that individual citizens, when acting together, could truly make a difference.

Empowered by the success at State and Division Streets, Preservation Chicago quickly expanded its mission and began to engage in preservation battles throughout the city. Although some terrific buildings were lost, many fights were successful. Through it all, Preservation Chicago has remained an organization committed to the idea that all preservation is local. It has also discovered that the most effective preservation efforts always begin within the community at the grass-roots level. Now in its second decade, 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 its 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.