How Does Landmarking Work in Chicago?

by Shelley Gorson

One of the best things about living in Streeterville is the architectural diversity we experience everyday as we walk in our neighborhood. There is a sense of belonging when we encounter familiar buildings in our daily lives.  But are these buildings landmarks?

We think of landmarks only as major, important buildings, but really a landmark can be any place –or collection of places which we call a district--that matters. East Lake Shore Drive is an example of an historic district.  The St. Benedict Flats at 40-50 E. Chicago designed by James Egan in the Queen Anne style and the modernist 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive condo buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe are examples of individual building landmarks in Streeterville.

SOAR’s Landmarks and Preservation Task Force has recommended to the Department of Historic Preservation –a division of the Department of Housing and Economic Development-- that three neo-Gothic buildings on East Chicago Avenue be designated as landmarks. These buildings were built in 1926-27 to house Northwestern University’s graduate schools of Medicine (Ward Hall at 303 E. Chicago Ave); Commerce (Weiboldt Hall at 339 E. Chicago Ave) and Law (Levy Mayer Hall at 357 E. Chicago Ave). Landmarking these buildings would provide legal protection because the City would have to review any proposed alteration, demolition, or new construction of these buildings. Tearing down these buildings or altering them in any significant way would require approval from the City of Chicago.

To be recommended by the Department of Historic Preservation for landmark designation, a place must first be listed on the National Historic Register, and then it must meet at least two of the following seven criteria:

  1. Value as an example of city, state or national heritage
  2.  A site of a significant historic event
  3. Identification with a significant person
  4. Exemplary architecture
  5. Work of a significant architect or designer
  6. Representation of a significant theme
  7. Possess a unique or distinctive visual feature

These places also have to meet a test for integrity. 

If the Department of Historic Landmarks decides a place is worthy of landmark designation, it goes to the Chicago Landmarks Commission, and then ultimately to the City Council for final approval.  There are opportunities for public participation during this process. 

We are hopeful that the Commission on Landmarks will agree to recommend landmark designation to the City Council for the three 1926-27 buildings on East Chicago Avenue at a meeting in the near future.  Northwestern University is supporting SOAR’s recommendation. Stay tuned!