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Our map lets you explore Chicago's landmarks and districts that are locally and nationally registered

How a building becomes a landmark

Written by Samantha Kearney

Chicago is known worldwide for its great architecture. Many of these renowned buildings are landmarked, and many lesser known buildings are as well. The reasons for landmarking buildings can mystify developers, owners, and neighbors. This week's 1909 newsletter aims to briefly clear up this confusion.

Jump to: Individual landmarks, historic districts, National Monuments, map of where they are, economic benefits, restrictions, agencies involved, landmark criteria, and the landmarking process.

Individual landmarks
Single buildings (or sites like parks and battlefields) may be landmarked to honor and protect them. Typically only building exteriors (what is publicly visible) are regulated. Chicago has locally listed landmarks and nationally listed landmarks. Individual landmarks are recorded in and enforced through zoning.

Historic districts
Historic districts honor and protect groups of buildings. Districts are comprised of "contributing" and "non-contributing" buildings. Generally the benefits and restrictions that apply to landmarked buildings do not apply to non-contributing buildings. Typically only building exteriors (what is publicly visible) are regulated. Chicago has locally listed districts and nationally listed districts. Historic districts are recorded in and enforced through zoning.

National Monuments
Illinois recently got its first National Monument: Pullman (map). National Monuments are sites of exceptional significance. Other examples include the Statue of Liberty, the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings, and the White Sands Desert.

Where they are
This interactive map shows where Chicago's landmarks and districts are, as well as whether they are locally or nationally landmarked. Other tidbits are available too, like when they were landmarked. This map is made with data from 2012, the most recent data from Chicago's Data Portal, but landmarks and districts may be added each month, so some places are missing.

Map of Chicago's historic districts and landmarks

Economic benefits
Owners of nationally and locally landmarked properties qualify for Historic Preservation Tax Credits. Owner-occupied landmarks (or contributing buildings in districts) being renovated can get a 12 year property tax freeze, and owners who do not live in their buildings may write off 20% of project costs in property taxes, provided that the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation are followed.

Owners of locally listed landmarks and contributing buildings in districts can also take advantage of several Chicago-specific incentives including a 12 year property tax freeze for commercial building owners, permit fee waivers, and a 30% or 50% rebate on commercial or industrial facade improvements.

Non-profits can sell their property tax credits, and they can leverage their status to get capital improvement grants from a broader pool of federal and municipal grants, and foundations who are interested in historic preservation.

Changes to landmarks and historic districts (including demolition proposals) are reviewed by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, but that does not mean that owners are at the mercy of the commission.

The National Register does not restrict what an owner can do with their property as long as no federal money is used for the project. This means that owners of nationally listed landmarks can still alter the building, change its use, even demolish it. However, if federal money is involved then property owners should adhere to as many of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation as the Commission on Chicago Landmarks deems necessary. Preservation Chicago issued a good example of what may and may not be allowed. Local landmarks' restrictions work in a similar way, though demolitions of local landmarks is much more difficult. Landmarks and districts can inhibit demolitions, which is desirable because teardowns are a tremendous waste of energy and resources.

A permit will not be issued nor federal money be provided until the commission's requests are agreed to. It is important to remember that typically an owner can do whatever they like to the interior of their buildings, usually only what is visible rom the public way is regulated.

Additionally, any federally funded project that may affect landmarks or districts must be re-planned to minimize or eliminate these impacts. This regulation, called Section 106, protects private property.

Non-conforming properties in historic districts may be reviewed by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks for changes that could negatively effect the district's overall integrity, but typically they are not regulated. One current example of this is the height restriction in the Michigan Avenue Streetwall district, which may require Helmut Jahn's proposed skyscraper to dial back its height.

Agencies involved
The National Park Service is in charge of landmarks. They do this by designating State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs) that review and manage landmarks within each state on behalf of the national government. Some states have their own statewide preservation programs; Illinois is not one of these states. SHPOs also delegate some of their responsibilities to Certified Local Governments (CLGs) who can review and designate landmarks on behalf of the national government, and CLGs can also manage their own class of landmarks, known as local landmarks.

Chicago is a CLG, and designates landmarks on a local and national level. Local landmarks have more protections and benefits than national landmarks. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks reviews applications and changes to landmarks, and they provide recommendations to the City Council and the SHPO.

Landmark criteria
At least one of the following (simplified) qualifications must be met to be listed on the National Register. They are often just referred to by their letter ("criteria C").

A. It was the site of an historic event or movement
B. It was associated with a person of historic significance
C. It has architectural or aesthetic merit
D. It is or could be an important archaeological site

Typically cemeteries, birthplaces, graves, religious properties, relocated structures, reconstructed historic buildings, and properties younger than 50 years are not considered for designations.

In contrast, locally listed landmarks and districts must meet at least two of the following (simplified) qualifications:

  1. It is a critical part of Chicago’s heritage
  2. It was the site of a significant historic event
  3. It was associated with a significant person
  4. It exemplifies an architectural type or style
  5. It had an important architect / engineer / builder / etc.
  6. It is a district exemplifying architectural, cultural, economic, historic, social or other themes
  7. It is a unique visual feature

Landmarking process
The landmarking process is initiated by the property owner(s), who sometimes hires a historic preservation consultant (or related professional) to recommend which type of designation is best for them, to research the building's significance, and to submit a proposal to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, which meets every month. Alternately, if applying for local landmark status, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks can do this research and application for you.

A few times a year the Commission on Chicago Landmarks accepts suggestions from the general public for potential landmarks, but they tend to only move forward with properties with owners interested in being landmarked. The city has enough on its hands, it doesn't want to fight unwilling owners. Another landmarks initiation source are city planners, who may identify potential landmarks or districts as part of broader planning strategies, as was the case with Fulton Market's historic district (map).

Here are the procedures:

  1. Preliminary summary of information report by Commission staff 
  2. Preliminary recommendation (if approved, the Commission may now review related permits)
  3. Report from Department of Housing and Economic Development about how the landmark / district would affect neighborhood and other plans
  4. Commission officially requests owner consent, though this is determined much earlier
  5. Public hearing(s)
  6. Final Commission recommendation
  7. If locally listed: hearing by City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, then a vote on designation by City Council
    If nationally listed: it is sent to the SHPO for approval

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Photo of the former Sun-Times printing plant

Demolition Alert

Renovations and demolitions are underway at the former Sun-Times Printing Plant, which is being transformed into a data center. This week's permit is to demolish at least part of the one story building.

Upcoming events

  • 2/10: Book presentation, Richard Nickel - Dangerous Years
  • 2/10: Chicago Urbanists Meetup
  • 2/10: Greater South Loop Alliance happy hour
  • 2/11: Property tax savings workshop for senior citizens
  • 2/12: Flint, MI Water Crisis, noon, UIC, CUPPA Hall 110
  • 2/13: Chicago Art Deco Society's annual meeting + movie
  • 2/17: #KeepingThePromise meeting about subsidized housing
  • 2/18: Chicago Plan Commission
  • 2/18: Jefferson Park Forward meeting
  • 2/19: Zoning Board of Appeals
  • 2/19: Pullman National Monument community meeting
  • 2/24: CMAP's next big plan launch
  • 2/25: 3rd Ward community meeting
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