Survey missed key buildings, including Marx Brothers house

Groucho Marx slept here.

Before he and the other Marx Brothers—Harpo, Chico and Zeppo—were fooling around in the movies, they were fooling around on Chicago’s vaudeville circuit in the 1910s. And they lived at 4512 S. Grand Blvd., in a graystone townhouse that their parents, Samuel and Minnie Marx, bought in 1914. The townhouse, with its latticed balcony and flamboyant turret, still stands proudly along what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

But the Marx Brothers house is not on Chicago’s list of 17,371 buildings that are consideed architecturally or historically significant.

That list was compiled between 1983 and 1995, when Chicago dispatched teams of surveyors to every corner of the city to discover its hidden architectural or historical jewels. The buildings were rated by color code, with red indicating the highest level of interest and blue the lowest. Yet the Marx Brothers house didn’t make the list because the surveyors didn’t know where the famous comedians lived, said former city landmarks staffers who worked on the survey.

The omission illustrates the fact that at least a handful of important buildings—and even entire blocks—were overlooked and never included in the 2-inch-thick report.

Their absence has practical consequences because the City Council on Thursday is expected to approve a proposal sponsored by Mayor Richard M. Daley that would grant a measure of protection to 6,200 buildings that are rated red or orange, the two highest categories in the survey. But the plan would leave thousands of other buildings in the survey unprotected.

The proposal would require city officials to put a 90-day hold on the issuance of a demolition permit for a building rated red or orange. But nearly 7,000 buildings in lesser categories, such as yellow, yellow-green and green, will get no protection. Buildings that aren’t on the survey, such as the Marx Brothers house, also will be vulnerable.

Preservationists fear that some of the unprotected buildings could come down.

“There are many great-looking buildings that simply are not on the survey,” said Michael Moran, vice president of Preservation Chicago. Today, he said, “there’s a greater awareness as to what was really important than there was when the bulk of the fieldwork was done.”

Another piece of Chicago heritage that the surveyors missed is at 4536-38 S. King Drive, just down the block from the Marx Brothers home. It’s a nondescript, brown-brick eight-flat that happens to be a National Historic Landmark. It was the home of Oscar Stanton DePriest, who was the first African-American elected to the Chicago City Council in 1915. In 1928, he became the first African-American to represent a northern state in Congress.

There is no immediate threat to either the Marx Brothers house or the DePriest house, but another historic structure has an uncertain future—a 79-year-old former horse stable, the Chicago Riding Club at 322 E. Ontario St., that was the scene of a seminal moment in U.S. political history.

On Sept. 26, 1960, CBS broadcast the first televised presidential debate from the former stable, converted four years earlier into a TV studio and listed at a new address, 630 N. McClurg Ct.

Oozing charisma, a young U.S. senator named John F. Kennedy outshone a haggard-looking Vice President Richard M. Nixon, not only propelling himself into the White House, but also foreshadowing an era in which television would leave an indelible mark on the American presidency.

Now WBBM-Ch. 2, the local CBS affiliate, is likely to move to another home, a spokesman for the station said. That would leave the building’s future in the hands of a buyer.

The old stable is rated orange in the city’s survey and thus would be covered by the proposed amendment and its 90-day hold provision. But city officials have allowed scores of other orange-rated structures to be torn down, a nine-month Tribune investigation has found.

Developers and city officials demolished more than 200 buildings listed on the survey, Tribune reporters discovered in a random tour of 23 of Chicago’s 77 community areas. Many of those torn down by the city were deemed havens for criminals or were structurally unsound.

The total number of razings is unknown because city officials said they could not put together a digital list that would enable the Tribune to determine how many potential landmarks have been destroyed.

The building that sparked the controversy that led to Daley’s proposal—the Chicago Mercantile Exchange at 300 W. Washington St.—was rated orange, but is now caged in scaffolding and awaits demolition. Preservationists were outraged last year after the city’s Buildings Department issued a demolition permit for the Mercantile Exchange to a real estate company controlled by the billionaire Crown family. The company wants to build an office building on the site.

“You can characterize the Merc as the martyr child for preservation reform in the city of Chicago. . . . It died so that others could live,” said Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. “It hammered home . . . how grossly overdue landmark reform was.”

To save the buildings that aren’t rated red or orange, Chicago may need to take Minneapolis as its model. In March 2001, the Minneapolis City Council passed an ordinance that requires the planning department to review every demolition permit to make sure the targeted building is not a potential landmark.

The move gives Minneapolis a safety net after gaps were found in its own 1981 survey of potential landmarks, and unlisted historic buildings quietly vanished. Of nine permits shown to the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission last year as a result of the ordinance, the city saved two landmarks and one potential landmark.

“It’s a mechanism that gives us some control,” said Greg Mathis, the city’s preservation planner. “Or, at least we have some public discussion about whether something should be saved.”

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