Laramie State Bank building to get court hearing this week

September 5, 2017
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The long vacant Laramie State Bank building and its deteriorating condition will be the subject of a hearing Wednesday in the Cook County Circuit Court First Municipal District.

The building, located at 5200 W. Chicago Ave., has been boarded up due to multiple violations of the city’s building code, with the Chicago landmark showing signs of deterioration both inside and outside, according to the Chicago Department of Buildings.

An inspection done in late July following a 311 complaint filed earlier this year found several safety issues with the building’s water system, elevators, doors and windows. There are also problems with the building’s outside walls, most notably the historical terracotta structure has loosened, cracked or broken, which the city says is “dangerous and hazardous.”

“The city takes every effort to address vacant buildings and is working to keep the vacant landmark building at 5200 West Chicago secure,” Mimi Simon, director of public affairs at the Department of Buildings, said in a statement, adding the city has terminated water service to the building for safety reasons.

The property has been owned by Austin residents John Young Sr. and Earline Ruffin since 2002, according to the court document. It has been used as a commercial venue, including a banquet hall, restaurants and franchise stores, before it fell into vacancy about five years ago, community members say.

“A building like that should be of value to the city of Chicago,” said longtime Austin resident Dwayne Truss, who cited its distinguished Art Deco style and long history in the Austin neighborhood. “Not too many buildings like that are left.”

At Wednesday’s hearing – set for 2 p.m. in room 1107 of the Richard J. Daley Center –the building’s owners, city officials and some preservation advocacy groups are expected to be in attendance. The building’s condition and solutions to improve it are expected to be discussed.

“The building is in building court because (of0 desperately needed repairs,” said Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. She said her group wants to work with the owners and the city to address the necessary repairs while providing expertise to better assess the building’s condition.

“We are monitoring the situation,” DiChiera said. “We want to make sure that it basically has the opportunity to have an investment.”

It’s not clear whether the owners want to renovate the building themselves or opt to sale it, she added.

Because of its large size and the delicacy of its terracotta exterior, the expenses of maintaining and repairing the building could be huge, said Robert Bruegmann, an architectural historian and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The cost of doing a simple repair of a building of that scale can be very expensive,” Bruegmann said, adding it’s not uncommon for the owner of designated landmark to not be able to afford the costs of maintaining the building.

“Unfortunately, there’s been a handful of buildings that are designated landmarks by the city that have come down,” he said.

While the city has very little money to spend on repairing buildings, there might also be little demand for a building like the former Laramie bank, he said.

“It’s a very expensive proposition, particularly for big buildings like the Laramie State Bank.”

But the building is a prominent West Side landmark, and the failure to keep it in a sound condition would be “a devastating symbolic gesture” to the community, he said.

“These are the biggest things in the area that most people remember,” he said, noting most of the important, historical bank buildings are located in major business centers and Downtown Chicago.

“The building is a fairly standard steel-frame, commercial building,” he said. “And architecturally, its terracotta planting is some of the most spectacular within the city.”

Because of its iconic Art Deco style, the Laramie State Bank was designated as an orange-rated landmark by the city of Chicago in 1995; it has stood on the northwest corner of West Chicago Avenue and North Laramie Avenue for more than nine decades.

Despite the urgency for renovation, it might be difficult to acquire the resources needed to repair and reinvest in the long-vacant building, Austin residents say.

“I just see challenges of finding someone to provide the necessary funding to renovate the building,” Truss said.

“I hope that someone would spend the money, purchase the building and have the resources to renovate the building,” he said, “And hopefully there can be a community use” for the building.

It has great potential to become a West Side tourist attraction, said James Bowers, who has lived and worked in Austin for more than three decades.

“Laramie State Bank is a gorgeous building on the outside,” Bowers said. “There’s nothing like this that is so strikingly, fully Art Deco. This is unique.”

While the inside damages are repairable, the building’s façade remains mostly intact, he added.

“This will make a perfect cultural and historical arts museum, something that children could come to and play their art and music,” he said, adding such a cultural center would enliven Chicago Avenue and draw more people to Austin from nearby Oak Park and Cicero.

“The owners should be compensated for owning the building,” he said. “But that shouldn’t be an impediment to restoring it and making it a community landmark.”

“It could become a place of pride for the people in the community.”

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