How One of Chicago’s Award-Winning Buildings, And A Family’s Memories, Disappeared Overnight

Former Site Of Howard Alan Studio

One week ago, a couple of buildings at 849 West Armitage Avenue were smashed to bits.

I snuck through the surrounding fence on Saturday morning to survey the rubble. There was some mangled, twisted cable and other detritus. It bore no resemblance to the studio that once stood there.

Howard Alan home and studioUntil recently, the 2,500-square-foot property was the home and workplace of architect Howard Alan. The rear building was unusual looking, and innovative in its design. Alan meticulously planned and built the passive solar structure. When I toured the studio last October, it was chilly outside but warm and toasty inside.

How was that possible? The second floor was designed to capture and retain heat from the sun, then store it in the walls. I saw a series of vertical tubes filled with water, too. It looked something like the lair of a mad scientist. Again, there was a method to Alan’s madness. Those fiberglass tubes also captured and retained heat.

Howard Alan home and studioThe entire building was an inspired design, and extremely energy efficient. In fact, back-up heating and cooling sources were unnecessary unless the temperature stayed below zero—or above 95—for several consecutive days.

Alan’s studio didn’t go unnoticed. He received an award for sustainable design from the American Institute of Architects and the Union of International Architects. The Chicago Architecture Foundation included it on the 2013 Open House Chicago itinerary.

Now the studio is just a memory. Alan and his family made the decision to sell the property in 2011. The new owners, Jenel Management Corp. and LG Development Group, demolished the studio and adjacent building. A new retail and residential building are planned.

Howard Alan home and studioI spoke with Alan’s daughters, Jessica and Ruth, about what the studio meant to their father and to them. They have fond memories of growing up in the Armitage house. It was built in 1970, and they lived on the second floor above a retail plumbing supply store. They watched their father build the miraculous energy-efficient studio in the early 1990’s.

Jessica and Ruth are upset the developers didn’t consider saving the studio, which they feel was architecturally significant. Typically, an architecturally significant structure has been standing for a fairly long period of time, though. Howard Alan’s studio was just over 20 years old.

“How do you define what’s historic?” Ruth Alan asked. “There’s a certain amount of subjectivity involved.”

A good portion of Armitage west of Halsted Street is protected with landmark status. Howard Alan never applied, though, because he wanted to be able to make modifications.

“He thinks properties are meant to change and live with the time,” Jessica Alan said. “He believes in change, not the status quo, and that everybody should have the freedom to change.”

Howard AlanMs. Alan recognizes that her family lost control over the fate of the buildings once they sold the property. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the sales price was $1.2 million.

“I’m not surprised how anything went down,” Ruth Alan told me. “I know the neighborhood, with noise or parking, they’ll stand up, but not for historic value or about what it means to Lincoln Park. I’m not saying my dad is Frank Lloyd Wright, but he was a visionary.”

It was necessary to sell it, they said, because Mr. Alan put his entire life savings into the studio, and now, approaching age 83, he needs some financial security and funds to live on in retirement.

“It was not an easy decision for our family,” Jessica Alan said. “We toiled over it. There were lots of emotions.”

Howard Alan home and studioThe emotions came from the Alan sisters growing up in the Armitage building and seeing their father build the studio from scratch. They felt the design of the building was significant enough to warrant saving it. They lobbied for options like transporting it to Tryon Farm, an environmentally conscious and sustainable community in northwest Indiana. Dismantling the building and reassembly proved impossible, however.

I asked if they might have been a bit naïve about what would likely happen to the property. After all, it sits squarely in a growing, popular Chicago neighborhood with affluent buyers ready to rent or buy.

They said, yes, it’s possible they were a bit idealistic.

“You can call it naïvete,” Ruth Alan said.

It’s been pointed out to them, bluntly, that the fate of the buildings should have been obvious.

“Were we aware of the developer’s intention? We were not,” Jessica Alan said. “It was left very vague.”

Former Site Of Howard Alan StudioRuth Alan said it wasn’t that they didn’t consider the possibility of the studio being torn down.

“What we hoped for and thought was there were some people in the neighborhood who thought it had value to the Lincoln Park community, and that’s just sad that they didn’t. Why didn’t somebody think it was asset? Anybody could have delayed the process.”

The Alan sisters thought in a worst-case scenario (a proposed tear-down), the community would have rallied against the idea. But few in the community knew what was planned.

“There was no transparency, no notifications, no hearings, we had no idea what was happening,” said Ruth Alan. “When we contacted the alderman [Michele Smith, 43rd Ward], she didn’t know what was happening. There was poor communication with agencies and none with public.”

“We gambled, we knew we were taking a risk,” Jessica Alan said. “We had no choice, because of where my dad needed to live, after a long process to try and find other buyers to use it the same way our family did. It was purely a financial decision, sadly.”

Former Site Of Howard Alan StudioI was also curious about how their father was coping with the loss of the studio. His grieving is over, they said. As soon as he learned the building would be torn down, he emotionally moved on. Howard Alan is still active and working on new projects. Could he eventually design and build another structure as unique and innovative as the Armitage Street studio?

Ruth Alan said anything is possible.

“He’s ready to build again, doing what he’s been doing. I hope there’s an opportunity for him to do it again.”

Location: 849 West Armitage Avenue, Lincoln Park

 

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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