In this age when so many people have lost faith in government, it can be hard to believe, but sometimes the system works. Case in point: 161 East Grand Avenue, the former Lindsay Light Building.
Over the summer the owner of the building applied for a demolition permit in order to turn the four-story building into a pile of rubble. Or perhaps to let someone else do it, because at the time, the building was being shopped around as a prime redevelopment opportunity.
To a new owner, an old building looks like a lot of expensive renovation work. An old building with a demolition permit looks like a shiny new cheap and easy skyscraper. An old building with a demolition permit and DX-12 zoning looks like a way to quadruple the floor space without having to bow and kiss the rings of any aldermen or neighborhood groups. In other words, 161 East Grand could turn a quick buck without turning heads.
Except for that pesky color orange. It’s the color God puts on jack-o-lanterns, Roadtech puts on construction cones, and the city’s Planning and Zoning Bureau puts on its maps to indicate buildings that might possibly be of historic value, if someone bothers to look into it. And when a demolition permit is pulled for an orange-coded building, that means someone is going to look into it. It’s the system at work.
What followed was a bunch of behind-the-scenes work between 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly and the owners of the building, after which Mr. Reilly felt triumphant enough to announce in his newsletter that the 1930 building had been saved from demolition.
Then a couple of weeks later, neighborhood group S.O.A.R. mentioned in its newsletter that it’s going to try to get the old Lindsay Light Building landmarked. “The SOAR Preservation/Landmarks Task Force is working with Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois to further protect the building–and some of its neighbors–with an official Chicago landmark designation.”
We love old buildings. Especially ones that are threatened with demolition. We just want to grab them and snuggle them like wet, frightened, thousand-ton kittens until the storm passes. But Lindsay Light? That building should be hunted down by the citizens of Streeterville with pitchforks and torches in the middle of the night.
The Lindsay Light Building represents a terrible evil that once existed in Streeterville: The Lindsay Light Company, which carelessly poisoned the land in about a quarter of downtown Chicago. Go ahead, try to build something south of Ontario Street, north of Randolph Street, and east of Michigan Avenue and just wait for the E.P.A. guys in hazmat suits to swoop in with clipboards and geiger counters. That’s the legacy of Lindsay Light and its building.
For several decades in the early part of the last century, Lindsay Light made gas lamp mantles. For those of you not into camping, it’s a dome made out of flame-resistant mesh. When you put one on a gas-powered lantern, it heats up and gives off light, making the lantern brighter than if it was just the gas flame alone. Want to really boost the light output? Coat the mantle in thorium. Then it really gets the job done. As long as you ignore the fact that thorium is radioactive.
In the 1920s and 30s, people didn’t understand radiation the way we do now, and so the Lindsay company didn’t think anything of importing tons of ore, refining it into thorium-232, and then kind of letting the leftovers (“tailings,” in mining jargon) get away from it. The stuff looked like sand, and was used to fill in low-lying areas of downtown Chicago when it was much swampier than it is today.
Lindsay Light moved out of Streeterville to another part of town which it also contaminated, and then shut down Chicago operations in 1936. It wasn’t until 1993 that the radiation was noticed and the E.P.A. got involved. It declared 161 East Grand a Superfund site (ID #ILN000509092, if you’re curious), and the building was thoroughly decontaminated.
But the sand was spread far beyond the Lindsay headquarters, and as we’ve noted in the past, testing continues around downtown Chicago (map here), and when any building goes up, the dirt underneath has to be tested for radiation and cleaned up.
To date, cleanups have been done at more than a dozen properties. About 55,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed and shipped to out-of-state facilities licensed to accept radioactive waste. There are still several properties known to have contamination that need to be cleaned up. — EPA Lindsay Light web site
Today, Lindsay Light is one of only five places in the entire country that gets its own section on the E.P.A.’s Superfund web site. Reading it is a fascinating way to spend a couple of hours, and you understand why the radiation is not an immediate threat to anyone living or working in the area.
But in spite of not being a threat, it is an ongoing expense for taxpayers who have to foot the bill for continued monitoring, and for developers who have to take significant extra steps when putting up a building. Moreover, it’s a testament to the carelessness with which we once treated our environment. And not something that should be celebrated with a landmark designation.