by Michael R. Allen
Tragedy strikes Chicago with yet another devastating fire at a building designed by Louis Sullivan. This time, the damaged building is the 1887 Wirt-Dexter Building on Wabash Avenue in the Loop, a formative work by Adler & Sullivan. The Wirt-Dexter Building possesses a lightness of form with vertical emphasis that Sullivan would develop further with the Wainwright Building in 1891. The building also has a unique exposed system of iron piers on its rear elevation, long before the expressed forms of Mies Van Der Rohe’s buildings and almost a century ahead of the postmodern exposed structure fad.
There is no conclusive report on structural integrity after the fire. However, press quotes from Chicago Transit Authority head Frank Kruesi seem to indicate that the building, which abuts an El line, may be demolished soon.
Read more about the fire and the building in an incisive essay by Lynn Becker, Chicago’s leading architectural critic.
The Wirt-Dexter Building has been vacant for nearly twenty years, and there was little political will to find a new use for it. There may be Louis Sullivan key chains at the Chicago ArchiCenter gift shop, but that is no guarantee of the safety of any work designed by his hand. In today’s Chicago, time and time again we see that no pedigree guarantees protection of a historic building.