A 'Legendary Landmark,' Chicago's Antunovich building a national reputation for historic preservation

Joe Antunovich, award-winning architect and founder of Antunovich Associates in Chicago, has considerable experience in renovating iconic landmarks across the country. It is not always easy, but he admits it is rewarding. 

The path that led Antunovich to specialize in historic preservation started early. He grew up on a farm in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, and enjoyed the architecture in the city.

“They were very quickly covered up by more modern buildings, but if you search hard enough the old beauties are there, and I always appreciated those,” Antunovich recently told the Illinois Business Daily. “I also appreciated the relationship of architecture and nature, and how buildings in the park were very, very lovely in the community in which I grew up.”

Antunovich went to school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He explained that the university owned the Gamble House in Pasadena, which was built by the Greene brothers, who were craftsman architects from the 1920s. He stayed in that house for one summer and fell in love with the old craftsman-like architecture.

“When I moved to Chicago in 1974, I came to appreciate the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, and the Chicago school here. The beautiful buildings that were built after the Chicago fire and by a whole school of architects up until the turn of the century, those buildings were truly special,” he said. “So here in Chicago, being surrounded by buildings like the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building, I developed a real appreciation of the old. And then I started working at the old office of Mesonero, ironically one of the best modern firms. Then when I opened my own business in 1990, I really got into restoring a lot of older buildings. So from the early 1990s, with the opportunity to restore old buildings and bring them back for another life, I really became committed to historic preservation.”

Antunovich said he started doing a lot of proactive work for historic preservation right after opening his own firm and seeing older buildings in Chicago being threatened.

“A lot of people just go and chain themselves to the buildings, but as an architect you can actually make some drawings and show somebody or show the city how you could restore the building and how you could adaptively rescue it and how you could save it and that was a tactic that our firm used,” he said. “Using the resources of the firm, I put together many studies at my own cost that were dreaded by the development community, but on the other hand they soon came to respect that because we showed ways in which we could save buildings by restoring rather than taking them down.”

He joined Landmarks Illinois early in 1996 and became involved in trying to save the old McGraw building on North Michigan Avenue that was to be taken down. 

“We made some sketches and I actually sent a letter to the editor asking why they are taking down this beautiful building when they could just adaptively reuse it," ,” Antunovich said. "So we made drawings and showed the developer how it could be restored and in fact they did restore it, even though they took off the facade and put it back."

He also helped restore the Reliance Building in Chicago and old Cook County Hospital, and got heavily involved with saving the Farnsworth House.

In 2014, Landmarks Illinois named Antunovich a Legendary Landmark, an honor bestowed on Chicagoans for their contributions to the city's civic and cultural legacy. 

“Through proactive projects, I was awarded that Legendary Landmark status, which was the highest honor they can bestow upon someone,” he said. “They also named an award after me, which is for people who are proactively providing services pro bono for perpetuating historic preservation projects.”

Antunovich said it is very rewarding to both receive an award and have one named after him.

“On the other hand, there is still a lot to do, so we don’t get hung up on things like that, but we just roll up our sleeves and keep doing the work that we are doing because there is a lot to be done,” he said.

Antunovich is optimistic that the city will find ways to preserve even more iconic properties, whether through government, developer or community support.

“I think these are exciting times,” Antunovich said. “The cost of these restorations can be paid for or helped to be paid for by federal and state tax credits. Hopefully one day we’ll get a state credit for historic preservation in Illinois. But the city of Chicago, and other cities, have the ability to help fund preservation of these special buildings.”

Antunovich explained that Chicago has a program called “Adopt a Landmark,” where other developers, in order to get taller buildings, can donate money to landmark properties. He believes working together and joining hands can preserve these cultural icons.

“Perhaps the most rewarding project we’ve been able to work on and a very unique project was the restoration of the Reliance Building here in Chicago,” he said. “That building was acknowledged by all to be the pinnacle of design of the Chicago school architects up until the turn of the century and that marvelous building was recognized as the very best building that had been built.”

He explained that the Reliance Building had fallen on bad times; and in the late 1990s, his firm was able to work with developer Dan McCaffery to restore the building and bring it back as a hotel.

“We brought this beautiful building back, which was probably within a couple of years of falling apart,” he said. “Now people can come from all over the world and stay at the hotel and enjoy one of Chicago’s architectural icons. We are so proud of working on that together with a dedicated developer and committed city. I think that is a great example of how the preservation movement in Chicago was turned around.”

Antunovich also works on other historical projects outside of Illinois. McCaffery also has a relationship with The Beach Company in Charleston, South Carolina, and asked him to get involved in the historic redevelopment of the 1950s-era Sergeant Jasper building. 

That project has been tied up in a legal feud between The Beach Company and the city's Board of Architectural Review (BAR), which rejected several of the company's redevelopment concepts. The company sued, claiming the BAR's review process was "arbitrary and capricious." Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson, Jr. recently ruled that the BAR overstepped its authority in denying The Beach Company’s application to redevelop the Sergeant Jasper property, even though the proposal complied with existing zoning laws.

In an interview earlier this month with Palmetto Business Daily, Antunovich lamented the fact that the BAR wrongly started to get into the "appropriateness" of zoning. He said there was not a clear line between the BAR, the city council and the planning commission, which forces the BAR into making "arbitrary decisions in areas where they shouldn't even be passing judgment, mostly on zoning."

“With regards to the politics of historic preservation boards and other governmental entities, we all really need to work together,” Antunovich said. “The most successful are the ones that listen and support one another. That is rule No. 1: be nice; No. 2: work together; and No. 3: listen and respect what each other says. Because if the goal is to restore and keep a wonderful historic building within the community, the rules should be clear and it is very clear what the rewards can be.”

As an Illinois "Legendary Landmark," Antunovich certainly is in a position to know.

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