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Day care threatens shrine to skyscraper hero

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This story was sent to you by: Dr. Victor Azzi

The structural engineering community should do even more of this ! !

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Day care threatens shrine to skyscraper hero 
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By Blair Kamin
Tribune architecture critic

November 5, 2004

It's the day-care center versus the plaque, real Tinker Toys versus a tribute to the structural engineer who gave the Chicago skyline some of its most distinctive, Tinker Toy-like buildings.

For now, the battle has come to a temporary halt after structural engineers, a group that rarely makes passionate public expressions, argued passionately that the day-care center was desecrating a memorial to one of their heroes, the late Fazlur Khan, the engineering mastermind of Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center.

City zoning officials on Thursday ordered a stop to the construction of the day-care center in the atrium lobby of the Onterie Center, a 60-story residential and office tower at 446-448 E. Ontario St., said Pete Scales, a spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development.

The order came after the engineers, the building's original developer and the Tribune alerted the city that the plaque to Khan, dedicated by former Gov. James Thompson, was fast disappearing behind steel studs that form the framework for the day-care center's walls.

"The bottom line is, the owner of the building should never have decided to cover up the memorial. It's just not appropriate," Scales said.

The owner is Onterie Center LLP, which is controlled by Clark Realty Capital of Bethesda, Md. A spokesman said the owners believed they were providing a neighborhood amenity and regretted it if the construction upset people.

The day-care center is scheduled to open in January, and it will have enough space for 112 children, age 6 weeks to 4 years, according to its future director, Christie Nitka of KinderCare Learning Centers.

"There's an overwhelming demand in the city for infant care," she said. "The atrium actually will be our indoor playground."

On Friday, Onterie Center's owners are scheduled to meet with the city's zoning administrator and Ald. Burton Natarus (42nd), in whose ward the building is located.

"We hope to reach some sort of solution, either changing the plans altogether or at the very least asking them move the mural and the plaque to another location," Scales said.

Khan, who was born in 1928 in what was then East Pakistan, was widely acknowledged to be one of the world's leading structural engineers when he died in 1982.

He worked on Onterie Center, as well as Sears Tower and the Hancock Center, with architect Bruce Graham, his colleague at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill of Chicago.

Both the Hancock and Onterie Center have distinctive X-shaped braces, which resemble oversized Tinker Toys, though the Hancock's underlying structure is steel and Onterie Center's is concrete.

The braces are the most visible part of the strong and rigid tubular frames that Khan developed for the towers. These tubes, as they became known, proved enormously influential, affecting skyscrapers around the globe.

In 1999, Engineering News-Record, a trade journal, named Khan one of its top 125 people of the last 125 years, a list that included such luminaries as inventor Thomas Edison, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and structural engineer Gustave Eiffel.

Khan, the magazine said, "combined technical genius with a sensitivity for people and where they work."

After the 1986 opening of Onterie Center, Khan's final skyscraper, Thompson dedicated a tile wall mural, designed by French-born artist Juan Gardy Artigas, and a memorial plaque in the building's atrium to Khan.

The atrium, which formed the southern end of a passageway through the building, became a kind of shrine for structural engineers.

"Many structural engineers from around the world have come to Chicago and visited the building and viewed the memorial wall and mosaic plaque. To desecrate this memorial is insulting and unconscionable," Deborah Zroka, the president of the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois, wrote in a letter Tuesday to Stan Kaderbek, Chicago's buildings commissioner.

The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, which monitors skyscraper construction worldwide, also is protesting the covering of the tribute to Khan.

"It would be a tragedy if [the memorial wall and plaque] were lost from public access," the group's chairman, Ron Klemencic, wrote in a letter Thursday to Mayor Richard Daley.

Onterie Center's original owner and developer, Chandra Jha, discovered the construction of the day-care center last week while taking a walk in the Streeterville neighborhood. He works two blocks to the west of Onterie Center.

In an Oct. 28 letter to the Chicago Plan Commission, he said the construction of the day-care center would not only dishonor Khan's memory but also "be an insult to the Asian-American community's pride" because Khan was Asian-American.

Officials in the Planning Department in July gave Onterie Center's present owners approval to build the day-care center, Scales said.

The owners' application "did not mention that the alterations were going to cover the memorial and the plaque," he said. Jha argues that city officials also should not have allowed the owners to close off the atrium from public use.

Scales replied: "We want to keep as many of these private through spaces open as possible. But unless they're specified in [planning documents], it's difficult to stop someone from altering their own space."


Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune

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