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The Century Building

Raeder, Coffin & Crocker, 1896
The Century Building was originally home to offices, stores, and the ornate 1600-seat Century Theater, entered via the grand 9th Street archway and a sumptuous staircase and marble-lined foyer beyond. Its ten stories were clad in Georgia limestone (three shades, lightening from bottom to top), shaped into Classically derived decoration, hot on the heels of the the neo-Classical / Beaux Arts revival that followed the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. A lengthy supplemental article about the building in Inland Architect hailed it as "an example of the result of the most careful study of the demands made upon a building devoted to commercial purposes". Ornamental ironwork adorned the interior, and the building's roofline was punctuated by spires.

In 1912, the first 8 stories of the Century were connected to its younger neighbor, the Syndicate Trust (originally the Century Annex), a 1906 16-story tower with Chicago School influences and a plethora of ornament.

The theater eventually closed and was demolished, the space being infilled with additional floors which were occupied by retailer Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney, who first moved into the building in 1913. Other notable occupants included the St. Louis office of ocean liner company White Star Lines, and the headquarters of Equal Suffrage League. The Century/Syndicate Trust complex remained a central and thriving address into the middle of the 20th century.

The Syndicate Trust, like much of the city, declined in the 1960s, particularly when Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney closed in 1967. A series of owners worked to no avail to fill the building to capacity. A new owner bought the building in 1986, but defaulted on a loan used for the purchase two years later.

Developer Mark Finney bought the buildings at auction for $600,000 in 1993, originally intending to redevelop them. The buildings were emptied and gutted... then renovation halted. Years of legal wrangling ensued as Finney attempted to demolish the buildings for a parking lot, and the city blocked the attempts. Meanwhile, the buildings sat vacant, deteriorating and surrounded by a chainlink fence which blocked the sidewalks and streets around them.

The City eventually bought the buildings back from Finney... at a cost of $6 MILLION dollars, ten times what he paid for them. With the development rights thus secured, the City then handed them over to the DESCO Group and DFC Group -- without issuing a Request For Proposals. DESCO/DFC proposed to demolish the Century Building for a parking garage to serve the Old Post Office; the proposal did nothing for the remaining Syndicate Trust tower. An alternative proposal -- which would have kept both buildings intact -- was quickly squelched by the City.

Nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, a sustained public outcry, a private lawsuit against the development, and basic principals of sound urban planning all failed to stop the garage plan. In early October 2004, wreckers smashed the corners of the building, before a judge could issue a decision in a stop-work injunction. Thus damaged, the building was effectively doomed.

In the 1990s, the only tenant was a Walgreens in the ground level, which persisted until around 2002.

For several years in the 1990s and early 2000s, the building was surrounded by sidewalk-obscructing barricades, ostensibly to protect the public from the deteriorating facade. Cynical observers might conclude that the barriers were actually to create the impression of danger rather than a response to any actual peril.

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