After years of vandalism, water damage and alterations to the original design, “you probably can’t go back to exactly what it was in 1908,” Olevich said, but “it’s a building solid and you can make it a beautiful part of the community again.
Designed by Walter Burley Griffin, an architect who, along with his wife and fellow architect Marion Mahony Griffin, left Chicago in 1913 to design Australia’s capital, the Cornell Store & Flats has been vacant since 2014, according to Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s cultural distinguished historian. In recent years, it was on Preservation Chicago and Landmarks Illinois’ endangered building list because the owners, a construction company that used the two-acre site to store trucks and equipment, left the structure Cornell break down.
“After years of heartbreak over this building, it’s wonderful that someone wants to reuse it and create economic vitality in the neighborhood,” Samuelson said. For years, he said, “my dream was that someone would save the Cornell building and make it a useful asset to the neighborhood.”
Olevich declined to say how much he paid for the site, which contains two other buildings and a parking lot. Public records do not yet show the sale or price. The previous owners told Crain’s in late January they were asking about $850,000 for the property, which they bought in 2015.
Olevich owns a small manufacturing company, Glenmarc Industries, which has been based in a former factory on Blue Island Avenue in Pilsen for two decades. In recent years, as restaurants, cafes and a cannabis dispensary have opened in the immediate area, he said, “I saw the writing on the wall for a business like mine.”
Cornell’s site works for his business, Olevich said, because the two-acre site is primarily accessed via South Chicago Avenue, a busy street. This will be the part used by Glenmarc, which could also continue to operate in Pilsen, he said. The Cornell Building is at the south end of the site, along 75th Street.
“I don’t even need this building because of the other two,” Olevich said, “but it was a forfeit.”
Since taking possession of the site, Olevich has secured the fence around the Cornell building. He doesn’t have a full plan or timeline for the restoration, he said, “but I’m open to teaming up with people who care,” including architects, conservators and, perhaps, – to be the most important, investors.
“These must be people who want the building restored,” Olevich said, “not (people) expecting to return two bucks for every dollar they put in.”
The first floor of the mixed-use building will lend itself well to restoration along the lines outlined by Olevich, said Paul Kruty, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Illinois who is writing a book on Griffin.
“The interior has always been a big open space for a department store anyway,” Kruty said. “You can put anything in it.”
With enough space in the site’s parking lot, Olevich said he hopes the use of the first floor can be extended outdoors, with a patio and tables.
The four second-floor apartments originally shared an open-air courtyard on their level and each had stairs leading to a roof where, Samuelson said, Griffin envisioned “each tenant having their own roof garden where vegetables from cooking or anything else could be grown. »
Even in the early 1900s, the architect “was attuned to environmental concerns,” Samuelson said, and “provided a useful and restful garden amidst what were once side-by-side buildings on a largely defunct 75th Street commercial strip”.
Olevich said his first step is to move his business to the other parts of the site and consider options for the Cornell Building, both how to restore it and how to fund the restoration. He said he thought it ‘deserved respect’ as much as the eight Griffin-designed homes six miles away in Beverly, where they now stand a recognized historic districtor Canberra, the Australian capital which the Griffins spent seven years designing.
Although the project is only theoretical at the moment, those concerned about the fate of the building have expressed optimism.
“It’s very exciting to hear,” Kruty said. “We’ve all been waiting for something like this for eight or ten years, hoping someone would come and take care of it.”
The building is a rare example of commercial and residential blending among Chicago’s sprawling properties of Prairie-style buildings. Griffin is known worldwide for his work in Australia and later India, not to mention his first location, Chicago, Kruty said. It made the neglected state of the Cornell Store & Flats painful, he and Samuelson said.
“If I were to make a list of the 50 most significant buildings in the city, this building would be on the list,” Samuelson said, “and it would have a low number as well.”