Navy to Decide Fate of SOM Building
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Aug. 27, 2008
UPDATE: On Sept. 23, the Navy announced its plans to demolish the Gunner's Mate building.
One of the earliest works by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Bruce Graham may be demolished if preservation groups can't convince the Navy to spare it.
This month the Navy is finalizing a "memorandum of agreement" about the fate of the 1954 glass-and-steel structure known as Building 521, which stands deep inside Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Ill., north of Chicago. Although the only parties to the agreement are the Navy, the state historic preservation office, and the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, officials are consulting with groups such as Landmarks Illinois, Docomomo, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Midwest Office.
Those groups fear that the Navy will ignore a request to mothball Building 521, which would cost between $1.2 million and $1.4 million.
"We all feel [this] is one of the most architecturally important buildings in the Navy's Midwest region," says Chris Morris, program officer at the Trust's Midwest Office. "We don't want to see the building demolished, but we've run out of options."
In 2006, architects from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill submitted a pro bono design showing how to adapt the building per the Navy's stated need: for a cafeteria and barracks. Four months later, the Navy decided to use the site for another purpose, which it has not yet named.
"We feel firmly that we've demonstrated that it would be to [the Navy's] long-term economic benefit to mothball this building," says Lisa DiChiera, advocacy director for Landmarks Illinois. "It's a big glass box; anything would fit there. Save yourselves the demolition costs. Be green by not putting this gigantic building in the landfill."
The Navy declined to comment for this article. "The Navy feels like a wide range of options have been brought up, and none have been shown to be feasible reuses," says Bill Couch, spokesman for the Midwest's Naval Facilities Engineering Command, said last year.
The plight of Building 521 illustrates a larger problem. The federal government has vowed to purge military bases of 50 million unused square feet in the next five years. The Department of Defense's edict has put pressure on many of the country's military bases—including the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor—to tear down rather than reuse historic structures such as Building 521, which is also known as the Gunner's Mate School.
"This building is really being lost for no real reason other than they don't want to be penalized by the Department of Defense," Morris says.
If the Navy declines to mothball the building, preservation groups say they want the base to commit to documenting Building 521, and to research its other architectural assets.
The memorandum of agreement will be released before Sept. 30, according to Navy spokesman Couch.
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