Military Bases Are Rushing to Reduce their Buildings by 2013, and a Mid-Century Modern is on the List
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Jan. 25, 2008
At 90,000 square feet, a solid, shimmering glass-and-steel cube on the Illinois landscape would seem hard to miss. But few have seen the Gunner's Mate School, designed by the famed firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, since it was built in 1954 on a military base.
Now, because of the federal government's pledge to purge military bases of 50 million unused square feet in the next five years, the mid-century-modern building may be demolished this year. 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 their historic buildings like the Gunner's Mate School, also known as Building 521, located on Naval Station Great Lakes in Lake County, Ill.
Despite the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's pro bono study of reuses for Building 521, the Navy is proceeding with plans to demolish the building. A public meeting is scheduled for next week.
"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. "None of those ideas are feasible for that building, mostly because of the building's size and because the building is deep inside the base. It's not accessible to the public."
Because the building, located outside of the base's historic district, is eligible for the National Register, the Navy was required to start the Section 106 process before rolling out the bulldozers.
Two years ago, when Landmarks Illinois, a partner in the Section 106 process, contacted Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), even the firm had forgotten about the project. "We had to check to see if we did it," says Jason Stanley, associate director at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Chicago office. With a little research, Stanley found that "521" was the office's first "curtain wall" structure. "When you walk into that building, you know it's an SOM building."
The architecture firm's July 2006 study says it would cost $34 million to retrofit the building as a double-walled cafeteria and club facility: "in the same price range" as the Navy's estimate for a new building, Stanley says.
Last December, however, the Navy changed its mind, announcing that it didn't want a cafeteria there and has not yet decided how to use the Gunner's Mate site. "It's been hard to pin down specifically what we want to do with that site, beyond saying we want to make this campus more pedestrian-friendly," Couch says.
"We went through this exercise to prove that it could work for [a cafeteria], and [Naval officals] came back and said, 'We're not going to use it for that anymore,'" Stanley says. "It was clear that they wanted to get rid of the building."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois are asking the Navy to finalize its long-range plans for the Building 521 plot.
"Talk about a waste of taxpayer dollars," says Lisa DiChiera, director of advocacy at Landmarks Illinois. "It would be cheaper for you to mothball it for a year and finally figure out what you want on that site than to tear it town and find out later it could have been used for that same purpose. It's backward."
The Navy says its students come first. "The folks in the Navy who are working on this are architects and engineers. They appreciate the uniqueness of the building," Couch says. "These naval architects and engineers, when they look at the building, they also have as a requirement the mission of the base, which is to train sailors as efficiently as we can."
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architects William Priestly and Bruce Graham, who considered Building 521 his first project, created a structure that, despite its rigid appearance, could accommodate many uses. With its massive volume, the building exemplifies Mies van der Rohe's concept of universal space, which promotes Cathedral-like interiors that are unobstructed and therefore flexible. "You could almost do anything in it. That's what it was designed for; it was designed to adapt," Stanley says.
In an effort to cut energy costs, the Department of Defense is "establishing new targets to eliminate over 50 million square feet of facilities and additional excess infrastructure by the year 2013," said Philip Grone, under secretary of defense, in his May 27, 2007, testimony to a Senate committee. The department owns 535,000 buildings, more than any other federal agency, and says that 22 percent of its energy consumption comes from those buildings.
In 1998, the Department of Defense undertook a six-year program to eliminate 80 million square feet of "obsolete and excess facilities." It met that goal and more, removing a total of 86 million square feet, according to Grone's statement, and in 2004 decided to do more.
"DoD continues to encourage the Military Departments to pursue aggressively disposal and demolition to reduce unnecessary facilities sustainment and support costs, improve the overall safety and quality of installations, and ensure that only required infrastructure is retained in the inventory," Grone said.
The base's other Skidmore, Owings & Merrill building, the so-called Hostess House, was also on the chopping block until last year. Two years ago, the base initiated the Section 106 process for both Building 521 and the 1942 Hostess House, designed by Gordon Bunshaft and his only extant pre-war work. When the Great Lakes Naval Museum offered to raise money to restore the concrete structure, the Navy agreed. In November, that house, one of the Partners in Preservation Chicagoland sites, won a $55,000 grant from American Express, and it's now on the way to being renovated as a museum. (Often called the "American Idol of preservation," Partners in Preservation, a joint venture between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express, invited people to vote online for their favorite historic places.)
The difference, Couch says, was location. The Hostess House was built just outside the base's security zone, while Building 521 is not accessible to the public. Since the Navy wants to build a pedestrian-friendly campus, Couch points out, trucks can't make easy deliveries, and using the building for storage is counter-intuitive.
Although the Gunner's Mate School, built to sustain heavy guns, has sturdy floors and walls, the building is aging. "It is in need of repair; there's no question about it. There's broken glass; the roof leaks," Stanley says.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is also a consulting party in the Section 106 process, has been working with the federal Advisory Council for Historc Preservation and gathering examples what other military bases have done to repurpose their unused assets.
"The public meeting is the last gasp at trying to keep the Navy interested in finding a reuse for this building," says Chris Morris, program officer at the Midwest Office. "One of the big disappointments is they're planning to take down this building, and they don't even know what they're going to use this site for."
Earlier this month, Landmarks Illinois nominated the Gunners Mate School to the 2008 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation will announce in May.
A Revolutionary Solution
In the end, it seems, location is everything. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's renovation plans included a state-of-the-art double wall, or building within a building, that created a buzz in the architectural community.
"We came up with a creative solution that could have been quite exciting if this was on a university campus where you could really play it up," Stanley says. "Everyone who's seen the building has said it's worth saving."
The Navy is accepting written comments until Feb. 13. Contact Maria Sus, Cultural Resources Program Manager, at (847) 688-2600 x 1364 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.