A little while back, I covered the demolition of the old Chevrolet dealership on Busse, which I called an unexceptional example of mid-century architecture. Today, I'm disappointed to report on the demolition of an excellent example. These are what preservationists call "recent past" resources, and they're the buildings most vulnerable to the wrecking ball - too new to be old, too old to be new.
Littelfuse's old facility on Northwest Highway was perhaps the best example of Mid-Century Modern industrial architecture in Des Plaines, and it is now being torn down at less than 50 years old, having been vacant less than a year. By all outward appearances, this was a very well-maintained building.
And certainly, it was a quality building. It was named one of the Top Ten Plants of 1964 by Factory Magazine, out of more than 6,000 entries. Factory praised it for its detailed layout, devised even before an architect or site had been selected; Littelfuse had employed a planner to first devise the plant size based on departmental needs, then plotted out the layout for workers and machines, arriving at a 25'x40' bay - creating 1000 square foot column-free spaces with wide aisles and mezzanines to store infrequently used equipment. It was only after two more rounds of refinement that Littelfuse brought in architect Carl Teutsch of Teutsch-Lucas Associates.
The building was designed for modular expansion, which was ultimately carried out. The design allowed for an efficient layout even when expanded. Areas with different heating and cooling needs were isolated. The basement contained a conveyor belt to whisk away scrap materials. The floor contained piers so that steel work for mezzanine levels could be cheaply installed. On the outside, care was even taken to build sculptured brick walls around machinery to give good aesthetics; the plant was set well back from the highway with a wide strip of grass and trees, and the front of the building was carefully developed to be beautiful. Even the later additions were developed for architectural interest and looked like they were always meant to be there.
This was an utterly Modern facility. Its glazed blue brick and solar windows conveyed its cutting-edge, forward-looking, cheerful character. Littelfuse was so cutting edge that it flew a flag for the Gemini Space Program - after all, its fuses were in the Gemini-Titan boosters telemetry system. Even the cafeteria was designed to be bright, cheery, and expandable. Care was put into every facet of this building.
And there were ties to the community. Littelfuse had been in Des Plaines for 12 years at its old facility down the road at 1865 Miner Street (later home to GTE; now the site of Science and Arts Academy). The new plant at 800 E Northwest Highway was built on part of the old Benjamin Electric plant, which had employed hundreds in Des Plaines for 60 years, many of whom lived in the Cumberland area built right next to the plant. Benjamin closed just months after Littelfuse opened.
Fifty years after coming to Des Plaines, the facility ran into a change the building wasn't designed for: outsourcing. By 2007 profits were declining and the decision was made to move manufacturing to China. The City of Des Plaines eagerly eyed part of the site for use as a new police station, but ultimately Littelfuse stayed longer than the city wanted to wait, and by the time Littelfuse left, the city could no longer afford a police station. Littelfuse ultimately moved its offices a little outside Des Plaines, to O'Hare Plaza at Higgins & Dee Roads.
A police station at the site was projected to cost $8.5 million for the land and $30 million for a new building. Eventually focus shifted to downtown TIF 1, and specifically the Masonic Temple building and Choo-Choo restaurant site, where officials believed TIF funds could be used to build. This too proved excessively expensive at the time. Was serious consideration ever given to adapting the big, attractive, well-built office building already at the Littelfuse site? Surely this would be less expensive.
Well, that's no longer an option. The landfills get fuller. Des Plaines gains another big vacant lot, and loses the opportunity to bring in new industry or reuse the buildings in other productive ways. Another unique, attractive building disappears from our environment. When we get new industry these days, it looks like a big concrete box, like the one Sysco built not long ago on Wolf Road.
So why would this building be demolished so soon after being closed? Maybe the answer lies in this: "(Littelfuse's) third quarter 2010 results include a $3.0 million pre-tax write-down for real estate in Des Plaines, Illinois and Dundalk, Ireland."