A court hearing in Cook County Circuit Court last week put the long vacant and deteriorating Laramie State Bank building under the spotlight – and its future still uncertain.
A city inspection done in late July following a 311 complaint determined the property was “insecure,” with deterioration found both inside and outside the nearly century-old building. The two-floor building, located at 5200 W. Chicago Ave., was designated a Chicago landmark in 1995 due to its iconic Art Deco style.
“What we are trying to avoid is demolition,” the city employee Glenn Angel told Judge Lisa A. Marino.
In attendance at last Wednesday’s hearing were the building’s owners, city officials, concerned residents and preservation advocacy groups – all there to hear about potential redevelopment of the site.
The Laramie State Bank has been boarded up due to multiple violations of the city’s building code, including safety issues with its water system, elevators, doors and windows, as well as its outside walls (its historical terra cotta structure was found to be “loosened, cracked or broken”), according to the Chicago Department of Buildings.
The property is owned by longtime Austin residents John Young Sr. and Earline Ruffin, who obtained the building through an auction in 1994. It’s been entrusted to Chicago Title Land Trust Company since 2002.
The court issued a preliminary order in July 2012 that the building shall not be leased, rented or occupied, Ruffin said in an interview after last week’s hearing. The property was turned over to an Urban Partnership Bank receiver, who has failed to maintain it over the years, she said.
During the hearing, Ruffin told the judge they have talked with both the city and their attorney but haven’t decided yet whether, and to whom, they should sell the building.
“We knew the condition when we had the conversation,” Ruffin said, who arrived early at the hearing Wednesday afternoon with her husband Young and their youngest son, Dion.
“The damage is overwhelming,” she said, adding her son has had to step in to help them decide what to do.
“We are in limbo about selling or keeping [the property],” Ruffin told the judge. “We don’t know how to put this together.”
Judge Marino told Young and Ruffin they could make a decision about the landmark property after further talks.
“We know you have rights and liability,” the judge said. “But this is becoming more about liability.”
They are willing to work with people who are interested in finding a solution, Ruffin told the judge and about a dozen others who gathered in the Downtown courtroom.
“It’s going to be a long discussion,” she said.
Specialists and activists from several preservation advocacy groups, including Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and Chicago Art Deco Society, were also at Wednesday’s hearing.
“They are actively looking for somebody who’s willing to acquire the property from the owners for redevelopment,” the city’s attorney told the judge.
The property also includes a parking lot, the attorney said, adding it would be easier if the developers could take both that and the bank building.
Ward Miller, executive director of Preservation Chicago, said his group is seeking the necessary resources for the building’s repairs and renovation.
“We are aware that the building is a designated Chicago landmark,” he told the judge, adding it’s important to prevent its destruction.
Concerned Austin residents also turned out for the hearing in hopes of better understanding the situation and to see what they can do.
“The Laramie bank is the oldest Art Deco building in Austin,” said longtime resident Dwayne Truss, who came to the hearing to show support for the building that he wants to be used for the community.
Longtime Austin resident James Bowers agreed.
“It’s actually the finest terra cotta architecture in the world,” said Bowers, a partner with the West Side travel agency Gone Again Travel & Tours.
Bowers said in an interview before the hearing that he wants the vacant building to be used as a museum where children can do art and music.
Vanessa Stokes, a project coordinator with Austin Coming Together, was also at the hearing to see how her organization can help.
Judge Marino ordered that the building continue to be kept vacant and secure until the next hearing, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Nov. 29 in courtroom 1107 of the Richard J. Daley Center.