A rendering of the Laramie State Bank building, 5200 W. Chicago Ave. | City of Chicago

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted unanimously Feb. 9 to recommend that Austin’s historic Laramie State Bank building, 5200 W. Chicago Ave., receive a landmark designation, sending the application to the state level.

The Austin United development team, which is made up of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and Heartland Alliance, is currently working to redevelop the historic bank building into an office and retail building with a bank branch, and to build a new 78-unit, six-story apartment building with a public plaza on vacant land adjacent to the building. While much of the bank’s terra cotta exterior survived, it suffered from years of deferred maintenance which led to a roof collapse in 2018. Austin United plans to build the new building first and refurbish the historic bank building later.

Athena Williams, executive director of the housing center, said in an email to Austin Weekly News that her organization applied for the landmark designation get tax credits to help the project along.

“As you may know, we are in the process of restoring the building to maintain its historic character as part of the Invest South/West initiative,” she wrote. “One of the benefits of obtaining national landmark status is that we will be able to utilize the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program, as well as apply to the State Preservation Tax Incentive Program.”

While the bank building is already a city landmark, the national landmark designation would allow Austin United to apply for certain grants, quality for tax credits and access services that are currently not available. The Landmark Commission vote sends the application up to the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council. The council will decide whether to send it up to the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program, which will make the final decision.

Laramie State Bank was founded in 1924 by local banker Carl A. Mueller. It originally wrapped around an existing drug store. By 1927, the bank was doing well enough that Mueller commissioned a larger building, the bank building that stands there to this day.

The nomination was submitted by Washington D.C. based MacRostie Historic Advisors, which helps developers obtain historic tax credits. During a Jan. 27 meeting of the landmark commission’s program committee, Matt Wickland, the company’s research consultant, described the building as “perhaps the best example of the Art Deco neighborhood bank,” noting that it was built at the time when most banks leaned toward older styles. He also said that it was the only neighborhood bank designed by architects Meyer & Cook, and that Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, which designed the exterior terra cotta, was so proud of their work that they used it in advertisements.

“Laramie Bank remains the firm’s best and likely only accent Art Deco style commission that is clad in such a colorful terra cotta,” Wickland said. “The Laramie bank is also an excellent example of a neighborhood bank in art deco style.”

Baxter Swilley, Oak Park Regional Housing Center’s public relations and legislative director, read a letter of support from Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), whose ward includes the project site.

In her letter, Mitts reflected that, when the Federal Housing Authority was at the site, and for many years while Citizen Bank was open, few African-Americans could even dream of getting mortgages.

“Now that the low-income families, through a development adjacent to the bank building, will have an opportunity to live in a new, high-quality affordable housing, we must not neglect to honor the historical journey of this important landmark,” she wrote. “And when this building is renovated as a new financial institution that will invest in and support African-American residents, I hope that we will preserve the beautiful architecture of the Laramie State building and celebrate the hopes and aspirations of the people who visit it by acknowledging this structure as a local treasure and designating it as a national landmark.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...