By KYLER SUMTER
Longtime Hyde Park resident Charles G. Staples has won a Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Joe Antunovich Award for Leadership for his years of dedication to preserving Chicago landmarks.
Staples was also recently honored as the longest serving volunteer at the Chicago Cultural Center, according to a May 10 article in the Hyde Park Herald.
“This was a happy circumstance, it’s a prestigious award and they’ve been giving these awards annually for quite some years,” Staples said.
The awards are funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and administered by Landmarks Illinois.
According to Landmarks Illinois Communications Manager Kaitlyn McAvoy, each year nine awards are given out to “people, organizations, projects and/or programs that serve as an excellent example of Illinois historic preservation.”
Recipients of the awards are those that have had large contributions in saving historic places in Illinois. Each winner will be honored at an awards ceremony and receive a $1,000 prize check.
Two historic Chicago preservation projects – All Saints Episcopal Church, 4550 N. Hermitage St. and Rosenwald Courts, 4600 S. Michigan Ave. – will also be honored with awards at Landmark Illinois’ 2017 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards Ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 16.
Richard Miller, founder, first chief executive officer, and chairman emeritus of Landmarks Illinois nominated Staples for the award to give him the recognition he felt he deserved for his continued effort on preservation projects like the Chicago Public Library, which was almost shut down in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The library was built in 1897 and had a Beaux-Arts architectural style that was considered appropriate and effective for grand buildings at the turn of the 20th century.
“Chuck Staples had been running in effect a one man campaign to bring attention to the Beaux-Arts-style Chicago Public Library,” Miller said. “That effort that went on for eight years was absolutely extraordinary and it was something that a common man who had an uncommon understanding of historical architecture set out to do on his own and he gradually got more and more support.”
Staples, who majored in art education but subsequently got a masters degree in social work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and was a professional social worker for the Chicago Schools for 27 years in the inner city South Side at the time, had been writing letters, organizing volunteers and campaigning for the library to remain open for six years before Landmarks Illinois, then known as the Landmark Preservation Council, joined him in his fight in 1971.
In 1972, the city decided to preserve the building and rehab it for other uses; it is now the Chicago Cultural Center. While Staples was recognized briefly at the time, the narrative emerged that the building was only saved because former Mayor Richard Daley’s wife Eleanor liked the building.
According to Staples, the narrative spread after Daley had an encounter with a Chicago Tribune reporter and mentioned she would hate to see the building torn down. Staples says the city was also very close to naming the building “The Eleanor Daley Cultural Center”.
“The city of Chicago told the world for over 40 years that Eleanor Daley was the blessed woman who saved the building,” Staples said. “[Our] campaign was in its sixth or seventh year, and they put it to her, all these years she never said a thing, she never issued a public statement”.
This fueled Miller to fight for Staples’ legacy and the legacy of all those who worked to preserve the library. Miller also sent a letter of protest to the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s print publication after they printed the Daley narrative in their pages.
“That completely discounted and ignored the enormous effort that many people went into following Charles’ lead in an effort to persuade the city that this building should be saved,” Miller said. “There were many people in the 60s and 70s who worked selflessly, without reward and often at great personal sacrifice to reverse the attitude that said that a dirty old building, no matter what its architectural merit might be, ought to be torn down and replaced with a new steel and glass box.”
While the credit for the preservation was being given to Daley, Miller said that Staples was never looking for credit, but to save a treasure.
“I see Charles as representative of all those individuals who made a huge invisible contribution in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s to bringing about something that we now take for granted in Chicago because these buildings are considered civic treasures,” Miller said. “He has never sought particular credit or reward but it was very hard on him for 40 years to have the effort that he had sacrificed eight years of his life to treated as if there was nothing to it and nobody had done anything.”
Staples credits new Commissioner for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events Mark Kelly for deciding to put the old story aside after all those years.
When award nomination time rolled around, members of the Landmarks committee immediately shouted out Staples’ name and Landmarks President Bonnie McDonald, suggested that Staples would be an appropriate nominee if somebody was willing to nominate him and Miller leapt at the chance to do so.
Miller prepared a nomination, a supporting statement, a biography and provided/organized three letters of recommendation from influential people in the preservation realm, including two architectural historians and a long-time Landmarks Illinois board member.
“Basically he’s the guy without whom, that building would not exist today,” Miller said.
Winners will be recognized at a Landmarks Illinois award ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 5 p.m. at Venue 610, 610 S. Michigan Ave.
For more information visit http://www.landmarks.org/events/richard-h-driehaus-foundation-preservation-awards/.