JOLIET – The downtown Joliet skyline is changing.
The new Will County Courthouse, if built as currently planned, would be the tallest building downtown, a 10-story structure of gleaming glass greeting motorists as they exit Interstate 80.
The courthouse height would surpass the tallest building, which still is being completed – the six-story Joliet Junior College building on the other end of downtown.
Meanwhile, Joliet hopes to start construction this year on a new train station, although progress is being slowed by funding issues.
The buildings encourage city officials as symbols of new vitality downtown. They discourage some preservationists who hate to see old buildings go.
One way or the other, the look of downtown Joliet is changing.
“The face of downtown is going to be significantly different,” Mayor Bob O’Dekirk said. “The modern buildings show that Joliet is a town on the come. It’s not just an old town with old buildings. It’s a town that’s still thriving.”
One common characteristic of the new buildings is that they are all public structures paid for by tax dollars – not signs of new private investment in the downtown area.
But Bill Naedler of Elwood, who was downtown last week to pick up his wife from work, agreed that new construction is a sign of vitality and said it should help private enterprise.
“I think it adds to the downtown,” Naedler said. “It brings people to the downtown businesses. You just don’t have the downtown dying out.”
The city hopes to capitalize on the new development to attract private investment in older buildings.
Joliet Economic Development Director Steve Jones said a request for proposals to attract businesses to the 1890 Loughran Building, owned by the city, made sure to mention that “looking down the block here’s this nice, blue glass structure.”
That “nice, blue glass structure” is the JJC building, which is scheduled to open for classes in 2017.
Old vs. new
That building did face some opposition from preservationists, who wanted to preserve the 19th century White Store building that had been on the site.
Retired architect Harold Carlson, a preservationist who was part of the effort to save the White Store, said too much of Joliet’s history is being lost. He also has argued against tearing down the First Midwest Bank building for the new Will County Courthouse.
“There’s nothing wrong with the [new] buildings,” Carlson said. “It’s just that what’s missed is trying to save the history of what was there, what was part of the consciousness of Joliet.”
Carlson points to the demolition of the old Will County Courthouse, a 19th century limestone structure with a clock tower and other ornate features, that was torn down and replaced by the current concrete building many consider ugly.
In 1968, when the current courthouse was built, Carlson said, “everybody said that’s a beautiful building. I was a freshman in college when that courthouse was built. I thought it was a beautiful building. It was done in the architectural style of the day.”
James Dactelides, owner of J&M Jewelers downtown, helped build the courthouse and was befuddled by the massive concrete walls and number of steel rods going into the structure.
“I said to the guy I was working with, ‘Bill, this is a fortress, not a courthouse. What do they expect – an atomic bomb?’ ” Dactelides said.
The current courthouse is staying under the county plan. The new courthouse will be built just to the west of it. Dactelides believes it and other old buildings should stay.
“If you build a building that’s indestructible, why do you want to tear it down?” he asked.
Dactelides’ store is in a 114-year-old building on the corner of Chicago and Cass streets. He can look out the window of his store and see the new JJC building, which he thinks will clash with others in the downtown area.
Still, he said, “progress is good,” and if the new buildings bring people and customers, that will be good, too.
Amy Melton, a Joliet resident and downtown lawyer, is like a lot of people when it comes to choosing between new and old architecture.
“I like a mix,” Melton said. “I do like the historical value of a lot of the old buildings. I also like the idea of building something new. If you bring in something new, there are some positives that come from that. It can bring in some new business.”
Joliet officials hope the new buildings do spur the downtown economy. Besides that, Jones said, “these are pretty cool buildings.”