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Dig in Chicago and you never know what you’ll hit

Updated: July 14, 2012 6:39AM

Start digging in Chicago and you never know what you’ll hit. Arrowheads. A grave that was never moved. A forgotten freight tunnel.

In the case of a plaza renovation going on at the southwest corner of Rush and Huron, it was remnants of a lost world.

The property belongs to the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, which is funding a $12 million project to beautify the plaza, expand space for community events and improve accessibility to its own offices and the adjacent St. James Cathedral at Wabash and Huron.

The plaza has long been a popular Near North oasis, a contemplative place for a busy neighborhood just west of Michigan Avenue. Before the housing collapse, the diocese favored a 67-story tower for the corner. Instead, it’s building deeper roots into the community.

Crews from Pepper Construction Co. were excavating the site in late 2011, said Courtney Reid, director of operations, when they dug up the past. She said Pepper found bricks that it theorized, based on the materials used, were rubble from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Diocesan officials always knew the property had some connection to the fire and that dumping occurred in the vicinity afterward. The church on the site in 1871 was destroyed, but its bell tower survived, complete with burn marks, and was used later for the cathedral.

Reid said the buried bricks couldn’t be saved. Along with other debris that was deemed contaminated under federal standards, they were sent to a landfill for hazardous waste, said Brett Ketelsen, project manager for Pepper. He said the pre-fire origins were suspected but could never be verified. Nevertheless, Reid drew a lesson from the discovery. “It’s a reminder that nothing is permanent,” she said.

In finding that connection to history, Reid also hopes the improved plaza will help the diocese’s outreach efforts. “It allows us as a church to have an important presence in our city,” she said.

She said the work should by finished in early 2013.

HERE COMES THE JUDGE: One of the great things about being a journalist is the opportunity it affords to converse with and tap the minds of smart and accomplished people. I had those pleasures in getting to know members of the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois, which asked me to serve as a judge for its awards this year.

Up for consideration was an incredible range of projects, from Chicago and around the world, that showed an abundance of forward thinking and attention to elegant design.

This old newshound served with judges who are eminent in such fields as architecture, engineering, academia and public service. We gave the top awards to these projects:

The Escala condo tower in Seattle by Cary Kopczynski & Co.; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP’s 70-story Zifeng Tower in China; the addition to 300 E. Randolph managed by Magnusson Klemencic Associates; Skidmore’s North Carolina Museum of Art; Klein and Hoffman Inc.’s renovations to Mundelein Center at Loyola University Chicago; Dome Structural Engineers’ Madina Community Center in Lombard, and Halvorson & Partners for the Kendeda Canopy Walkway at Atlanta Botanical Gardens.

The awards were given out at a dinner Saturday night. These diverse projects all possessed three attributes in varying degrees: beauty, innovation and, believe it or not, respect for budget constraints.

Thanks to the association for an experience that was edifying and fun. Information about the group is at

SOLE SEARCHING: Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. is volunteering time to help the nonprofit group Share Your Soles find donated warehouse space in the Chicago area. The group has been in 15,000 square feet at 5623 W. 115th St. in Alsip, but the space has been rented.

Share Your Soles provides gently worn shoes to needy children in Africa, Haiti and other troubled locales. People with ideas or leads should email them to Jones Lang’s Kelly Gray:

DOING THE DEALS: Cushman & Wakefield Inc. represented tenant and landlord in Precision Pouches LLC’s lease of 40,000 square feet at 4328 N. United Pkwy., Schiller Park. … Marquette Cos. said it has completed a renovation of the Apartments at Woodfield Crossing, a 662-unit development at 4700 Arbor Drive, Rolling Meadows.

David Roeder reports on real estate at 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on Newsradio 780 and 105.9 FM WBBM. The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

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