This item has been corrected. Madigan.
There it goes, Freedom Center, about the last visible symbol of a great newspaper that still had great ambitions in 1981 when the giant printing plant opened. There was a contest to name the place, just for Tribune editorial department employees. I didn’t even try because I was never part of anyone’s “family” but my own and even though I appreciated having one of the best reporting jobs in the United States, I wasn’t going corporate for anyone. Lots of my friends did, and they did great work, not only for Tribune Company, but for those of us who worked for them. My memory about who won the contest is foggy, but someone on the fourth floor got a little block of solid gold for coming up with the name.
Freedom Center was remarkable. The biggest building most of us had ever been in, it had gigantic rooms full of newsprint on huge rolls. The humidity and temps in those storage areas were carefully controlled. A big roll of newsprint could become useless if it got too much moisture in it. The building was so vast it had its own climate. There are stories about it snowing indoors in the summer. I don’t know if they were true but they were just too good to check out. Big Goss Metroliner presses, state of the art, would print The Tribune, U.S.A. Today and the New York Times without missing a beat. Everything was so highly automated the paper rolls would move on little railroad cars to the presses. The only big thing you noticed when the presses left the basement of Tribune Tower and were replaced at Freedom Center was that the building no longer rattled when they started to run. That, I have to tell you, was some feeling. Especially if you were working on a big story. They could slow the presses down and replate as you were writing. You could feel them rumbling on your butt right through five stories of building and a padded seat. Wonderful.
Now it’s time to get maudlin and lament the passing of such a great institution. People would say that Craig’s List and technology led to the end of the paper we all knew for so many years. I would argue that is not the case. Money did it. The Tribune Tower, perhaps America’s most important journalism symbol, was repurposed as a big condominium building by the people who bought the Tribune Company after Sam Zell and his pirates wrecked the place. The fact that Freedom Center is going to be the heart of a gambling complex (Tribune will still hold some kind of strange option on that actual printing plant, but we can’t tell what that is) presents such a surreal image I can’t even conjure it.
Of course they sold it. Their concern for the history of the place is reflected in the fact that where I used to sit as national editor, then Perspective Editor then senior correspondent is now the lap pool for the condo livers who paid top dollar to move into the “repurposed” Tribune Tower.
I used to love to get on the Evanston Express early in the morning and take that long ride on the red line after Howard to get to the paper to work. That train would rock and roll and you could look out the windows and think things were never going to change, that all those two flats were firmly planted and filled up with little Catholic kids going off to the local parish school.
For the most part, that is all gone now.
There are still a lot of us around, the old reporters who retired after having great, long runs at The Chicago Tribune. Hell, Ron Grossman, a great story teller in his late 80s who has a deep passion for Chicago, its history, its stories, its still there, whacking away at stuff that ends up on the web or maybe in the paper sometimes. It takes more than a building to make a newspaper. Grossman remains greater than any of the physical ghosts of The Tribune that seem to float around him in a dream world.