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With its imposing black high-rises framing Alexander Calderís bright red ďFlamingoĒ sculpture (left), the Chicago Federal Center is one of the nationís pre-eminent ensembles of mid-20th Century modernism. Yet for all its steely grandeur, the complex has woven itself into the life of its rambunctious city.

Loop office workers flock to the centerís farmers markets, just as reporters gather like hawks whenever a major trial is underway in the centerís Dirksen courthouse building. For years, last-minute tax filers have streamed to the centerís low-slung post office, which was designed, like the rest of the complex, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The center, which lines Dearborn Street in the South Loop, was completed in 1975, though it has since expanded.

Now, with little fanfare, the federal government is pouring more than a quarter of a billion dollars into four projects that seek to replace failing mechanical systems, make the center more energy-efficient, reduce maintenance costs, renovate the center's elegant but aging plaza and further expand the complex into a former department store along neighboring State Street. Three of the four projects are backed by the federal stimulus program, accounting for $155 million of the overall $276 million cost. The Dirksen building rehab was funded separately from the controversial program.

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