In a week a new school year will start and this blog will celebrate its fifth birthday. It is August 2010, and in the old days August was a time when people were vacationing and out of the office and out of touch with the media so it used to be a good time to tear down buildings or approve plans that might not otherwise have public support. I don’t see that this summer in Chicago, but there are landmarks in the news.
First, a moment to honor the passing of Phil Krone, political insider and dedicated preservationist, who led the first urban pioneers (according to the obituary Wednesday, he coined the term “urban pioneer”) to restore the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard, the sole west side historic district in the early days. This is one of the city’s smaller historic districts, but it is significant – a rare remnant of a thriving exclusive 19th century neighborhood. Krone didn’t stop there – I remember him telephoning me in 1989 with some idea about how to save some landmarks we were striving to preserve at Landmarks Illinois, and he telephoned me again last year with ideas about how to save the Gropius buildings at Michael Reese Hospital. In the late 90s it seemed he was at all the meetings of the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, listing buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. He was a true friend of preservation and will be missed.
The other day Blair Kamin had a really excellent article on additions to historic buildings, decrying the refrigerator-like banality of the remodeling of the Wrigley Building’s courtyard. He pointed out that the default architectural option – do it in a bland modernist way – did not serve the richly ornamented historic building. This brought cheers from Steve Semes, who I have mentioned in the past, an advocate for additions that follow more traditional design idioms, and the Wrigley is an excellent example of a situation where Steve is right and the choice was wrong. At the same time, Kamin showed the criticality of his thought by including a second article illustrating an example of a modernist addition – the new project for Fourth Presbyterian Church – that makes sense. This isn’t an either-or proposition or an ideological battle: sometimes the traditional style is the right choice (Wrigley Building, but they flubbed it) and sometimes a glass modernist addition makes sense (Fourth Presbyterian). I am so very glad that Blair gets it and can explain it to those who think you need to take sides.
Of course, the kicker to all this is that the Wrigley Building is NOT an official Chicago Landmark. It has no protection, and the dumb refrigerator facade they put inside the courtyard could legally be put on the other side of the building. It was proposed for Chicago Landmark status in 1987 and John Baird made a valiant effort to convince the Wrigley family to go along but failed. The building has not been owned by the Wrigleys since 2000. Blair added another article a day later detailing many other iconic Chicago buildings that do not have local landmark protection, despite their appearance as “landmarks” in popular perception.
Blair included the Esquire Theater, Old St. Patrick’s Church (which, like the Wrigley, got close to landmark status but then balked), Marina City (likewise – due to a split between the commercial and residential owners I believe), the Murphy Memorial, and Merchandise Mart.
I argued against landmarking the Esquire 20 years ago because it had already lost its integrity thanks to windows punched into the facade and the destruction of the interior.
Now of course the Merchandise Mart and Marina City are located, like the Wrigley, on the Chicago River, which means they are more easily viewed and more likely to become iconic because they are so visible. That also means they were well designed, because the architects knew those sites would be visible and they lavished extra attention on them. And many of the other “vista” landmarks ARE designated Chicago Landmarks – the Board of Trade, Tribune Tower, and the lesser known but urbanistically exquisite buildings at the south side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the London Guarantee Building (1923) and 333 North Michigan Avenue (1928).
As Blair explained, the reason some iconic buildings are landmarks and some are not is clout. Actually, even some of the landmarks, like Tribune and Board of Trade, are subject to very specific landmark agreements that were approved by the city because the owners had clout – plus enough civic sense to realize that their buildings were landmarks.
LABOR DAY UPDATE: Blair’s non-landmarks article appeared in the Tribune print edition today – a full page that is well worth a look.