Facades

On The Face of It: The Facadism Problem

The struggle for historic preservation is complicated when it comes to facades; what everyone sees; the public face of buildings, where the public interest lies. In historic districts, the goal is to preserve the context of a place, defined by facades. Preservation commissions rarely regulate interior spaces in districts. This leads many to assume that preservation is only about the visual exterior façade of a building, which is wrong.

I first attacked “facadism” almost 20 years ago when developers proposed relocating the façade of the 1872 McCarthy Building on Chicago’s Block 37, since only the façade had been designated a landmark. At the time, several Chicago Landmarks were “façade designations” and this encouraged developers to propose picking them up and moving them about like furniture. It is eaiser to save a thing than a place. But it reached a point of absurdity when the city proposed designating the façade of the Ludington Building, an 1891 work of William LeBaron Jenney. Jenney is famous for pioneering the steel frame skyscraper – shouldn’t the designation include the structure? The façade trend hit its peak with the Chicago Tribune Tower façade designation in 1989, and then came back with a vengeance with the 1996 deal to skin and rebuild the Art Deco McGraw Hill Building on Michigan Avenue, the most outrageous (and scarily successful) example of a period that also saw the demolition of all but 5 feet of the Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio of 1917 for the new Park Hyatt tower.

The problem with facades is that they aren’t always a problem. The Old Heidelberg restaurant (now Noble Fool theater), was very much a façade confection in its original iteration, so saving it to a depth of 15 feet preserved its significance. The current debate in Oak Park centers on a district of Tudor facades on Westgate, many of which were added to earlier buildings in the 1920s and 30s to create a sense of place. The demolition-mongers are crowing about the fact that they are just facades. Yes, they are – and they successfully created a sense of place, something developers in Oak Park have been unable to do since.

But if you say facades are okay it pushes the real estate developers, planners and institutional managers – who operate from an MBA/Art of War perspective – to suggest that it can be replicated. This came up with the Westgate facades in Oak Park. Someone suggested you just replicate the style. The knowledgeable eye looks at a 2-story casement window in one of those facades and knows that no steel mill on earth in 2005 can make or fake that window that was rolled 8 times to achieve a narrow profile you cannot have today for love or money. It is only a façade but we are too poor to make that façade today.

The annoying and beautiful thing about preservation is that every case must be decided on its own merits. This makes developers and attorneys insane because they operate from replicable models of consistency and precedent, neither of which is really valid when you are talking about properties with different significance contained in different design elements. The recent restoration of three unlandmarked facades on Wabash and Randolph in front of the Heritage highrise presents a fairly felicitous context for the narrow, elevated-impeded street. The problem arises when the developers take this and run with it into a landmark district, as they have with Jeweler’s Row, where they are building a similar treatment for two landmark buildings with an even taller highrise rising to an astonishing 800 feet. This means that every planner and developer in town will claim precedent for all manner of awful additions.

Preservation is a process. Like history, preservation is about the singularity of each case, its temporal and physical context. It is like New Orleans, this irreplaceable unparalleled indescribable thing. One case is never a perfect parallel for another.

The next façade issue coming up will be the Jenney buildings at LaSalle and Monroe – including a fantastic Victorian lobby at 39 S. LaSalle that gives the lie to any idea that preservation is about facades. In fact, even where we try to preserve facades – in the North Loop Theater district, on Westgate in Oak Park, throughout many historic districts – we are in fact preserving giant outdoor rooms, haptic environments that envelop the visitor just like an interior.

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