Archive for October, 2005

Go Sox

October 26, 2005

Well, the Chicago White Sox are on the brink of Chicago’s first World Series victory since 1917, which is certainly historic. They are also doing it with typical gritty grubby work and everyday players rather than superstars, and they are managing to make it compelling drama as well. It seems like every game is being one by a home run off the bat of someone who never hit a home run before. It’s like a kid’s backyard fantasy come true.

What does historic preservation have to do with this? Well, the Sox play at a new stadium built in 1988-90. I was involved in the effort to save the old Comiskey Park in the late 1980s. It was the oldest park in baseball at that time, dating to 1910, two years older than Fenway and four years older than Wrigley. We failed of course, because the owners were holding the city and state hostage as they always do, looking for a handout which they got in the form of a publically financed stadium.

We all learned our lesson then. The public has not spent hundreds of millions on a stadium for a private sports team since. Except for the United Center. And Soldier Field.

Interestingly, the Sox last World Series victory was in an even newer stadium – Comiskey was only 7 in 1917, whereas the Cell (I always preferred the Joan after US Cellular’s top pitchperson) is already 15 and has even undergone a major rehab to relieve the nasal congestion of the upper deck nosebleed seats. I went to a game there this summer with the kids and it was good, even if it faces the wrong direction (why do you think they were called southpaws?) and has that shopping-mall-in-an-airport feel that most modern stadiums have.

I miss the old Stadium and old Comiskey and even old Soldier Field. They didn’t have gourmet nachos and dessert carts. They smelled like urine, and there was a gritty reality that is lacking in the upper middle class stadiums of today. The White Sox represent the old blue collar tradition of Chicago, even if their average fan is a 45-year old white guy who makes 80 grand. I like their scrappy play – it is enough to make you forget the sanitized stadiums of today.

Heresy and Apostasy

October 25, 2005

I am getting beaten up about a position I took along with Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois regarding a collection of buildings in Oak Park. We joined a Steering Committee process and while we did not advocate demolishing any buildings, we signed onto a consensus plan that recommended demolishing two buildings in order to save five buildings. See http://www.oakpark.us and look under the downtown development plan.

So we are now accused of preservation heresy and apostasy.

Is historic preservation a religion? Can you excommunicate preservationists?

In the last blog I talked about the American tendency toward puritanical monasticism – a phrase that conflates Protestant and Catholic traditions. To be fair, let’s throw the Orthodox in there and talk about holy hermits of preservation. These are the ultra-radicals, the Provo-preservationists who are not afraid of personal ad hominem attacks on developers, architects and… even fellow preservationists.

I had one such holy hermit harangue me weekly by telephone for about two years, his basic mantra being that there was no preservation in Chicago and the preservation groups were totally in bed with developers and compromised and hypocritical and avaricious. Another emerged early this year out in River Forest. In both cases, they were incensed not by demolition but by the preservation of a landmark that did not satisfy their idea of how it should be done.

It’s like Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the radical underground populist liberation group reveals that they hate the Romans more than anyone – except the other radical underground populist liberation group.

There are preservation groups like LPCI, the National Trust and Preservation Chicago, which all consider themselves part of a “movement.” Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago talked to one of my classes last week and referenced the civil rights movement. Movement politics can be very ideological and ideology is at the very least quasi-religious. The most ideological movements – the NRA leaps to mind – will brook no compromise at all. An assault on assault weapons is an assault on little old ladies with hunting rifles. Some preservationists are the same: any demolition is bad demolition. When an established 35-year old organization like LPCI takes a compromise position, it becomes like the old established conservative imam, rejected and reviled by the mullahs on the street. The National Trust, an even creakier 56-year old, gets it as well. And now me (exactly in between in age) I’m the apostate.

I’m still getting used to this. Twenty years ago I was the punk with the halo crying foul everytime anybody proposed demolishing a historic building. I was never quite the holy hermit but the veins in my neck popped as I would research something and look and look at it until it got more and more beautiful and became an obsession and this building that never cost a second glance on the street morphs into a bejeweled temple worth chaining yourself to as the wrecking ball swings.

I carried signs and even dressed funny for landmarks, but I never chained myself to a building to stop a wrecking ball. Besides, the idea of facing certain death for a cause seemed a lot more romantic a few years ago.

So who is right? If you believe the ideology, it is always the fundamentalists. But being right is being ostracized from society. You can’t be excommunicated by a holy hermit. I prefer to stay in society and in history. It is messy and compromising and everyday and and contradictory and flavorful. Authentic, in a word.

Europe, America and monasticism

October 20, 2005

I like Europe. What’s not to like? Rich, gorgeous, relaxed. Yeah, gas is $6 a gallon but the next fabulous art museum, medieval castle, Baroque monastery, Roman ruin or mountainside lake is only 6 miles away. You can drive to the next country for cheap eggs or dental work and still be home before dusk. You don’t even need to drive since trains go everywhere and even small towns have bus and tram systems and bike rental. And they preserve their old buildings more often than we do.

Demolishing a historic building in Europe is harder to do than in the U.S. That wasn’t always the case – they had the same frenzy for urban renewal in the immediate post-World War II era that we did. Berlin demolished more buildings during the 1950s than were lost in the war (yes, it’s true: see the footnote.) But quickly they realized – with the help of GIs turned tourists like Arthur Frommer – that Americans liked to see the old stuff and would pay for the privilege. A combination of laws, practices and pure economics means that it is not easy to tear down an old building in Europe. Not true in America, where a powerful institution or developer can often clear a landmark standing in the way of their project.

Part of the reason for this is that America worships the free market and has steadily eroded the purview of the public sector over the last quarter-century, but that distinction is only one of degree – Europe is now moving away from collective capitalism as well, so the distinctions between preservation practice are explained less by government regulation and more by cultural predisposition. Europeans have no myth of the prairie; Europeans saw physical destruction in the context of war; Europeans feel connected to place while Americans are perpetually peripatetic.

Yet, while Europeans are more likely to preserve an old building, they are more likely to treat it with the latest in architectural fads. Yes, they will meticulously restore Notre Dame or the Fontana de Trevi but they have no problem dropping a solar dome into the Reichstag or draping slugomorphic computer-generated glassine trusses over stately old Renaissance facades. I was briefly shocked in Austria’s Wachau this summer as I walked past Baroque buildings with new holes in the walls, all filled with spanky plastic windows and squirt foam around the frame.

Eleanor Esser Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, made this point a couple of years ago following a residency in Rome. She observed that Europeans were less likely to demolish but more likely to agree to radical interventions into landmarks. Why is that?

I would blame Puritanism, the 17th century cult that founded New England and was distinguished by a dogged stern asceticism that makes a Benedictine monastery seem like Club Med. It is hard to save a landmark here, but once we do, we approach it with the reverence of an idolator, cherishing every inch of original fabric, holding as holy its floorplan, finishes and faults. I exaggerate, of course, but the contrast to Europe is strong. Notre Dame de Paris is 900 years old but its façade is barely ten, and the bits that are not are about 130 years old. The French are more cavalier about replacing original material with exacting copies in the same material. In the U.S. we first took our preservation cues from the Victorian English, so we privileged historic fabric over historic design. And we carry more than our share of asceticism or monasticism into our preservation.

Maybe that is another reason I like Europe. You don’t have an uphill battle convincing people that buildings should be saved, and you don’t have to take a vow of chastity and obedience in order to lead that battle. Preservation is a normal part of life, not something apart, neither elevated nor subterranean.

Footnote: Urban, Florian, “Recovering Essence Through Demolition: The ‘Organic’ City in Postwar West Berlin,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Volume 63, Number 3, September 2004

Landmarks Can Kill You

October 17, 2005

There was a Commission on Chicago Landmarks hearing last week on the designation of the East Village district, and I heard one of the best ones yet. In over two decades of landmarks hearings at the Commission and before the City Council I have heard some amazing arguments against landmark designation. People claim they need 2,000 square foot additions to their rowhouse in order to raise children without hardship and if the Commission denies it they are all but abusing the children (sometimes as yet unconceived) and hindering their education. I heard a woman argue against designation of her old house because it was too close to the street and the buses, a fact which she then implicated in the deaths of both of her parents. Don’t designate this house – it is a killer.

The aldermen always get the best lines. I will never forget the 1987 City Council hearing on the possible designation of the Chicago Building when one alderman asked “Haven’t we already designated a building with Chicago windows?” My internal reply was “Isn’t there already one pyramid at Giza?” They voted designation down that day, but it made it a few years later and now the Chicago Building is an SAIC dorm!

More recently, we had the tempest in Riverside where the Public Guardian of an Alzheimer’s patient who owned a Frank Lloyd Wright house tried to do a schlock repair of the roof and used the woman’s disability and economic straits as a justification. That curious attempt at politician PR was foiled when the preservation groups organized to help both house and owner and a buyer/repairer came forward.

The most common reason for tearing down solid old buildings in the inner city for the last forty years has been that they become abandoned and havens for drugs prostitution and crime. This is true, but the logical result of that argument should mean that every demolition has reduced the problems of crime, prostitution and drugs. Ooops.

Generally the tactic, as in many debates, is to find a more important or emotional aspect of life (the well-being of children, the isolation and deprivation of the elderly, crime, drugs, safety) and set it against preservation. It is often a false dichotomy, as it was recently in Riverside. Which brings me to East Village, where an anti-landmarks group from Lincoln Park stirred up realtors hoping to erect more mini-skyscrapers, those spanked new 4-story four-flats that come in four designs: Contemporary Vanilla, Georgian vanilla, Victorian vanilla and Romanesque vanilla. One person testified that since landmarking came up in East Village, “the gangs have come back.”

Wow. Landmarking causes gangs. I knew they caused death, dismemberment and retarded growth in children, but gangs?. I imagine the gangbangers all gathered in some lovely Victorian, leafing through Preservation magazine while kicking it with a 40 ounce, checking out the city’s website to target the next historic district. “Yo bro dig my bling Eastlake porch!”

I probably should have guessed, since old buildings produce drugs and crime – presumably by spontaneous generation. (Spontaneous generation might well join the list of discredited pre-Enlightenment ideas in science that are making a big comeback in the 2000s. ) The logic follows thusly: to get rid of gangs, drugs, crime and prostitution, you tear down old buildings; ergo, if you preserve old buildings, you preserve gangsdrugscrimeprostitution.

Well, the alderman didn’t buy it and he is toughing out a avian-flu-like disinformation campaign led by a couple of real estate brokers who only know how to make money by overdevelopment. Real estate “professionals” like these are sort of like filmmakers who only know how to blow things up. All Independence Day, never Sideways.

Come on, guys. Make room for the human drama, the romance, the psychological thriller, the mystery and even the modern morality play about the dear old lady and the Frank Lloyd Wright house that is trying to kill her.

Place Identity

October 11, 2005

This weekend I led the Chicago Fire tour for the Chicago Historical Society as I have for the last four or five years. We follow the 4-mile long path of the fire, hearing eyewitness accounts and describing how it spread and what it destroyed.

The Fire is a central event to the civic identity of Chicago – it is one of the four stars on the city’s flag. When my Michelin editors came here a dozen years ago to begin work on the first Green Guide to Chicago, they commented on how Chicago people talked about the Fire as if it happened yesterday. That means the historic event has a central piece of the city’s identity.

This happens everywhere. Go to Ireland and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was yesterday. Go to Atlanta and Sherman’s march ended last week. Parts of Paris are forever 1890 or 1850 and the 1770s trail through the streets of Boston. The Thais are still celebrating 200-year old victories over Burma and the Dai Viet recall a millennia-gone general who began a millennia of resistance against the Chinese.

Place identity is forged in these events – or years after them – but the process usually involves the debasing and freebasing of the actual history into that potent and toxic distillate known as heritage. Heritage is history reworked to support a particular political (and/or religious) agenda.

Destructive historic events – wars and disasters – are especially useful as instruments of heritage. That’s because heritage carries the instrumentality forward, allowing later and unrelated depredations to be blamed on the same identity-forging event. Preservationists from Atlanta- seeing Chicago – would always tell me they couldn’t preserve anything because of Sherman’s destruction. Horsefeathers. Sherman burned Atlanta 6 and 1/2 years before Chicago burned to the ground. How many 1950s urban renewal projects can be blamed on an 1860s general? There are towns and bridges and plantations that the Confederates destroyed (to prevent Sherman from getting them) that are now blamed on Sherman in official historical markers installed two generations later.

Similar things happen worldwide. Anything destroyed in Ireland was destroyed by Cromwell, the most rapacious of the Anglo invaders. It’s even true here. Everyone knows the Water Tower was the only building that survived the great fire. Wrong. On our Chicago Fire tour I note that a large 5-story brick building survived the Fire in the Loop – Lind’s Block near the river, and even Mrs. O’Leary’s house (the fire burned north from her barn, sparing the house) survived into the 1960s, only to be razed during the manic progress frenzy of urban renewal. Urban renewal also took aim at the Water Tower itself in 1948.

Marseilles (France) wiped out most of its old quarter after the Second World War, but thanks to a plaque put up to commemorate the destruction of a couple dozen buildings by the Nazis in 1943, we can blame the whole thing on the bad guys, even if their efforts paled in comparison to 1950s French city planners.

Identity is a crutch and heritage is a part of all identity – whether communal or personal. But heritage is always a reduction – a simplification – of history. Real history is too messy and contradictory for a project that needs as much reassurance as identity.

When Charities Demolish

October 7, 2005

Directing the Historic Preservation program at SAIC can be awkward – like when the School or the Museum run afoul of the historic preservation community. When Don Kalec started our degree program in 1993 AIC vetoed City landmark designation of the Sharp Building. The building was later landmarked, but only after an exterior cleaning (very good) and window replacement (bad) that our faculty failed to influence. More recently, I have been called to answer for the Museum’s demolition of the Goodman Theatre (Howard van Doren Shaw, 1925) and the School’s interest in Mesa development’s new highrise atop the Kroch’s building on Wabash.

People always are astonished that institutions whose mission is to protect and promote artistic things could propose the destruction of artistic things like landmarks. I am not astonished. This is normal in the post-1980 world.

Over the last quarter century institutions – universities, hospitals, churches and the like – have become the prime demolishers. The reason for this is pretty simple – the last quarter-century has witnessed the dramatic diminution of the public sector as well as the emergence of a host of tax incentives for historic preservation. Private developers can make money on preservation but not-for-profit institutions can’t. The same quarter-century of dwindling public resources has forced not-for-profit institutions to adopt the “grow or die” attitude of venture capitalists, leaving them with an unquenchable thirst for land. They absorb smaller hospitals and universities and they need buildable sites.

Look at LPCI’s Chicagoland Watch list released two weeks ago. Three hospitals, five churches, a public school, a post office, a club building and a train station made up most of the list. Not-for-profit and government buildings. We still have to worry about private developers when it comes to suburban teardowns (one entry on the list) and new office towers (also one entry) but mostly it is the charitable and educational who are stomping history into dust.

This was already true in the early 1990s when Loyola University tried to acquire and demolish the Hotel St. Benedict Flats. Last-minute landmarking stopped them, and a private developer came to the rescue and made good money. That same year (1994) the University of Illinois and the City began the demolition of Maxwell Street. The University of Chicago has been slowly shredding the greystone neighborhood closest to its hospitals and even DePaul has been picking off Loop buildings, although they did save the old Goldblatt’s store on State Street.

Perhaps that is why the Getty has been funding campus preservation studies (an exhibit just opened at Columbia College – ask Tim Wittman) and held a conference on the subject a couple of years ago in Chicago. Another type of not-for-profit that demolishes historic buildings – churches – is a massive subject unto itself. So, don’t send to know for whom the bell tolls…..

Green heaven

October 5, 2005

I was at the National Preservation Conference in Portland, Oregon (Motto: It isn’t easy being green) last week and both the city and event impressed, even beyond the obvious Holy Grail of American microbrew. I went on a green preservation tour last Thursday through the Ecotrust building (The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center), a century-old warehouse that was the first preservation project to gain LEED gold certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is very smart among the architectural set of late. Even though the re-use of an existing building would seem to be naturally environmentally efficient, the fact is LEED, like most things, tends to be geared toward new construction, even though the plurality of landfill waste is construction debris. The Ecotrust building managed to re-use 98.6% (!!) of the existing materials by creating a huge boneyard for every removed piece of building and then finding a use for it – doors became walls, beams became chairs, boiler covers became nameplates, etc., etc. The building handles 95% of its stormwater on site through swales and a permeable parking lot, has a green roof (German 2-3 inch design so the old building could handle the loads) and even the requisite seismic reinforcement.

Portland is an environmentalists dream with its streetcars (free downtown), vigorous recycling and cycling and urban growth boundaries (these were voted down a year ago but it is still not clear whether that will stick). New building plans automatically include bike lockers and showers. The Armory (we tore down all of those in Chicago – most recently for the MCA) is being rehabbed as a theater and is on track for LEED Platinum certification. They did passive smoke evacuation so they wouldn’t need extra generators and fans which would suck energy along with smoke.

Can you do that? I can’t. The architects were surprisingly modest about their achievements, aided by a radically sensible Oregon law that allows them to prove how efficient their solution is, rather than dictating the solution. Imagine a world where building code enforcement was guided by the intent and results of the law……