When Charities Demolish

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…..

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One Response to “When Charities Demolish”

  1. John Notz Says:

    Please watch what The University of Chicago wishes to do with its Yerkes Observatory property.

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