Archive for January, 2006

Lazy Money

January 30, 2006

My student Dorothy Bobco wrote me a marvelous note the other day about “lazy money”. Here is a quote:

“I think I have figured out why people get so upset when they think their property values are going down. They are losing free money, lazy money. You can buy a house and do nothing and the value will probably go up. If anything happens that changes that, they lose money that they did not have to work for. That is what makes them mad, losing money they did not have to work for. It is laziness and greed that drives the real estate market. ”

It made me think again about the Berghoff and their transparent gambit to tear down a rare 1870s Loop Building – one of only two cast iron facades in Chicago – by moving out the city’s most popular and profitable restaurant. When I spoke to Neal Steinberg at the Sun-Times about this, he made a great observation that the Berghoffs would try to get $25 million at a stroke for the land, instead of $1-2 million a year for 20 years. Lazy money. Money you don’t have to work for – as opposed to the tedious business of running a business (especially one so old fashioned that it offers benefits!) Yes, I know they are going to operate the bar for a while and the restaurant as a banquet facility, but that is how the gambit works. You change the business, eliminating the consituency and crafting excuses (the business is not profitable; the business doesn’t need this location; the facilities are run down) for demolition when the time comes two or three or five years from now.

It also reminds me of those anti-landmarks neighborhood groups – the kind that crop up when a neighborhood is about to be landmarked. They are usually young urban professionals (just like the supporters) but unlike the supporters, they are addicted to lazy money. They bought a greystone in 1995 for 3% down and have flipped it so that now they NEED their new building to be torn down for a six-flat because they have borrowed $700,000 based on their decade-old investment of $9,000. These are lazy money addicts, and they get violent when they don’t get their fix. Overdose is over-equity.

This is not fundamentally different than other market areas that see over-capitalization and over-speculation, like the late 90s dot.com bubble or the 80’s banking scandals and our current energy scandals. Who can blame them for being lazy when they get rewarded for it during the good times?

But who can blame the hard workers who put so much time and sweat into their homes and buildings – for wanting to save them, keep them from harm? Especially the harm of the lazy.

Historic Districts

January 29, 2006

We are starting a class on Historic Districts tomorrow – looking at how they evolved and what motivates people to designate their community as an historic district. Historic districts are a fascinating combination of two postwar movements – the broadened historic preservation movement, which was inching beyond associative and architectural history to start looking at the state of cities, towns and rural places in a bigger way; and the community planning movement, which was trying to wrest control over development decision-making from the urban experts who began to radically refashion cities after World War II.

We will be looking at a lot of different cities and districts and I hope that the students help me to understand the whys of the historic district, especially why people choose it – or fight it. For those ideological free market types, historic districts are a bit more fair than traditional individual landmarks, because they put a whole area – or “market” – under the same set of rules, as opposed to individual landmarks, which are seen to be at a development disadvantage from their neighbors. Yet historic districts are also mechanisms for community empowerment, allowing a group to control the form of its environment in a manner more precise – and perhaps less predictable – than zoning, which regulates use and density.

We will also being takiung a critical look within at the roles of experts – architectural historians, architects, historians and others who validate whether or not a community is worthy of being an historic district – and determine what the boundaries are – what stays in and what is left out. I’ve been an expert witness for several Chicago Landmark districts, so this should be good….

More Fires

January 17, 2006

It has been a busy holiday season for landmarks in the Chicago area, but that is not surprising.

If you want to spring a landmark surprise/demolition gambit like the Berghoff, it is best to do it over the holidays when fewer people are paying attention.

Fires are also more likely to happen in winter, even a ridiculously mild one, although the big fires lately were avoidable – the reports today on the bargain-basement roofers who ran away from the fire that destroyed Pilgrim Baptist Church are maddening.

Blair Kamin’s article calling for the restoration of Pilgrim Baptist (reconstruction really) on Sunday was also welcome and echoed what I said two blogs ago. We are going to get our students together once school starts next week to discuss this.

Then there was the sloppy arson fire at the Frank Lloyd Wright Wynant House in Gary last week. Do you recall that one of our SAIC historic preservation students discovered that house back in 1996? Chris Meyers – he apparently went over after the fire and even the soggy lawn was scorched. Can you say accelerant?

There was also a fire at the Bradley House in Kankakee – what many consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Prairie House. Not life-threatening, but still of great concern.

Fires often happen when buildings are being rehabbed. Wright’s Hills-DeCaro House in Oak Park, 1976, Adler & Sullivan’s Brunswick factory in Chicago, 1989. One reason can be like Pilgrim Baptist, where undertrained workers are careless with torches. It is also common on home rehabilitations when people use things like heat guns to remove paint. One of those destroyed the 1835 Fiddyment House in Lockport back in 2000. Something underneath catches fire, invisibly.

The trick is that heat sources don’t need to actually catch things on fire – they can heat up a surface or some old newspaper in the wall crevices and next thing you know an invisible fire has found an internal chimney and is ready to blaze fast, like the buildings during the Great Fire of 1871 that caught at once all over, like a piece of paper held near a flame….

Fire Away

January 12, 2006

Well, it didn’t take long for the politics to come sweeping into the debacle of the fire at Pilgrim Baptist. The Governor promised a million dollars to rebuild and now Tribune columnists and 1980s atheists are whipping up the separation of church and state.

This would not be the first time the State of Illinois gave a million dollars to a church. For that matter, the state has given HUNDREDS of millions to the White Sox and the Bears, whose rituals and devotions rival those of more spiritual organizations.

Eric Zorn, who boosted the atheist (I would say his name, but my 9-year old thinks he is make-believe) running for office, did trot out an impressive legal code that really hammers on the idea of giving a nickel to any religious group. Then again, I doubt DCFS or any of the other hobbled public agencies we have left could function without church-related organizations, so this code is not followed too well.

The reason government could give money to a church is the same reason it can give money to the Bears or Park Grille – because it is an investment in a public resource that enhances the community and attracts tourists. It is the same reason New York State has been giving money to churches for over 15 years – and giving it only to the public exterior of landmarked buildings – because that is the piece of it that is owned by all of us and benefits all of us. It is the same reason there is public money in Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame – not because the state supports religion, but because the state supports its history and its culture.

Yes, the Governor’s statement was a bald ploy to get votes – but it was not as pathetic a ploy as the atheist’s. Now, the Mayor is being reticent about his support since the boo birds are running the table and scaring off the sensible.

This is a public treasure – a lot more public than Soldier Field, and a lot cheaper.

The Fire Next Time

January 9, 2006

I was coming into O’Hare from New York Saturday night and I saw the headlines – Landmark Church destroyed by Fire. I looked and a wave of anguish sucked my guts. It was Pilgrim Baptist Church, a landmark in so many ways you don’t know where to begin.

The birthplace of gospel music. That would be enough.

A rare surviving masterpiece by Louis Sullivan, who invented modern architecture. That would be enough.

A centerpiece of African American culture, not only for Chicago. That would be enough.

An acoustical marvel decorated with ornament by Sullivan and murals by Scott that witnessed the premier of Mahalia Jackson. That would be enough.

A priceless collection of archives collected at Pilgrim representing 83 years of African-American history, including the original sheet music for the first gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” That would be enough.

It is as if we lost a dozen landmarks in a single fire. So much, so much. Each day we read more about the magnitude of this loss.

There is already talk of rebuilding it – the building was extensively documented thanks to its architectural pedigree. There is the precedent of the Pullman factory, destroyed by a more sinister fire seven years ago and then put back together by the state. Will the state step in? Will the city step in? They should, because this is a landmark that can touch almost anyone.

Rebuilding is never the same, but sometimes there are so many reasons, so much that was invested in a place that plaques and films and pageants can’t do it – you need a building, a living, breathing, singing building.

Pilgrim Baptist Church was a building that sang like no other. That specific, authentic voice is gone – burned. But the singing should go on.