Archive for February, 2006

Modern preservation

February 28, 2006

Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)

The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)

A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.

Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).

17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price.

More distressing is the fate of the Melnikhov house in Moscow, those concrete cylinders with hexagonal windows that stick in my memories of architectural history – where did these come from? No precedents, no followers, sort of like Bruce Goff buildings – . It seems the Moscow mayor has been doing a lot of demolition by neglect, letting them flake and fail and then demolishing them even if they are landmarks. He’s not just picking on these modernist treasures – he’s sacked a few Deco and Stalinist Classical landmarks as well.

There is a lot if interest in preserving modern buildings lately – New York went agog over the Huntington Hartford museum at 2 Columbus Circle, trying to save a building that was critically body-slammed when built in 1962. In 1988 DOCOMOMO started in Holland to save landmarks of the Modern Movement and ten years ago we had the first Preserving the Recent Past conference in Chicago, which has led to the formation of several groups dedicated to modernist preservation.

Preserving modern buildings is harder for several reasons. Many people don’t want to save buildings they saw built – and hated for years. Many people don’t “get” the abstraction and sculptural quality of modern buildings – Classical and Gothic are more symbolic and referential and easier to “get,” which is why McMansions traffic in styles that were already crusty before Vesuvius buried Pompeii.

There is a physical problem too, one that is rarely talked about because it counters our intuitive understanding of progress. Post-World War II buildings may be built poorly due to several paradigm shifts in architecture and building. The Depression and World War II caused a break in material and construction knowledge. This breach was filled by science, so no longer was steel made by a guy who just “knew” when he had enough limestone and coke. Carpenters didn’t need to know their grains so well, and materials took a nose dive so there weren’t so many grains to worry about. New precision engineering meant buildings could be built to last not one day longer than the mortgage. You could probably add ten stories to a five-story 1870s building – they were “overbuilt.” You can’t even add one story to a one-story 1970s building. And polymers and plastics gave us buildings which are really just frameworks for an endless supply of sealants.

Modern also had several aesthetic attributes that complicate maintenance and repair. The continuous surface – very space-time, very cool, but impractical to maintain. Better brick pavers and shingles that can be replaced one by one as needed.

Plus, the postwar era was the ONLY historic period where energy was relatively cheap, hence less concern about insulation and energy efficiency. We now live in a world bombarded by hucksters of insulation and energy efficiency, and they have slobbered their twisted love on Modernist landmarks as well as the Victorians and Foursquares.

So, there are impediments to preserving Modern but that is no excuse for Moscow – political will sits on a separate plane from the fiscal and the physical.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: See 2011 entries on Modernism here!


A Deal Falls Through

February 16, 2006

Strange things always happen in the People’s Republic of Oak Park, a tenacious, opinionated and privileged suburb just west of Chicago – the only suburb with two CTA rapid transit lines.

The other shoe has finally fallen in the Downtown Oak Park development saga, some of which is visible at

Oak Park was embarrassed last year when they adopted a whack plan by Portland firm Crandall-Arambula. I happened to be one of the random telephone interviews during the summer of 2004, so I know how bad their methodology was. The questioner kept asking me to choose between historic preservation and economic development. DUH! Historic preservation IS economic development I tried to say, but their script did not allow this. 250 grand wasted.

Despite saying “historic buildings” every other word, the plan wiped out 7 nice old Tudor buildings on Westgate Street to make the Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) more profitable. Again, a whack dichotomy – Chicago has used TIFs to save historic buildings right and left. So, LPCI put the Westgate district on its Most Endangered List (see Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois link at right). People were pissed, and the ruling party got dumped in the elections for the first time in 60 years.

But the plan was still there, along with a deal the Village made to buy one of the doomed buildings. The 1932 Colt building was designed as an open arcade from Lake Street through to Westgate. I don’t know how successful the building was, but the party was over by 1952 when the arcade was filled in. More recently one façade was covered with EIFS after its limestone spalled off – EIFS is the aesthetic equivalent of smearing lard on an oil painting.

Local papers and leaders saw the Colt as the opportunity to stop the demolition of downtown Oak Park. A Steering Committee was appointed to come up with a plan for the Colt, Westgate, and the surrounding “superblock.” Volunteers from local commissions spent three months of long Tuesday nights listening to four consultants, local merchants and every citizen who wanted to say something.

It was the most open and patient public planning process I have witnessed in 23 years.

They came up with a consensus plan that demolished the Colt Building for a new street to revitalize Westgate after 70 years of malingering.

It was a real process. A majority of the committee members went into the process wanting to save the Colt Building. The process happened, and a majority concluded it could not be saved. LPCI and I went along with the plan, since it promised to save 5 of the Westgate buildings forever, and these 5 buildings were better – a higher degree of craftsmanship and architectural detail.

Then, at a Village Board meeting, an odd thing happened. Trustees kept referring to Kathryn Jonas and Mike Iversen, two citizens lobbying to save the Colt Building. In most towns they would be ineffectual gadflies, but in Oak Park they have serious clout. Sure enough, the Village Board rejected the consensus plan. Even reformers want their committees to give them the “right” answers. It was amazing to see radical preservationism running the political table.

I had said that the Colt wouldn’t qualify for tax credits, but the last-minute gang proved me wrong with an eleventh-hour letter from the State Historic Preservation Office. The tax credits still left a multimillion dollar hole in the budget, but Mike Iversen – in contrast to all the consultants – said the numbers worked. And he had the only numbers that mattered: 4 out of 7 Village Trustees.

LPCI was accused of nefarious insiderism since the architect for the developer, Joe Antunovich was previously LPCI’s Chair. Great fodder for conspiracy, except LPCI’s statement called Antunovich’s plan “appalling”. I offered Kathryn Jonas a copy of the statement and she declined. Evidence can be so bad for a good conspiracy.

Then developer Sy Taxman – who owns the Colt Building – decided to keep negotiating with the Village when he should have walked. The political leader, Bob Milstein, wanted him to walk. I thought it was a classic case of developer crying wolf. They always say that they need this or they can’t do the deal, but then they hang around, hungry. Taxman extended the deadline almost five months.

Well, today Taxman finally walked. The Village now owns the Colt Building for $5 million. It will cost at least that much to rehab or restore it, although the result would never command $10 million in the market.

The Village says it will now get responsible bids– we should expect one from Iversen since he is the only one who has numbers that make the building work. I won’t miss Taxman, but I wouldn’t miss the Colt Building either. I won’t miss the next chapter in a political saga that rivals Chicago’s 1980s Council Wars, but I will certainly miss the next opportunity to spend three months of Tuesday nights on a fool’s errand.

The Expense of Preservation

February 9, 2006

Preservation is often characterized as expensive. Why? Because it is a good excuse, even for the richest.

One of the preservation tragedies we have been awaiting these last few years is the demolition of Bertrand Goldeberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, a mighty and evocative design from the 1960s, the last era of optimism. A Quatrefoil in plan, it took the stem-and-petals constructional idiom of Goldberg’s signature Marina City and evolved a powerful flower of a building, four cylindrical lobes of beautiful 60s concrete studded with rounded windows – for a guy Goldberg was pretty good at channelling the lost feminine tradition in Modernism and he was certainly an intellectual leader in recapturing that tradition from the Miesian hegemony.

The building will be demolished by Northwestern Memorial Hospital for all of the usual excuses: too old and inefficient, too much maintenance (as opposed to new buildings that don’t require maintenance???) and of course too expensive. We all know preservation is too expensive – it is drilled into our heads through repetition (as opposed to reason) just like we know that we all need to replace our windows. The “too expensive” mantra is then followed by a false appeal to the angels of preservation “if someone had enough money…”.

Okay, here is the lead from a Tribune article by Bruce Jappsen in today’s business section:
“Long the envy of area hospitals, Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s cash position recently hit $1 billion for the first time…”

That’s not equity or assets – that’s cash, bro.

They can pay all of their bills (health care bills!) for the next year and a half NO MATTER WHAT. I can’t say that – can you?

Too bad there isn’t someone with money who could preserve this building.

Oh you can go through the footnotes – they have $1 billion in capital expenditures coming up the next five years (it ain’t cheap to tear down landmarks and it costs even more to build dreck in their place) and Medicare will soon vanish and so on and so forth and don’t stop talking or someone will call you on it

When the wealthy and powerful whinge they do it with such…humanity. It’s almost convincing.

Why The City Won’t Landmark Berghoff

February 1, 2006

One of my former students felt sorry for the Berghoffs and wrote me a note saying they should be allowed to cash in their building since they worked hard for 107 years. Indeed, they survived Prohibition and worked hard and built a business successful enough to save a landmark building. If we had that fabulous Italianate building sitting empty today, we would have to invent a business as successful as the Berghoff in order to keep it going. I’ve worked hard too, and like most humans who work hard, I will never earn what the Berghoffs earn. So I don’t feel sorry.

The City of Chicago won’t landmark the Berghoff building, despite its extremely rare status as a Loop 1870s building. In the Chicago Landmarks ordinance there is a “second bite” amendment that says you can’t landmark a building if you failed to landmark it before – unless there is a serious change in evidence or circumstances.

The City tried to landmark the Berghoff in 1990-91 and the City Council voted it down. Why? An attorney representing the Berghoff testified that the business would lose its business loan if the building was landmarked and produced a piece of paper. On this paper was a paragraph purportedly in the business loan from LaSalle Bank that stated that the Berghoff would be in default if its building was landmarked.

Wow! You work hard, build an iconic business for 92 years, but the bank is still not confident enough to lend you money unless they get the development rights to your building?

I guess LaSalle Bank didn’t think much of the Berghoffs as restaurateurs.
(BTW, there is an etymological link between restaurant and restoration)

This argument won the City Council vote, despite suggesting a banking practice that would make Ken Lay blush. Maybe the paragraph wasn’t really in the loan until the issue came up. The Chair of the Commission at the time wanted to talk to LaSalle Bank about this bit of hoodoo, but the Council had voted and the matter was dropped.

This argument, if raised again, would fail scrutiny, so why doesn’t the city landmark it?

Even the second bite amendment is hardly binding – the reason that amendment was put in was to prevent the City from going after the Second Leiter Building (William LeBaron Jenney, 1890-1, now Robert Morris College) after it was voted down once.

The City went ahead and landmarked Second Leiter on the second bite anyway.

“New evidence” and “circumstances” are hardly obstacles where there is political will.

Meanwhile, the lines are around the block every day of the week for those who want to savor rye bread, creamed spinach and schnitzel one more time. They are making a good profit on our nostalgia right now.