Archive for August, 2006

Oh Carson’s

August 27, 2006

carson cornice

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Chicago is beset by losses of its iconic industries of late. It seems Millenium Park has opened the door to the future and that door is slamming the back of the city’s identity. Marshall Field’s is stooping to become Macy’s as we speak, the Berghoff closed in February in a transparent ruse to demolish a landmark building, and now Carson Pirie Scott is leaving its State Street flagship store, designed over a century ago by Louis Sullivan.

The building of course, is one of the city’s first protected landmarks and was just restored to its original glory – its cornice has reappeared. The upper floors are already offices – even our new Architecture Interior Architecture Designed Objects program at SAIC is occupying the 12th floor with its character-defining column capitals – students arrive this week.

So, unlike the Berghoff dodge, Carson’s the building is in good shape, but the store goes. This is tough for me personally, because it is about the only place I shop. I got rid of my Field’s card in ’99 when they stopped making Frangos. Half of my furniture and clothes come from Carson’s.

But I see retail has changed, even as it has returned to State Street, and the Carson’s store interior was dowdy by any standards, and department stores as a type are on the downswing, even the bottom fishers like Wal-Mart.

The most excitiing thing going on in Carson’s is undoubtedly the AIADO’s new space on the 12th floor, which will have a big opening later this fall. Very cool space – made a bit less cool by current code interpretations, but hey – building codes are like medical science – they sway with the winds of fashion and change every few years.

Maybe the store’s move will free up space for the Historic Preservation program, also located in a landmark at 37 S. Wabash.

This will cause many more laments about how Chicago has lost its icons, but that has been going on for 30 years, during the whole transition away from an industrial city and into a boutique city. We don’t make steel and candy and cars and sausages so much (although we do make them) as we make lawyers and artists and IT managers and all that. Students and tourists are the downtown’s number one industry nowadays.

Landmarks are about change, not stasis. What makes something a landmark – especially an architectural landmark – is that it looks good over long, long periods of time. And through different uses.

That is what historic preservation is really about – repurposing the fabric of the past. It is the opposite of fashions that come and go. Carson’s didn’t even start out as Carson’s – Louis Sullivan worked for Schlesinger and Meyer. Now it will be something else, but that will work too.

Plus, I get to get rid of another credit card.


Don’t Believe Your Eyes

August 9, 2006

Perkins Fellows Hamilton

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

One of the great conundrums of modern historic preservation is the split between the goal – preserving history – and the means – architectural control. This is why unknowing persons sometimes dismiss preservation commissions as “beauty contests” and equally why unschooled developers propose storybook design details to make things more “historic”. Which brings us to the great façade problem, which is getting a deliciously perverse twist in Chicago right now.

Right next to me, in the Chicago Landmark Jewelers Row district, two landmark buildings are being structurally demolished for a new highrise. Their facades will be propped up and restored. A fairly felicitous version of this project happened a couple of years ago to the north and the results look good. Thanks to the elevated tracks, the new setback tower reads as a separate building. But those weren’t landmarks, and Jeweler’s Row was – the Landmarks Commission approved it – like a beauty pageant.

Three blocks west, the City and even Landmarks Illinois reluctantly agreed to a partial demolition of a William LeBaron Jenney building (39 S. LaSalle) that will again save the façade – one bay deep – and a lobby. On North Michigan Avenue, the Farwell Building is being skinned and restructured – a facadectomy if there ever was one.

Back in the 1998-2001 several Chicago Landmarks (the Harris Theater in the Loop, Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio near the Water Tower) were reduced to a thin slice before reconstruction. The McGraw-Hill building was skinned, demolished and the old skin re-used on a new structure. The Platt Luggage building is a reconstructed façade on 22nd Street.

And now plans for the Dwight Buildings, a 1910 Schmidt Garden Martin Prairie printing house on reinforced concrete. Gobsmacked in a landmarks hearing 15 years ago, the building has no protection outside of its RED rating on the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. That means it qualifies for a 90-day demolition delay.

Only here is the rub – there is no demolition. The developer is saving the whole building – the structure, the lobby, even the windows.

Let that sink in. They are saving the windows in a downtown building. Not because they are crazy preservationists – not by a long shot. Someone did their due diligence and realized that window replacement is – as it is so often – marketers blowing a whole lot of smoke up the rear access stair.

Anyway, the dear old Dwight is not being demolished but a new steel and glass structure will, wrap it on the side – and the top. Several new stories, supported by the that sturdy 1910 frame, will sit on top – clearly demarcated by color, material and even bay width.

The perverse irony here is that the Dwight will be a fully preserved building that looks like a facadectomy. Jeweler’s Row and 39 S. LaSalle and the Farwell Building will be facadectomies that look lke you preserved the building and added on top. So don’t believe your eyes. We don’t like it, but history will live on at the Dwight, whereas on Wabash, LaSalle and Michigan – beauty is only skin deep.


August 2, 2006

The heat index is 110 and it is another ozone alert day, when you are supposed to drive less. Of course the traffic is always worse on these days and the overheating AC is spiking emissions no end.

It’s 8 AM and I have to take the kids two miles to day camp, then I need to travel nine miles downtown to my office, then later go to a meeting that is eight miles in another direction from my office, go back to my office, then back home, then go pick up the kids, take them home, then run to the grocery store and the hardware store.

There was a day a year ago when I was sitting in my house in Oak Park at 2 PM trying to figure out how I could go take a picture of Robie House in Hyde Park (16 miles away), stop downtown (8 miles) to do some paperwork, and then pick up supplies at a store in Bucktown about 3 miles northwest of downtown, and then get back to Oak Park (10 miles) by 5 PM.

The point of these laundry list litanies of mundane errands is that in none of the above situations did I use an automobile – they were all done by train, bus or bicycle – the 3-hour journey above utilized all three. I live in front of an elevated and commuter rail line in the flatlands of Chicago, so it is easier for me to do. My brother lives in West Texas and cars are pretty necessary there, although they find bikes useful.

This isn’t some monastic asceticism or ideological politics on my part as much as my natural hedonism. Driving is an unpleasant, annoying activity and riding a bicycle is enjoyable. For trips under 3 miles, it is often faster. In fact, a news report today indicated a big drop in how many people actually enjoy driving. Riding a train or bus with book or laptop in hand is also more enjoyable – and productive – than driving an automobile.

I don’t need to mention cheaper. I’ve spent more on lattes than gasoline in the last week, and I only had one latte.

I have always considered a car like a toilet – something I need – in working order – on a regular basis, but not something that has anything to do with my identity. I have certainly purchased new toilets, but never a new car. Through lack of resources and upbringing (I think the only new car my parents ever bought was in 1968, and we all know how weird 1968 was) I somehow never bought into this marketing ploy, and by the grace of God I never even walked into an automobile showroom.

Of course, for most Americans, that isn’t true. Like pagers and cell phones, automobiles started out as expensive commodities used primarily by those who NEEDED them, like doctors. In the 1910s Ford made them cheap and in the 1920s, General Motors turned them into the Jazz Age version of Viagra. By the 1950s, cars were as oversexualized as Betty Page, and despite the Design Deficiency scare of the 1980s, they still are – one of the most popular models was even named after a sex act.

I reckon there is a lot more sex pumping pedals and jumping curbs out in the sun than locked in some four-wheeled fiberglass fridge. Even if it has leather seats.

Tomorrow I have to drive 35 miles to Buffalo Grove for a root canal. I’ll let you know which is more painful.