Archive for October, 2006

Another Sullivan Burns

October 24, 2006



dexter burns

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

October 24, 2006 – Louis Sullivan’s 150th birthday celebrations have been marred again. In January, one of his greatest buildings, Pilgrim Baptist Church, burned down to the walls and its rebuilding is a very open question. A year ago his own home in Biloxi was destroyed by the hurricane (Katrina) that everyone but the federal government saw coming. Now I am watching one of his early highrises, the Wirt Dexter Building on Wabash south of the Loop, burn. The fire started an hour and a half ago and there is still smoke billowing out at 5:00 creating columnar cumulus skyscrapers. It is really disheartening.

It is too early to say what will be left of this simple but elegant early highrise – its back wall marked by long vertical perforated sheets of steel that stiffened its spine. This was during the days of the development of the skeletal steel frame that made skyscrapers possible. Wirt Dexter was an attorney and developer who worked with Sullivan on several projects.

What makes it all so terrible is how much Sullivan was torn down in the 1950s and 1960s – the Garrick and the Stock Exchange being the most significant, both replaced by guileless dreck. Beyond were all the great little neighborhood buildings – a dozen on the south side, others north and west. Sullivan was Chicago’s great innovator, a romantic and a master who made buildings into the kind of material poetry that it will take our digital friends another generation to even approximate. He fathered Frank Lloyd Wright and in a sense, the entire 20th century, not just in America but across the world. Gropius., Aalto and Saarinen and even the painter Le Corbusier are not possible without him.

We treated this legacy like crap – Rich Cahan has a new book out, following up on They All Fall Down, and it is hard to look at what we have lost. It is positively nauseating when you see what is in its place. Go to 30 N. LaSalle where the Stock Exchange used to be and see if your eye doesn’t fall right off of the 30 stories of black glass nothing they put there. It has no presence at all, only the absence of the brick and terra cotta lyrics that made that a corner in a city rather than a lacuna of memory. I have been in that building but I can’t remember it. I could go into it tomorrow and I would not remember it the next day. It is a bicycle shed.

Now the Wirt Dexter is burning badly and I am burning its face – and its back – deeper into my brain, because I fear that may be the only place to find them in the future.

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Publicity for Landmarks

October 22, 2006



caa michS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Last week, Landmarks Illinois announced its Chicagoland Watch List, a collection of endangered buildings including the Chicago Defender Building (Illinois Automobile Club) at 24th and Michigan in the Motor Row district, which has been stripped and is sitting dangerously empty.

The list, like Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered List, Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago Seven” and the National Trust’s Eleven Most Endangered list, is a way to publicize important historic and architectural landmarks that are threatened in one way or another.

For those who think landmark status prevents demolition or alteration of buildings, these lists can be sobering – many of the Chicagoland Watch List buildings ARE landmarks – and are still threatened. Landmark status provides a review process that presumes preservation, but it does not prevent demolition or alteration in many cases, depending on the nature of the threat, the building, or even the commission reviewing it.

In addition to the Defender Building, Landmarks Illinois’ list included the Chicago Athletic Association buildings on Michigan Avenue (Henry Ives Cobb 1893) and Madison Street (Schmidt, Garden and Martin, 1907 and 1923). Both are in the Michigan Avenue district, and they made the list because one of the bids for the property proposed demolishing the Madison Street property for a highrise.

Well, the list must have helped, because Saturday the news reported that the remaining bids are NOT intent on demolition but will work with the buildings. A boutique hotel seems to be the preferred use, a wise choice given that the building is exquisite and sits across the street from Millenium Park, Chicago’s new icon.

The news points to the power of publicity in pushing the preservation agenda forward. The Watch list has already scored a partial victory in its first week. We can still worry about the spectacular interiors, including lobby and dining room, as eloquently illuminated last Thursday during Rolf Achilles’ Landmarks Illinois lecture at the Cultural Center. Still, the departure of the demolition bid is a good sign, especially since the Commission has granted some questionable facade developments in landmark districts of late.

For more, click on the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois website at right.

“Right” Zoning

October 16, 2006



wells and eugenie

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago spoke to my Preservation Planning class today and introduced them to an excellent phrase: “Right” zoning. This is more accurate than “downzoning” which is a phrase commonly used to describe what happens when a local alderman or city decides to reduce the allowable density in a district.

The recent book on the history of Chicago zoning describes the “downzoning” of the lakefront communities of Gold Coast and Lincoln Park in the 1970s and 1980s, which often followed landmarking of the area. Real estate expert Jared Shlaes opposed the downzoning in a 1980 report, and the book now judges that Shlaes was probably on the wrong side of history.

Terminology is always loaded, and while “downzoning” accurately notes that the rezoning reduces the allowable density, the MORE ACCURATE term “right” zoning reflects the fact that the so-called downzoning actually reflects the REAL DENSITY found in the district.

People forget that almost every city was “UP-zoned” in the late 1950s and 1960s. Chicago doubled its density in 1957, in an effort to impel development in an age of suburban highway development. It didn’t work exactly, but there are lots of whingers who still dream of selling their rowhouse for a skyscraper nonetheless, and that 1957 zoning is still sitting there (despite a 2004 rewrite) encouraging them.

Jonathan also pointed out that historic districts are LESS onerous than downzoning because people can still add space (and value) to the rear of the their property, whereas with downzoning they might not be able to add on at all. I hadn’t thought of that. But he is right, and he has also proposed a new “renovation zoning” category that would downzone an area but allow existing owners to upzone ONLY if they rehab their own house. What fun – a law that protects community owners while sealing out the carpetbagging developers!

I have been looking at the creation of historic districts – usually precipitated by threat of new development and often by really bad new architecture – and I have to agree with Fine when he says “There would be no preservation movement if we were building great buildings.” The dreck – often really expensive dreck – populating parts of Lincoln Park is responsible for getting people agitated about preserving what they have. Because what they have – even if it was common a century ago – is priceless and irreproducible now. Historic districts are a manifestation of people’s disgust new buildings and their desire to control their own environment – it’s appearance yes, but mostly its value – social, economic and architectural.

Behind The Scenes

October 12, 2006



legacy face opensS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

They are pounding huge caissons into the sidewalk (?) just outside our building as they continue work on The Legacy – a 70-plus story tower they are building next door to our building. I’m trying to suss the structural reason for caissons out there – maybe to transfer loads since they are saving the facades of three landmark district buildings. I was chatting with Mark Igleski about the facades, since his firm is working on them, and he noted that even though the facades date from 1870s – 1970s, the buildings behind are ALL 1870s.

You don’t get buildings older than 1872 in downtown Chicago because it all burned down in 1871. They often have cast iron structural columns, the predecessors to the famous Chicago School steel frame skyscraper of the 1880s.

I never knew about these Wabash Jeweler’s Row buildings – the Kroch & Brentano’s was a classic 1910 Chicago School facade with big windows and cornice and clean brick piers. Turns out, according to Mark, that the entire facade was rebuilt – even changing the number of bays – but the rear of the building remained 1870s. Same with its terra cotta neighbor. Only one building has anything of the 1870s on the facade, and then only two stories, with two top stories screaming 1905 and two lower stories bellowing 1975.

So, another irony on this already-objected-to facadism – the oldest parts of the buildings are going in the dumpster, in order to save the facades. Chalk it up as another reason to avoid facadism.

By the way, it is snowing in Chicago today.

Another church burns

October 10, 2006



jol chri epis4

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Joliet’s Christ Episcopal Church burned this weekend. I will really miss this one and it is apparently a total loss, although the quaint Gothic tower pictured here survives. This one was intact – had a fantastic interior with clustered columns and a real nave-like nave – which means the ceiling read like a boat. It was an 1887 masterpiece of picturesque Gothic by Frank Shaver Allen, who gave Joliet a lot of grace.
Harrah’s casino has meant a lot of money to Joliet, mostly in exchange for that grace. Harrah’s has demolished a dozen buildings in Joliet – many made of local limestone like Christ Episcopal, mostly for parking. It wanted this beautiful church because of its location, and it wanted to demolish it.
Christ Episcopal was on Landmarks Illinois’s Chicagoland Watch List last year, because Harrah’s has been breathing down its neck. Harrah’s wanted the site for parking, as the congregation left some time ago.
A local group bought it and decided to convert it into a concert venue.
Harrah’s would not have liked that. This most successful of multinational corporations apparently operates on the old communist principle: no competition. I remember a decade ago when the only Starbucks in Joliet was INSIDE the casino. They wouldn’t even let Starbucks out!
The fire solved a hell of a lot of “problems” for them in one fell swoop. And destroyed a landmark whose memory will add more to the city than Harrah’s ever could, even if Harrah’s had not taken away so much.
No word yet on whether the fire was suspicious. A task force is investigating.

House Interventions

October 8, 2006



john j. glessner

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Friday night I went to see Rebecca Keller’s installation at the Glessner House on Prairie Avenue. The H.H. Richardson masterpiece is considered the progenitor of the modern house, and the interior features furnishings and art – 80% of which the Glessner’s actually had in the house. This makes it a step above the average house museum, which has “period” furnishings and is sort of an artificial time capsule.

Glessner House is a real time capsule, but that is also problematic, as Keller’s installation shows. She specifically attacked the idea of domestic service that made large 19th century houses practical, and also the issues of immmigration and gender, since most of the house servants were “Bridgets” – young Irish women.

Keller’s installation consists of a fair amount of quotes and textual facts added to books and slates (in the children’s schoolroom) and mason jars (in the pantry) that point to the oppressive conditions of servants and the great gulf between rich and poor in 19th century America. She also quotes the affair d’Zoe Baird, who paid her domestics $5 an hour in 1999 to clean a household that was clearing $600K.

More interesting than the directed didactics of the text are the aprons that Rebecca made and painted which serve as scrims to suggest the ghostly presence of the workers in the domestic factory that was the Victorian house. Lined along the servant’s corridor or inside a kitchen cabinet these ethereal presences are more evocative and ultimately more political than the texts.

What I like most is the opportunity to make a house museum something else – house museums have been around for a century-and have a predeliction for the stodgy and stale. Even Glessner House, saved for its architectural singularity, still must interpret its inhabitants and any attempts to beef it up, bang it about or subvert it are always welcome.

Sullivan’s Travails

October 5, 2006



pilg bap burned

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Last night we had a panel on restoring Louis Sullivan buildings over at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, also sponsored by the Chicago History Museum and Graham Foundation. I was the moderator and our featured speakers were architects Gunny Harboe, who directed the restoration of the Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. cornice, and Mary Brush, who directed facade restoration at the Gage Building. Then to make everything wonderful, Tim Samuelson agreed to join us.

Tim is often said to know everything about Chicago and everything about Louis Sullivan. It would be impossible to disprove this.

We learned a lot about Sullivan’s ornament – how he played with figure and ground to eliminate those signifiers and make ornament one with the building. We learned about the challenges of replicating the incredibly detailed elements of the Carson’s cornice from a few bad photographs and a lot of comparable. We saw how his highrise ornament was designed to be seen from below (something the designers of the Parthenon’s Panathenaic procession knew, but has oft since been forgot) and we heard how Sullivan could think in three dimensions. I reminded everyone of how much of Sullivan’s architecture was lost over the last 40 years, which is really tragic.

Especially the Garrick Theater. Torn down in 1961 for a parking garage. Parking garage torn down in 1998 for – – a theater. Ouch.

And we talked about the challenge of Pilgrim Baptist Church – how the documentation exists to restore it like it was – or pretty close – but that there are delicate political realities, like a small congregation with limited resources, perhaps $2-$3 million in insurance money and a reconstruction budget ten times that.

What do you do? Lots of preservationists offer advice, but there is the question of ownership. You could create a non-profit to raise the money for reconstruction, but then the congregation would be ceding some aspect of their ownership. You could build a temporary structure within the walls and leave reconstruction to the next generation. It is a fascinating question of community too, since this neighborhood was once perceived as a ghetto and is now very gentrified, although the congregation is less so. Whose building is it?

This is a much more interesting and real question of property rights than the one brought up by whingeing speculators who want to treat buildings like pork bellies. For them, “property rights” has nothing to do with ownership, stewardship or identity like it does for Pilgrim Baptist.

Which reminds me – some whingeing property speculator sued the city’s landmarks ordinance claiming it was being used to downzone and thus impinging on “property rights.” Duh! That is like suing McDonald’s for selling breakfast at lunchtime. Zoning was invented to protect property rights, and landmarking was invented at the same time for basically the same reason. The difference is that zoning is a crude tool (that can also be used to encourage demolition) and landmarking is a precise one. Besides, the whole flippin’ city was upzoned in 1957, so “downzoning” is often just putting it back to the way it was – or way it is.

But don’t expect everyone to understand that. Besides, some people don’t like working for a living…

The Fallacy of Primacy

October 2, 2006

Another in an ongoing series aimed at upsetting traditional notions of heritage – which is fake – in favor of history – which is less so.

This year in China, a collector found an 18th century maps purported to be an exact copy of a 15th century map that Admiral Hen We completed after his circumnavigation of the globe. It apparently influenced later European maps. This added another piece of evidence to the very justifiable claim that the Chinese explored most of the world in the early 15th century, 70 years before Christopher Columbus. Last year a guy called Gavin Menzies had a popular book called 1421 that detailed this voyage and tried to find artifactual evidence for Chinese landings in North and South America. He naturally trumpets the new discovery verifying his thesis.

So, is all of our history wrong? Do we have to rewrite it now? Of course not.

In our simple. literal way of looking at things, this information might seem stunning. But to the historian, it is quite the opposite. Yes, you have to rewrite any history that says Columbus was the first to find America from across the ocean (assuming you don’t have Lief Ericson in your text). But that’s all you have to rewrite. The Chinese didn’t stay. they didn’t massacre or enslave the natives and they didn’t colonize. The rest of the history stays the same, because the Chinese went through one of their periodic inward-looking phases and essentially did nothing with the information Hen We gathered. The Europeans took care of exploiting the Western Hemisphere for the next 500 years, which is the real history. That history is unchanged.

This fact was something The Economist noted in an article on the find. Being the first one doesn’t always mean a lot, especially in regards to the idea of “discovery.” If I discover a cure for cancer this afternoon and then get hit by a bus, well, I didn’t do squat. Bill Gates didn’t invent much, but he structured the hell out of other people’s “firsts.”

Discovery and “firsts” were quite big in the 20th century, trekking and flying to the North and South Poles, setting land speed records, landing on the moon. “Firsts” like Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight have a significant kind of marketing effect, boosting interest in later commercial or scientific ventures. They also serve as a useful benchmark: there were no transatlantic flights before 1927.

But “firsts” and “heroes” can also obscure the real history. Transatlantic commercial air travel took another 30 years to reach the upper middle class. Microwave ovens were invented in the 1940s but don’t make an impact on most people’s lives for another 40 years. Digital cameras have been common for over a decade but they have only achieved the quality of film cameras within the last year. The latest energy technology of the 21st century? Windmills. Start tilting.

And then there are the false starts – like Hen We’s unprecedented journey or Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter. You read now about who killed the electric car but the fact is lotsa car companies a hundred years ago made electric cars – they were common in the first decade of commercial production. Gasoline took over thanks to a combination of Spindletop in 1905 and the Brickyard in 1912. Cars ceased to be medical necessities and turned into the Progressive Era version of Viagra, and oil companies threatened by electric lights fought back and internal combustion became the order of the century.

Around the year 2000 there was a TV program about the most important discoveries of the previous millennium and the winner was Gutenberg’s printing press. This was a reasonable assumption from the vantage point of our Information Explosion that is all about the ease of communication and widespread dissemination (another word for broadcast – both having their roots in agriculture) of information. In a way, Gutenberg started that. You could argue about whether he was first with the invention– the Koreans had mechanical printing before and the Chinese had Gutenberg’s more important innovation: movable type. But they didn’t have a global network to advertise it.

The contextual environment of a time and place is the key to innovation and invention. Thus, calculus is nearly simultaneously invented – separately – in Europe in the 18th century, and Darwin has to hurry his 19th century book because evolution has just become obvious to an entire European scientific community. What combination of social, financial and cultural factors made Chicago the “birthplace” of the skyscraper? It wasn’t just bolts of lightning hitting Louis Sullivan – it was a small downtown, a big fire, investors who didn’t want to waste money on ornament, a tradition-free culture and a whole bunch of architects banging around and bouncing off each other. Was it really Leroy Buffington in Minneapolis?

Doesn’t matter. Hell, maybe Hen We developed calculus off the coast of Peru while Massacio was still figuring out perspective. He might even have developed a theory about those finches on the nearby islands. Doesn’t matter.

Recently they rewrote astronomy by demoting Pluto from planet status. But it only had that status for less than 70 years. You go into the Adler Planetarium today (built 1930) and there is a wonderful sculptural relief by Alfonso Iannelli with allegorical figures representing the eight planets. Turns out he was right.

Just remember you heard it here first.