Sullivan’s Travails




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…

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