Children With Matches

We don’t let children play with matches. Why do we let idiots play with blowtorches?

Idiocy is a long and storied element of the human condition, and we could hardly have a society without it, so anything that I might say about idiots and idiotic acts should be tempered by my strong belief that idiocy is a vital actor in, and indispensable element of human history. Merken sie sich z.B. unsere Regierung.

For many years I too, suffered fools gladly, but this constant burning down of Louis Sullivan buildings this year has savaged my natural tolerance, especially when both Pilgrim Baptist Church and The Wirt Dexter Building were felled by idiots with torches.

The latest fire – the Harvey House in Lakeview – does not have an official cause yet, so torches can’t be ruled out. It burned really fast and shot flames 50 feet into the air. Torches definitely can’t be ruled out.

Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois notes that the first two Sullivan buildings burned because someone was using open flames – unnecessary in both cases – inside buildings chock full of really dry timber. Roofers at Pilgrim Baptist and salvagers at Wirt Dexter. In both cases the idiot contractors phoned it in but it was already too late. You can set a hell of a fire with a blowtorch.

Blowtorches are essential for welding and a variety of metalworks. They are also handy for roofers and salvagers who want to get a job done quickly, just as leaf blowers are for those without the vigor or patience to rake. The more obvious analogy is the paint stripping gun, which has destroyed countless historic buildings during rehabilitation. These are all shortcuts – to disaster.

Sullivan buildings have been burning for a while. In 1989 the Brunswick Balke Collender Company warehouse burned down THE DAY AFTER one of the tenants took the owner to court for storing flammable liquids in open stairways – and lost. Flammable liquids in containers propping open stairwell doorways. Idiocy.

We should have seen Wirt Dexter coming too. Newspaper articles quoted the 76-year old owner as saying she saw it as her retirement. I am an idiot if I believe that. She owned this building for 24 years. Did she see it as her retirement when she was 52? She wanted to recreate the 1960s heyday of the George Diamond steakhouse. Romantic. Heart-in-the-right-place. Head-and-wallet-no-place. 24 years of swell intentions and a building getting crumblier and emptier by the day. It was not owned by the right person.

The case of the Harvey House is murkier. Earlier this year, it was not owned by the right person. She said she wanted to tear it down and develop the site. This raised an uproar (see old blogs below) so she decided to rehab it and live in it, thus becoming the right person. Now it burns down almost as conveniently as Christ Episcopal Church in Joliet, so we have to ask again whether this was the wrong person.

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago and Ward Miller of the Richard Nickel Committee both raised the call for rebuilding the Harvey House. At first I thought, what silly sentimentalism. But then I thought again: what a great way to ascertain the true intentions of the owner: does she go back to the “bad owner” that wanted to demolish and gorge on zoning or the “good owner” that wanted to live in the Harvey House? Does she let children play with matches or not?

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