Archive for February, 2007

A Tragedy in Park Ridge

February 11, 2007

cedar court demo

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

They tear down houses a lot in Park Ridge – you don’t have to look far to find a “This Home Will be DEMOLISHED” sign and it is easy to find new houses on each block, oversized 21st century Wonder Bread designs with the baroque doors, huge plastic windows, and Costco massing. They replace bungalows, Victorians, postwar ranches, whatever.

But this one hurts. Bad. They are taking down the center unit of a 5-house crescent development, and it is architecturally significant. The whole block is. It was once owned by William Malone, Park Ridge’s second mayor. The house has three homes by renowned architect R. Harold Zook and these five by Barry Byrne, one of the most significant architects to come out of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio.

The most significant after Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, actually. John Van Bergen was important, but stuck with residential commissions. William Drummond did some amazing buildings, but reverted to safe designs in the 1920s. Byrne became the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe and did large Catholic churches and seminaries into the 1960s. He never abandoned Modernism.

The Park Ridge Houses – called Cedar Court, were built about 1923 just before Byrne and Iannelli went to Europe and met Mies and Mendelsohn and Oud and Wijdeveld and toured the Weimar Bauhaus with Maholy-Nagy and Lyonel Feininger. They resemble Dutch or German houses of the period with their jerkinhead roofs, punched windows and stucco finish (interestingly over clay tile, not frame) And they are a matched set, the end houses anchoring, the inner houses with roofs sloping dramatically toward the center unit, deliciously symmetrical – and doomed.

Park Ridge has no landmarks protection and despite many fine buildings – notably the Pickwick Theater and Maine East High School, both by Zook, only two on the National Register.

Byrne designed the houses with his Park Ridge partner, the sculptor Alfonso Iannelli, who lived in the suburb for fifty years. Malone commissioned Byrne and Iannelli for a number of projects in Park Ridge and this is one of the few that was built, although the commercial strip around the corner bears some of the hallmarks of Byrne and Iannelli’s textural modernism. There are long garages behind – two cars go in either end. The half-moon courtyard in front of the houses is owned in common and can’t be built upon.

This demolition is happening because the owner figured rehab would cost almost $400 K and he can get a new house for that. But it will destroy the context of the crescent-shaped complex and unless the new house mimics the old – which it won’t – it will take away from the houses around it. It will almost certainly reduce their value.

But that is how teardowns work – parasitically sucking value from the buildings around them into 20-year lifespan hack jobs of new growth pine and pressboard.

It’s too bad it has to happen to one of Illinois’ great architect-artist teams. Maybe Park Ridge will wake up and pass a landmarks ordinance.


Oak Park settles down a bit

February 9, 2007

fields op

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Well, from the tenor of the panel discussion in Oak Park this morning, the Fox News-style polarization of preservation has died down a bit. This is a good thing. A developer, a village president/architect, a local architect and two preservationists made up a panel that was distinguished more by how much they agreed than by the false “Preservation or Development” dichotomy that was set up.

The biggest laughs came to Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago who said the title “Historic Preservation: Too Much of a Good Thing?” reminded him of “Women’s Suffrage: Too Much of a Good Thing?” or “Child Labor Laws: Too Much of a Good Thing?”. He is right that preservation has to keep justifying itself.

He also noted that there is no “development” in a place like Oak Park or Chicago – only “redevelopment”. Several people commented (this is a timeless classic you hear over and over again) that Frank Lloyd Wright would not have been able to build what he did if preservation laws were in place.

So, I naturally pointed out that Frank Lloyd Wright came to an Oak Park of 5000 people, left for good when it was 20,000. It was 60,000 when they saved his Home and Studio. He was building on vacant land, not redeveloping.

Royce Yeater spoke of preservation as managing the cultural environment, which is an elegant and apt phrase and underscored the notion of process – it is never over and done with once and for all. I would add that preservation is entirely future-oriented. That sounds strange on the face of it (aren’t they trying to preserve the past) but in fact preservation is a present action aimed solely at what a place looks and feels like in the future.

Of course there was one voice that ranted about property rights. I didn’t have the opportunity to point out the legal lessons given us by the Supreme Court in 1926, 1954, and 1978 or the many by lower courts that also upheld zoning and preservation regulations. You should read them. They are all about property rights and they found that these regulations preserve property rights rather than abrogating them. The 1926 decision by Sutherland in Ambler v. Euclid is especially illuminating because Sutherland was so pro-property rights.

Finally, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the regulations of a historic district in downtown Oak Park and dire predictions of how it would impede development, harm owners, etc. These arguments have surfaced since at least 1926, and the funny thing is…they only surface BEFORE a designation, not AFTER. Fine noted how the designated commercial districts in Chicago are thriving.

The elephant in the room this morning was the Avenue District in Oak Park. It is landmarked. Why weren’t the owners there complaining? Why haven’t they written to describe all the horrors they have had to endure over the last decade or more that they have been subject to landmarks review? Reality check, anyone?


February 7, 2007

I pull out my laptop on the elevated train and begin typing this. The train follows tracks curving right, leaving the solid viaduct for steep supports in the street. I look over at the remaining tracks on the viaduct and there are open-topped coal hoppers stretching from Central Ave to Cicero, mounds of black flecked with white snow. I ponder only momentarily that long stretch of railcars full of coal and how much my computer depends on them.

space for discovery

February 5, 2007

si satchanalai sukhothai

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on the interpretation of historic sites. Tim Samuelson and Barbara Koenen of the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs are coming to class today to talk about the students researching Chicago Tribute Markers, which will then be installed at sites they help determine, interpreting important figures in Chicago history.

Sadly, some of the sites are vacant. In fact, the world is full of historical markers that point out things that just aren’t there anymore. When historical societies started putting up bronze markers decades ago, they were a kind of memorial or gravestone, commemorating something that would otherwise be forgotten, because nothing physical remained to remind us of it.

That is one of the reasons we preserve things – to have something physical to remind us of what was before, to maintain continuity and time in the landscape. But preserved sites and structures often need interpretation so that people understand that history, especially in a time like our own full of new buildings that seem to imitate old styles. Or restored buildings that look too new, too perfect.

This is a challenge. People want buildings – especially after a large investment – to look perfect. But that makes them a bit harder to interpret. There is something profoundly interactive about the discovered building, the romance of stumbling across Angkor in the jungle in 1862, or the tiger hunter who found the Ajanta caves in 1819, or Richard Nickel discovering a forgotten Louis Sullivan building on the south side only to find it was about to be demolished. Nickel couldn’t stay away, as we all know, and I can’t help but think it was the romance of discovery, of the unrestored old building, still layered with history debris, still resonating with the tintinnabulations of time.

More than 20 years ago I visited Sukhothai in Thailand, the earliest Thai capital (13th century I think?) before Ayuthaya, before Krung Thep. It was a complex of viharas (monasteries) and temples, all in a manicured garden with walkways and roads for the tour buses. It was great, but the next day I went to Si Satchanalai, a sister city from the same period maybe 10 clicks away. There were no walkways – you paid some guy a few baht to row you across the river in a little boat and then wandered through high grasses to discover overgrown temples and viharas in near solitude. This sense of discovery stuck with me, how powerful it was and it seems to me, you need to impart that sense of discovery in a successful interpretation. Don’t make it perfect – listen to the icon painters and leave that flaw, that void for the humans to crawl in.