Archive for July, 2007

Reilly Rocks!

July 11, 2007

Just hours after we sat in the conference room at Landmarks Illinois and doubted whether Alderman Brendan Reilly would come out in favor of preserving the Lake Shore Athletic Club, he did. Crain’s broke the news yesterday, and tons of Streeterville residents, Landmarks Illinois members and Preservation Chicago supporters who had demonstrated outside the building on June 3 were elated. A 42nd ward alderman bucking the development community in favor of the larger community!

Cynicism in Chicago politics is almost as old as aldermanic privilege, and even though Reilly defeated Burton Natarus last spring largely because Natarus was seen as too friendly with developers, we longtime observers were hedging our bets. Reilly had negotiated an additional 60-day period on top of the 90-day demolition delay provided for landmark-eligible buildings in Chicago. The cynic in me said: well, that will be all he does, to show he made an effort.

But he did more, putting developer Fifield Companies and owner Northwestern University on the defensive. No crocodile tears for either – Northwestern was looking at a capital gain of over $30 million for a lakefront building it never paid taxes on, after bobbling a deal several years ago that would have netted only a few million less without demolishing the building. Fifield’s muscle called the 1920s landmark by nationally famous architect Jarvis Hunt “the lowest and worst use” for the site, a gaffe winning no friends in Streeterville, a reasonably well-heeled community that likes to have a say in its environment. The people that live there want it to stay – that is the real bottom line, as Reilly divined.

This isn’t a small building, and while the exterior ornament is restrained, the interior, especially the pool, is resplendent and lush. Fifield couldn’t build something this nice if it wanted to. That is the trick to pre-1940 preservation – it is made in ways you can’t make anymore. It is not a question of economics but extinction: You couldn’t build that swimming pool today anymore than you could breed passenger pigeons.

Reilly could have dodged this issue with over three years to repair his image among his constituency, but maybe he realized that it was just as important to take a strong stand early on, winning the support of tons of voters. Fifield will hang around no matter what, as will Northwestern, which mostly votes in Evanston, where it has fought local landmark districts for the better part of a decade. In fact, between Lake Shore Athletic and Prentice Women’s Hospital, Northwestern is fast becoming the preservation nemesis Loyola was in the 90s.

Alderman Reilly, however, is a preservation superman today, a world of difference in the 42nd ward!


Window Madness

July 4, 2007

pk hotel wdws comp

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Q: What is the difference between pornography and window replacement?
A: One is a multibillion-dollar industry that exploits human weaknesses with the promise of temporary satisfaction; the other sells images of sex.

Here is a lovely side-by-side of a window replacement going on right now on Marion Street in Oak Park. The aesthetics are pretty obvious – the new window at left has quick-cut panning around the frame, pop-in mutins that look like masking tape applied to a window, and no detail. The old window on the right has curves, molding and depth to its forms. But aesthetics are nothing – many people would say the new window looks cleaner and are big fans of aesthetic cleansing. But does it have any other advantages? No.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY you scream! Scream all you want, I can see the gaps in the caulking from the sidewalk – I would happily give this building owner a nickel for every dollar saved on energy. ENERGY SAVER ratings, you bellow! BUT, they can only test the window itself, and everyone knows energy loss and drafts are largely through the frame, so the efficiency is actually dependent on the installation. Last year the Trib reported that almost a quarter of all windows on NEW buildings were improperly installed, allowing energy loss through the frame. I can SEE the bad caulking on top of the bad panning in this example. I raise my offer to a dime for every dollar saved.

There is an exploitative industry here that pounds you with moral messages about saving energy and then asks you to throw old-growth, tightly-grained wood and glass into the landfill. And just to make the morality play a little more perverse, they sell you a window that will itself need to be replaced in 10-15 years. Triple your rubbish for the sake of the environment! (Check the guarantees – Marvin and Pella offer the longest and they make some decent windows. The jokers who advertise make plastic or aluminum crap that even embarasses people in the industry.)

Let’s see, I’ve made my building uglier, shortened the lifespan of my windows, and depending on my contractor, garnered minimal savings on my heating and cooling bills for a couple years. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Yes, you have reduced the amount of light that comes in thanks to the ham-handed frame-and-sash technology that needs more structural strength to hold double-glazed units. Less window pane, more window pain. Plus, you have to close two latches instead of one for each window – I suppose if you use both hands this won’t take longer. Don’t think about why you need two latches: unlike old-growth wood, plastic and aluminum warp within a few years.

But hey, the building looks cleaner and you can advertise new windows to anyone who wants to rent or buy – just sign those contracts within five years or you are gonna get some ugly questions about why the windows are so hard to open and close and doesn’t that feel like a draft?

That’s when you start the whole process over. That is the beauty and pornography of the window replacement business model: The desire for a non-drafty, clean-looking window never, ever goes away. This is a perpetual motion machine: an expensive product that needs to be replaced every 10-15 years. (I’ve seen some downtown office building windows go screwy in 5-7 years)

It’s panned obsolescence: 1970s and 1980s windows are already a joke. The 90s windows are only a season or two away, and I am collecting photos of a batch of 2001 replacements – we’ll see which of them goes first.

iDon’t Need iT

July 2, 2007

When I was much, much younger I wore watches but quickly tired of the habit – they would either break or get lost, like umbrellas and sunglasses. Living in a city at that time obviated the need for a watch, since every bank had a clock and there were office buildings with clock towers and you rarely had to look for long before you knew what time it was. It was like finding a Starbucks today. I haven’t worn a wristwatch in 20 years – I think the kicker was a digital watch I bought in Bangkok for $2 in 1986, which fell apart in two days. I also didn’t like having one on my wrist – the leather straps were smelly and I didn’t like the stretch bands much more.

I got a watch from my sister Laura that hung on my belt a few years ago, and had another clip watch about four years ago. Each lasted a year or so – it seemed they were becoming more necessary as the public clock began to vanish. But after the second died I didn’t bother to replace it. I experienced watches. I know what they are like. No need for a habit. Like ice cream, I gave it up and that’s that. I remember it and that is enough.

Many blogs ago (about 14 months) I ranted about how I have traveled all over the world, solo, with my wife, with my wife and small children – and never needed a mobile phone. We got one (1) a year ago, and I have used it, which is fun for a few minutes. It is also becoming necessary because there are no more public phones(except in New York, for some reason). That, and an onerous contract, are the reasons we have one. They certainly aren’t worth $1.40 a day.

Now, if I was current, this would be about the iPhone, but I am neither current nor rich, nor do I have illusions about becoming either, so you shan’t hear about iPhones from me. It is about the older technology: the iPod. I was never a huge fan of personal music – when I was in college, boom boxes were big (in both senses of the word) and like most young men I was enthusiastic about forcing my boombastic music tastes on an unsuspecting public. The idea of keeping music to oneself was pointless. I had a cassette player with headphones in the mid-80s to which l rigged up speakers on a belt so I could have a soundtrack as I skated through the streets and along the lakefront.

Then, twenty years later, on an impulse, I mentioned I might like an iPod for my birthday and I was genuinely shocked when my wife got me one. I loaded it up with all my old favorite songs from 20 and 30 years ago and a few newer ones from old CDs. I took advantage of the personal aspect of iPodism and only got the kind of guitar-based rock and punk that I have always liked – no concessions to anyone’s taste but my own. . I even bought a couple songs off iTunes. After two days I had 135 songs I liked. Actually, my choices were well-suited to the iPod’s vaunted aural mediocrity – the “thin” guitars of Talking Heads and Gang of Four sound just fine on an iPod. I rode my bike with those ill-fitting ear buds and it was exhilirating, like skating the lakefront all those years ago. Hell, it was the same songs. I also started to experience the social disconnect of having music in your head while people are trying to talk to you.

And then it was over, stolen out of my house along with my wife’s camera. But it was a fun three days that I will always treasure. Now I know what it is like, and why it is popular. I also got to rekindle decades-old memories and feel the youthful thrill of music-driven wheeled flight through summer sunshine. I also know why so many young people are getting into vinyl after the teeny tinny tintinnabulations of low-fi iPods. I think I really had all of the experiences, plus and minus, that one can have with these devices and I am supremely grateful to my family for giving me that. I’m also sort of grateful to the thief for preventing it from becoming a habit. iPod, meet ice cream.