Archive for September, 2007

Chicagoland Watch List

September 21, 2007

rf bank bldg entlangS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Landmarks Illinois released its Chicagoland Watch List yesterday – click on the Landmarks Illinois link at right for all the details.

The downtown deal to gut and extend the Chicago Athletic Club upwards is getting the most press because it is the only Loop building, but there are several other notables worth mentioning.

One of my favorites is the River Forest Bank Building, a rare example of a significant Prairie School commercial building, designed by Wright protege William Drummond in 1912. Oak Park and River Forest are rich in Prairie style houses, including those by Wright, but you have to head out to Mason City Iowa if you want to see a comparable Prairie School commercial building. That makes it exceptionally valuable – it is one of my favorite “hidden” Prairie School treasures (along with Van Bergen’s Munyer Apartments and the 700 block of William Street in River Forest) and it adds a dimension to this internationally important design school that could easily be lost.

Thanks to the tanking of the housing market, the building is still here, but the plan is to demolish it as soon as the market picks up. To top it off, River Forest’s toothless preservation ordinance – just adopted – can’t help a building unless the owner consents. Which means it can’t help a building that needs help. Other commercial bulldings – often the most threatened, include the Foley-Rice auto dealership in Oak Park and the Recycled Paper Products building on North Broadway in Chicago.

Another favorite is the Raber House, an 1870 Italianate which illustrates how even landmark protection is limited by the reactive nature of the regulatory process. The building can’t be demolished, but if it isn’t rehabbed soon, it may fall apart. The Illinois Central Hospital has made the list again, as has the mid-century Modern beauty of the Gunner’s Mates building at Great Lakes Naval Base.

I’m not going to list them all, but check it out for yourself at And while you are surfing, don’t forget to vote at!


More Museums in the Park?

September 19, 2007

mill park507s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

For the past 24 years I have regularly done tours and lectures on Chicago architecture, history, geography, and lots of other subjects (lots of other locales too). I recall doing a presentation on Chicago architecture for a group located in a basement room of a 1920s park building in Lincoln Park in the early 1990s. The second time I did a talk for the group, they were planning to move out of the basement to larger quarters, which they did.

What I didn’t realize at the time (I rarely do) was that the tiny well-meaning group striving to edify the children of Lincoln Park was the leading edge of a new trend, a brilliant business model that has exploded into a significant industry in the last two decades. The children’s museum.

By the late 1990s, I was visiting children’s museums around the Midwest as part of my work for Michelin’s green guides, and as they appeared in several Chicago suburbs it became clear that this was a phenomenon like brewpubs and iPods – everyone wanted one. Heck, my kids love them – even had a birthday party at one this past summer, so I have seen how well this (not-for-profit) business works.

The little Lincoln Park basement museum moved into Navy Pier, which gets 9 million visitors a year, and soon the Chicago Children’s Museum was a serious force. And now it is out of space.

In 2004 Millenium Park became the “it” space in Chicago, displacing the Pier, and it wasn’t long before Millenium Park turned out to be the camel’s nose and the Chicago Children’s Museum became the camel. This is why Alderman Reilly is against the proposal – it is another building in Grant Park, which is not allowed to have buildings. Except the Art Institute, and “temporary” buildings like the 29-year old Petrillo Bandshell, and “ancillary structures” like the pavilions around Buckingham Fountain, and places like the Harris Theater that are tucked under the grass and the Gehry bandshell which is legally “sculpture”. Yes, there is a problem of a truckload of exceptions that prove the rule. All of these were the camel’s nose and here comes the double-humped children’s museum.

The Mayor is in favor of it, and the spin is: He is in favor of children. That’s a pretty safe harbor, but it is disingenuous. If the cause is good and sweet and wholesome enough, they are allowed to have a building in the park? It wouldn’t take us long to come up with a list of socially endearing museums that could fill the remaining 300 acres of Grant Park.

The historical reality is that the Field Museum was kicked out of its preferred Grant Park location despite the advocacy of Daniel Burnham, the city, the newspapers and the business leaders except for Montgomery Ward. And Ward is the one who let the Art Institute in. A couple weeks ago the Tribune weighed in against the museum even before Reilly’s announcement. Meanwhile the Mayor’s side is cobbling together innuendo to spin it into a racial issue. It is really a lakefront issue. It is also a success issue – this children’s museum thing is hot, hip and happening and they want a piece of the hot, hip and happening park. The questions are: Who’s next, How much clout do they have and When do we run out of space?

The Sustainability of History

September 16, 2007

When I began this blog two years ago the big news was Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, so perhaps it is time for another look. My friend and fellow National Trust Trustee Jack Davis had a very good piece in the Tribune’s editorial section today about New Orleans, one of his two hometowns (the other is Chicago). It was accompanied by two excellent maps of historic 19th century New Orleans and the area that escaped flooding following Hurrican Katrina two years ago. The maps matched up perfectly: 18th and 19th century New Orleans residents, developers and leaders had built a sustainable community on the high ground safe from flooding. Most of what flooded were areas that had been expensively and artificially drained in the 20th century – basically disasters waiting to happen. Davis was weighing in on the battle to rebuild the modern areas in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they will continue to be vulnerable. Part of the challenge is racial and political, as the new areas were strongly poor and black, and part is personal and emotional – he describes lovingly restored homes in virtually abandoned neighborhoods. People forge a bond to a place that defies logic. I was reminded of my friend Myron Stachiw’s project documenting the people that returned to their homes around Chernobyl in the Ukraine following the nuclear disaster despite the fact that they were demonstrably endangering their lives by doing so. Davis also points out that the racial equation is not simple either, as New Orleans today has a sudden and significant Hispanic population it never had before (despite being briefly part of Spain).

This racial and economic – which is to say political – struggle recalled the one played out on Friday at the Bronzeville National Heritage Area Summit at McCormick Place. This was the second summit on the excellent idea of creating a Bronzeville National Heritage Area in Chicago, a loose federal designation that interpretively unites a series of sites and landscapes without regulatory mechanism. My first job was aiding the creation of the first heritage area, the Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor in 1984, and my work in Yunnan is in the aid of a similar landscape-wide mechanism to enhance historic preservation and economic development. One of the speakers, Leanna Flowers of Shorebank, talked about the issues of race and class that are already inflecting the effort to save Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side. I have noticed it – when I brought tour groups through Bronzeville 20 years ago, there were no white faces, although in the Gap and along King Drive there was the clear presence of an upper-middle class black population that was politically and socially distinct from poorer members of the community, despite their racial identity. Today the presence of white faces throughout the South Side has brought a more visible expression of the same challenge: how do you preserve and promote a community without experiencing a gentrification that transforms that community? Will the celebration of African-American history that is Bronzeville be undertaken by African-Americans? Will it be undertaken by those with a personal connection to that past – like my friend Harold Lucas – or more recent residents? If the latter, what does that mean for the interpretation and perpetuation of that heritage?

Personally I believe that all people can share in and celebrate a particular heritage – it was clear from the tourism vision promoted in Bronzeville and every other heritage area that this is the case. Harold is as likely to take a group of Europeans on a tour of Bronzeville as a group of Americans. Yet how does the present-day community play into that tourist vision? Is it spoiled if the area is too white? Will that drive away tourists seeking an “authentic” experience? By the same token, if the area becomes predominately black but also predominately middle-class, will that accurately portray a history that was defined and delimited by racism and thus combined a range of economic classes into a single community? The challenge is true in every heritage area – the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan could experience a gentrification by the Han Chinese (and those from Hong Kong and Taiwan) and a diminution of the local Yi, Hui and other groups (Lisu, Miao, etc.) that the Heritage Valley commemorates and celebrates – and tries to preserve.

Is preservation forever a fugitive goal, motivated by and condemned to patch together a facsimile of lost community? Perhaps, but it is central to personal identity and place identity, as both New Orleans and Chicago (and Chernobyl and Weishan) show. After all, Identity and Life are also fugitives, existing not in their attainment but in their pursuit.

More Partners Progress

September 12, 2007

Well, today’s surprise in the voting for is Von Steuben High School. Somebody must have gotten an alumni list – or better, a student list and those high schoolers are flooding their votes in and have kicked it up into second place. A more internet-savvy generation might have figured out how to network more votes. Chinatown is holding firm in first place, and however they are voting – it is working – they have maintained a several point lead over the others since Day 1. The Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Oak Park are also holding up, likely benefitting from the fact that they are the most well-known – a triumph of sorts for traditional art history. I am glad to see the South Side Community Arts Center making a comeback, although of course a bit disappointed that Pleasant Home and Roger Brown have dipped in the standings. I am still surprised at the Viking Ship – I suppose it got the most press on the Endangered List last spring, but I still can’t figure how it is getting all those votes. Aurora is also holding firm, and I am glad to see Holy Trinity and Humboldt Park rising. I am worried that the Great Lakes Building needs more support in order to convince the Navy that it is worth preserving. It seems that “community landmarks” are doing better now, although I suppose you could argue that high-style architecture is doing well, what with the Frank Lloyd Wrights and the rising Louis Sullivan. Almost a month left – it will be fun to watch!

Partners Progress

September 8, 2007

Well, we are two days into the Partners in Preservation voting (see post above and vote at and time for a quick crit of the results so far – with over a month to go.

On Leong/Pui Tak in Chinatown has the early lead thanks to an aggressive mareting campaign among members and friends – and hey, it is worthy – some of the best terra cotta in town. They started off with 16% and still lead at 12%.

Lisa Stone and all my friends at SAIC are doing a good job keeping Roger Brown in the Top 10 (currently 8th), and Frank Heitzman and Laura Thompson have managed to get Pleasant Home in the top 10 as well.

The striking thing to me about the results: Traditional high-style architecture is drawing the votes – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple and Robie House are Numbers 2 and 5, and the Cultural Center is number 4. These are buildings that were the subject of preservation interest and advocacy in the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1980s and again today. A similar argument could be made for the architecturally stunning if less famous Humboldt Park Receptory and Pleasant Home. I guess I was expecting m0re support for “community” landmarks like the South Side Community Arts Center, Independence Park Bungalow or Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox (which thanks to Louis Sullivan could also be in the high style category). The GAR Hall in Aurora at Number 6 is the highest in this category, and props to Homan Square for bringing Lawndale up to Number 11 – how did the West Siders top the two South Side African American sites? On the other hand, High Modernist architecture – represented by Building 42 at great Lakes Naval Center – is lingering at Number 18.

And then there is the Viking Ship at Number 3! This is I believe the only one from Landmarks Illinois’ current Most Endangered List, so perhaps the earlier publicity helped. The only sculpture, the Fountain of Time, is Number 10, although its size and construction make it arguably a building.

Predictions? I think Chinatown will hold serve for at least a while, and my gut says the Wright buildings will also persevere. Roger Brown may dip as SAIC students and faculty get into the semester, although that could have the opposite effect as more people visit the site may keep it in the top 10. I think that those sites regularly open to the public, like Pleasant Home, Unity Temple, Robie House and the Cultural Center, will have the advantage in the coming weeks, making it harder for places like Great Lakes Building 42 and the ABLA Animal Sculptures, currently in storage. to compete. We should see a shift in standings after the open houses next weekend. Stay tuned.

Partners in Preservation

September 6, 2007

No picture today because I can’t post all 25.

American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, where I serve as a Trustee, just announced Partners in Preservation, a project that will give away $1 million to historic landmarks in the Chicago area. The project allows YOU to participate by voting for your favorite site from some 25 eligible sites in the Greater Chicago area, simply by logging on to In true Chicago tradtion, you can vote often – every day from now until October 10. The top vote-getter is guaranteed of funding, but a blue-ribbon committee (where I also serve) will decide if other sites get funding and how much.

Now, the rest of today’s blog will consist of disclaimers of connections that I have to the various sites. As I joked with several people, I am only pushing for the 21 sites I am personally connected with. I just pulled that number out of the air, so let’s go through the list and see what my conflicts are:

ABLA Animal Sculptures – I have been working with the Chicago Public Housing Museum and Driehaus Foundation to put together a museum in the surviving Jane Addams Federal housing building from the 1930s – these Edgar Miller sculptures were part of the same site, and are now in a conservator’s studio not far from my house.

Bohemian National Cemetery – I actually can’t think of a direct connection here, although the project is to restore the prominent water tower, and SAIC did a Water Tower class with Neal Vogel and Rolf Achilles last year.

Chicago Cultural Center – The only downtown site, I go there always and Neal and Rolf could tell you all about the stained glass. SAIC students also worked closely with Barbara Koenen and Tim Samuelson of the City last Spring, who office in the building.

Fountain of Time – Bill Latoza brought students to work on this in past years. and the contact is our SAIC Historic Preservation alum Michael Fus. I always bring tours there too.

Grand Army of the Republic Memorial, Aurora. Again, an SAIC HPRES alum is the contact (Jan Mangers) and I have visited it – cool site in a cool, underappreciated historic city.

Great Lakes Naval Station Building 42 – I am also on the Board of Landmarks Illinois, which has been instrumental in convincing the Navy to save this Modernist treasure – I hope to make the open house on the 15th/

Grosse Pointe Lighthouse, Evanston – Charlie Pipal’s Physical Documentation class did HABS drawings of this site in 2003.

Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral – Nice to see Father John Adamcio this morning – Holy Trinity asked me to speak at their centennial back in 2003.

Homan Square Power Plant – I did walk through the whole Sears complex back in the early 90s with Charles Shaw and Jim Peters’ Planning Studio class focused on Lawndale two years ago.

Humboldt Park Stables and Receptory – I gave a little speech in this building over a decade ago with the Governor’s wife (Edgar) and I lobbied the Park District in 1994 on behalf of this building with one of the Puerto Rican museum activists. I was also walking my dog in the park the day after the arson fire that nearly destroyed it in 1992.

Independence Park Bungalow – At least one SAIC alum works at the Chicago Bungalow Association and several more have interned there, although I was not aware of this particular building.

International Museum of Surgical Science – I worked very hard to landmark this building around 1990 – even met Fred Countiss, who grew up there. Also wrote up the museum for the Michelin Guide in 1996.

On Leong Merchants Association Building/Pui Tak – no direct connection, despite all of my China work – we did have a student exhibit in the Chinatown Library two years ago, and I am sure I testified in favor of its designation as a Chicago Landmark.

Peabody Estate, Oak Brook – Neal Vogel led another great Restoration Methods class there this summer, and I spoke there a few years back thanks to Charlie Pipal.

Petersen Farmstead, McHenry – No connection, although I have heard of it.

Pleasant Home, Oak Park. Lots here. Charlie Pipal’s class did HABS drawings here in 2001, I have served on the Restoration Committee for five years or more, I speak AT LEAST once a year, have done student and faculty retreats, workshops and parties there. It is also one of two finalist within two blocks of my house.

Quinn Chapel AME. Charlie’s class did HABS drawings here in 2000 and won a Peterson Prize (Honorable Mention) for them, as well as an honor from the church itself. Have toured it a few times, most recently at Landmarks Illinois’ Annual Meeting last year.

Ragdale Foundation, Lake Forest. Our faculty member Anne Sullivan is in charge of the restoration here and there are numerous SAIC connections to this artists’ retreat.

Robie House, Chicago. Oh great, only one of the most important buildings IN THE WORLD. I saw it out of my dormitory window for a year while in college, have led numerous tours there, have had many students do internships there and our own Don Kalec is on the restoration committee. I’m a member.

Roger Brown Study Collection. Yow. I am on the Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee, I have students interning there or doing projects there almost every single semester, our students did a restoration of the storefront in the summer of 2006, our alum Lisa Stone runs the place and I have brought probably seven different classes there, exhibited work there when it was 1926 gallery, organized an undergraduate show there in 2004, have had several student receptions there, several SAIC faculty have worked on aspects of the restoration – the list goes on. My favorite thing is the medicine cabinet, followed closely by the dishwasher.

South Side Community Arts Center – Felicity had a piece in the Urban Renewal show there this past Spring (see blog on April 4, 2007) and I have visited several times. I also vividly remember the Chicago Landmarks designation hearing 15 years ago when several women recalled Eleanor Roosevelt showing up for the dedication in 1940.

Spring Grove Fish Hatchery. No connection. Looking forward to learning about this one.

Unity Temple, Oak Park. Another long list, where to start? I’ve spoken here, brought many, many tour groups here, attended loads of events and concerts from my sister’s wedding to Ed Lifson and Tim Samuelson’s part of the Breaking the Box series this past year. My kids have spent more time here than at any other site on the list – including Alexandra’s 7th birthday last year – her idea, complete with Froebel block workshop. Oh, and it is ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT BUILDINGS IN THE WORLD. You can sit in there forever and never get bored – that is living architecture, man, it doesn’t stop for a second. Geoff Baer interviewed me there a year or two ago for a Channel 11 piece on churches in Chicago. It is the closest to my house and I see it daily.

Viking Ship, Geneva. I remember this thing from its Lincoln Park days, and Charlie Pipal did a cool seminar a year ago on the Columbian Exposition and several students documented this 1890s replica. Very cool. It was also on the Landmarks Illinois’ 10 Most Endangered List this year.

Von Steuben High School. No connection, except I saw this building tons over the last quarter century because a close friend from 1984 to the present lives on the block south. SAIC facutly Bill Latoza is probably working on it because he does so much with CPS.

So, that’s it. I guess my number was wrong, it looks like I have some connection to 23 of the 25. It would probably only take a phone call to find the connection to the other two. Vote for your favorite every day. I will!