Archive for October, 2007

Twenty Years later

October 26, 2007



gaylord east2004

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In 1987, the rehabilitated Gaylord Building opened as a museum, gallery and restaurant. Last night we gathered there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of saving this landmark.

The oldest portion was built in 1838 as a supply depot for construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and thus is the oldest industrial structure in Illinois. The 3-story Italianate addition was added in the late 1850s when the building was used as a grain store and warehouse. In 1902 two brick stories were added as it became a lock factory, and in 1948 it became a plumbing supply warehouse. By the 1980s it was an abandoned hulk.

Enter the Donnelley family – Gaylord Donnelley learned his grandfather, George Gaylord, had owned the building in the 1870s and 1880s and formed a not-for-profit to rehabilitate the building. Barbi Donnelley, one of my mentors, ran the project and is still intimately involved. Jerry Adelmann, my first mentor, helped inspire it. I recall the hot August day when Gaylord Donnelley announced the project; I recall bringing a tour group to the decrepit hulk and I recall meeting Governor Thompson 20 years ago as we celebrated the opening of the building.

In 1996 it became the first adaptive re-use project to become a National Trust historic site, representing a broadening of a movement that began with house museums. The list of National Trust properties has never been the same – now we have desert pueblos, tenements, and two modern glass houses. The Gaylord also represents the reality of historic preservation – it is ALWAYS adaptive re-use.

I said that last night at the dinner. We had just reviewed an excellent new exhibit of artifacts and documents and new panels describing the entire history of the building (Go. Visit. Now.) I said that historic preservation is about the future, about rehabilitating the physical remains of the past as useful parts of contemporary life – finding new lives for sturdily built structures. It is not about preserving the past but reanimating the past so that it continues to make history.

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SAIC MSHP Faculty In The News

October 25, 2007

Well, Charlie Pipal our redoubtable Professor of Physical Documentation (that is not an official title but an earned one) has just returned from New Orleans where he picked up SAIC’s Honorable Mention for the Charles Peterson Prize, the nation’s award for best measured drawings. This is the third (!) time one of Charlie’s classes has won this award in seven tries, in competition against the nation’s top architectural schools.

Neal Vogel, our intrepid faculty member who brings students to real job sites and shows them how restoration REALLY happens, is on the cover of the Your Place section of the Tribune today, in the midst of a wonderfully refreshing Mary Beth Klatt article on restoring old windows. Neal is prominent in the feature, which for a change presents window restoration in a positive light, giving the lie to the new window industry marketing hype, Which. Is. All. Crap.

More news will be coming soon as we are gathering together a newsletter for mailing this semester. I’ve added Lee Bey’s link (his photography rocks) on the right, and of course you should join Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust (also at right). And the comments feature is working again – spam and all.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

October 23, 2007

All ideologies are wrong.

This is obvious, because ideologies consist of ideas, intangible in the real, everyday world. This is not to say that ideas and ideologies have no agency in the everyday. Clearly, they are the free radicals or cancer cells of the tangible world, causing counterintuitive mischief wherever they go.

The world of ideas like the world of symbols, is a uniquely human phenomenon with profound agency in human history. But that doesn’t make it right. We need symbols to engage languages and media and we need ideas to engage our own minds and others’. But these are imperfect tools, stepladders to engagement that are discarded as soon as real, political engagement begins. We need “wrong” tools to enter into discourse with our subjective world, but that tangible world is entirely subjective, entirely historical, entirely political.

If you want to begin a basic education you must learn to read and write and reckon. If you want to learn architectural history you begin with styles, and then as you progress, you realize that styles are artificial, ideational constructs that are always, in some way, wrong. If you want to learn historic preservation, you begin with an ideology that historic buildings must be saved and as you progress you perceive the nuances and abandon the ideological stance.

We should pity the fools who remain trapped in ideology for the real world will forever disappoint them. If you believe in your ideology, you are necessarily forced to view the world – quite nearly in its entirety – as wrong. This is precisely what almost all religious traditions do, which are the most dogmatic of ideologies. This of course turns my original proposition on its head: instead of all ideologies being wrong, one ideology is right and all the world (and all other ideologies) are wrong.

This is of course quite an impossible position in terms of logic and basic rules of evidence. That makes it heroic to some, and of course the heroic narrative is another idea, a stepladder on the road to literature and adulthood. But it isn’t true, or correct or historical or accurate. It is wrong.

Pioneering architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable said: “History is, after all, a continuing state of flux, and Utopia is a recurring nightmare. I prefer the nightmare of reality. In fact, I have grown quite accustomed to it.”

illusions of difference

October 16, 2007



st patrick wdwS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In Germany they speak German and in China they speak Chinese. You can have romantic fantasies about how languages and countries are superior or inferior to your own. Or you can just see them as different – with their own advantages and disadvantages. I feel the same about technology. I have become a digital professor, using Powerpoint and the Internet instead of slides, despite the fact that I still have 15 linear feet of slide notebooks at home. In 1994 you used slides and in 2007 you use Powerpoint. You can have romantic fantasies about how these media are superior or inferior to each other. Or you can just see them as different.

There is a gulf, a chasm that we have all crossed, and we can call it modernity. We crossed it the moment we left tribal, village-based society, handicrafts and oral folklore and joined global, interconnected society, industry and mass media. Modernity has a lot of cohorts, conditions that accompany that transition. One is the impulse to preserve the pre-industrial, pre-Modern past. Another is Romanticism, that wistful apprehension of times and places removed and thus desirable. So we see the past and foreign countries through a romantic lens, believing they have something we have lost. Hence David Lowenthal said the Past is a Foreign Country.

Another cohort of Modernity is the idea of progressive history – that funny idea that things get better over time. This is a nearly indisputable article of faith among all of us, and in certain aspects – notably medicine since 1850 – it is pretty hard to dispute. But the idea of Progress is Romantic by association, and thus somewhat wistful and wishful.

My Powerpoint wasn’t working today so I used some slides. There is a virus in the lab computers. I like Powerpoint, not because it is better than slides – it is certainly not faster – but because it is different. And portable. Some things are easier, some are harder. It is less Progress than fashion – you get tired of the same clothes or haircut after a few years so you change – not because it is better, but because it is different.

Traditional societies have a circular view of time, even highly organized ones like the Khmer with their Vedic epochs and the Maya with their circular calendars had an apprehension of the passage of time that had nothing to do with improvement, or if it did, it was circular, with golden ages followed by dark ages ad infinitum.

The disillusion with Progress that characterized the last third of the 20th century gave birth to this idea of difference – no judgment, no hierarchy, no superiority. Like the idea of Progress, this has had very felicitous aspects, notably calls for diversity, racial and ethnic tolerance, although arguably these redressed grievances caused by an earlier phase of Modernity, when the idea of the nation and the people was crafted in the 18th century Enlightenment. Lowenthal has written extensively on this trend, a succession of presidents and popes apologizing for slavery, racism, colonialism and the like. He observes our current identification with the oppressed, the marginalized and the historically wronged and concludes “heritage increasingly belongs to the losers. Even victors now aspire to a legacy of defeat.”

There is no preservation without progress and there is no diversity without difference; the legacy of colonizations both macro and micro. 300 years ago we created that difference in order to exploit it and today we exploit that difference in order to perpetuate it. Our identities are all bound up in ideas of heritage that seem timeless but are in fact completely timebound and timecrafted and rarely more than a generation old in their everyday.

But the more you travel to foreign countries and the past the less exotic they seem, the less different. Their romantic allure dissipates like fog and the bus in Kyiv becomes just a bus, although in my memory it is a magical bus of sparkling interactions as I make change in this exotic new language amid a whorling disorienting darkness. I treasure that romantic memory, even though in the cold light of day I know it is no more than the precondition for the tumors of nostalgia.

Vikings Win

October 12, 2007



on leong merch

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Well, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express web contest to restore Chicago area landmarks is over and the Vikings ran away with it. Actually, the runaway rabbit winner was the Pui Tak Center in Chinatown, built in 1924 as the On Leong Merchants Association, which led the voting by a wide margin from Day One of the contest. Naturally, as a prominent Sinophile, I am well pleased with the outcome. So why did I say the Vikings won? Because the Viking Ship managed to finish second, fending off a strong challenge from Von Steuben High School? No, because Vikings finished first and second if you count the architects of On Leong: Michaelsen and Rognstad.

Von Steuben held on to third and Unity Temple – one of the most architecturally significant buildings IN THE WORLD – managed fourth. Tailed by Robie House throughout the voting, the Peabody Estate Mayslake in Oak Brook made a stretch run to finish fith, pushing Robie into sixth and Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral into seventh. A big surprise was the late surge by the Spring Grove Fish Hatchery (?) which apparently benefitted from the advocacy of Rep. Melissa Bean. By the end of this thing it was taking 2000 votes to get a single percentage point, so even the herculean efforts of SAICers to get out the vote for the Roger Brown Studio could only serve to keep it in the top 15.

Well, l I am off to Racine to the Barry Byrne church there for part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy Conference. So much to do….

Twin Cities

October 7, 2007



st columba frtS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Final Day of the National Preservation Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, a surprisingly balmy venue. This is Barry Byrne’s stunning St. Columba church, completed in 1950 and a worthy counterpoint to the more famous Christ Church Lutheran of the same time in Minneapolis by the more famous Eliel Saarinen. I have spent nine years working on a book on Byrne’s work and this is my first view of this, one of his two pioneering fish-shaped churches. Mike Jackson called it a tour de force and Felicity spent some time there with the field camera and most important, the parish recognizes what it has and is doing a nice job of preserving a mid-century Modern classic. Even in my poor photo here, you get a sense of Byrne’s skill at geometries, combining squaring and curving forms, layering them in the vertical the way Wright layered them in the horizontal. What you don’t get a sense of is how a building that is monumental and modest at once on the exterior becomes sweeping and sublime on the interior.

Two trips out to St. Columba were my only chances to get away from a blizzard of meetings and events in this, my first full conference as a Trustee of the National Trust. I even had to miss most of the National Council for Preservation Education events, save our Wednesday morning “Preservation 101” session (well attended) and the Executive Committee on Friday. It was all fascinating: Historic Sites (The Trust has more than two dozen – I represent the Gaylord Building in Lockport, which you should visit) Diversity (a great new plan for a Hispanic American Historic Sites Initiative) and Preservation, which is of course the whole point. I did get to see our alum Chrissie Barr, who is preservation staff for St. Paul’s landmarks commission, and the networking among academic and professional colleagues has been as off the hook as the big houses on Summit Avenue we toured on Thursday and Friday. Garrison Keillor gave the keynote and even greeted guests at his home on the hill. I liked his style: he pleaded for a bit of tastlessness in our efforts – a worthy warning for a field than can get too precious (Every field can get too precious and needs such Cassandras…)

In 25 minutes I am at my next meeting followed by two more and a plane ride, so I better get ready…..more to follow??