Archive for November, 2007

Heritage Areas

November 24, 2007

gaylord east2004

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

The AP posted a story today about heritage areas, because Congress approved ten last year, bringing the total to 37 with six more on the way. I was fortunate enough to get my career started working on the very first, the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor and I was in the room when President Reagan signed it into law in August 1984. The picture is the Gaylord Building in the heart of the I & M Canal at Lockport, where I still serve as Chair of the Site Council.

So anyway, I have some experience in this business. The necessarily condensed article from the Associated Press is quite good, although it is always intriguing to see how “news” is made. The curiosity here is the conflict, which every good story needs, but is hard to come by in something as broad-based as heritage areas. Still, thanks to some “budget hawks and property-rights advocates” a record number of “no” votes were recorded on the latest round of heritage areas.

Which is funny, because heritage areas were designed by Republican budget hawks and corporate CEOs to avoid federal land ownership and regulation. These were Reagan-era national parks, devoid of any new environmental or preservation laws, abstaining from any federal control and costing less than last Tuesday’s lunchtime in Baghdad. The first one was promoted by chemical and mining companies and arch-conservatives like Tom Corcoran and Henry Hyde. Funny, some woman named Corcoran is now fighting a heritage area in Maryland, calling it a back door to federal land-use planning that will pressure local governments to plan land use around heritage preservation.

Well, yeah, but so what? What should they plan it around, shopping malls? The Corcoran woman argued for bad taste and talked about public money “so that some elitist can go on a historic tour?”

Well, thank god we have normal people who avoid history. God forbid you should have your region designated a heritage area and allow the average person to appreciate history or become concerned about land use decisions. Unless they are a college-educated property-rights advocate posing as a populist. Then it is okay to have an opinion on land use decisions. Why is telling your neighbor they can’t have a heritage area any different from your neighbor telling you they can? Fact is, every land use regulation since the beginning is arguably an “owner’s club” designed to exclude something or someone that is undesirable. That is why one of the most conservative Supreme Courts found zoning legal in 1926, and a pretty damn conservative one pissed off the left and the right by supporting eminent domain two years ago.

I get the property-rights impulse, or motivation. But they have no logic and even less history. I suppose they would say they prefer land use to be set by the free market, which is something like a first principle. Except for the annoying historical fact that when it comes to land use THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A FREE MARKET ANYWHERE. Ever. Land prices doubled in Chicago overnight in the 1830s thanks to PUBLIC WORKS, and every bit of sprawl speculation and shopping mall development was subsidized by federal and state highways AND STILL IS.

The budget hawks are the ultimate straw man. Eliminate all of the heritage areas and you save enough for what – another 9 hours in Baghdad? another 12 miles of highway on the Great Plains or perhaps 2 miles in the Rockies? One tank? Even the hungriest budget hawk can’t have eyes good enough to see such tiny prey.

But then again, when your principles have been bankrupted you gotta find straw men and tiny prey because on your side of the aisle there aren’t any hawks at all, really.

If you go to the Joliet Arsenal, land taken from farmers by the federal government in the last century for munitions and then given back to the public under the rubric of a heritage area, you will find the butcher bird. It pretends to be a hawk or a bird of prey, but it does not have the tools. So it picks up voles and mice and spears them on Osage orange and other prickly trees because it has neither the talons nor the beak for the job. Just like the pretend budget hawks.


the week just past

November 17, 2007

CAA 1107

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This is the week that was (if you get that reference you are even older than I)

Monday the weather was nice so our Preservation Planning class did a little bit of a walk downtown to see the vistas of the proposed new demolitionaddition to the Chicago Athletic Association from the park (see picture). Millenium Park is inspiring a lot of positive developments but also a lot of mischievous landmark-slicing-and-dicing. Then we walked west to tell the tale of Block 37, from its 1973 semi-racist anti-urban inspiration through the precociously pro-active preservation community response in 1980, when Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust agreed to let four historic buildings go in order to save four others on the block. Then in 1982 the City guidelines recommended saving three buildings and the developer in 1983 said he would save one and two facades, so the city landmarked the McCarthy Building in 1984 and then the developer flip-flopped and asked the city to de-landmark the building in 1987, which they did and Landmarks Illinois sued to the state Supreme Court and lost and the building and every landmark on the block was demolished in 1989. And then….nothing.

Our class, here in 2007 MORE than 18 years after the demolition, watched the new building rise. In the meantime this block-sized I-told-you-so hosted Skate on State and Gallery 37, which many of my students grew up with. There we were – standing across from the site of the McCarthy Building – where I had been photographed exactly 20 years ago and a full generation had passed and that new generation was standing here listening to me tell the story of landmarks demolished before the were in first grade (at least some of them). And of course the whole thing was a TIF district which means the $60 million land write-down was financed by the increased real estate taxes the site would bring and I don’t know who their accountant is but she has to account for 18 years of no flippin’ taxes at all at all at all.

Monday night John Bryan was there for the SAIC event honoring the new endowed chairs, of which I am fortunate enough to have one with John Bryan’s notable name which is a great name to have because he saved the Farnsworth House and built Millenium Park and has helped the National Trust and is most recently enthusiastic for Edgar Miller. Barbi and Tom Donnelley and Jerry Adelmann and David Bahlman were there bless them all. Later we had a nice dinner with Mr. Bryan and his wife Neville and my mother was there along with Felicity and we gave Mr. Bryan one of the books from our 2006 photo documentation trip to Weishan, China. Meanwhile the painters were at the house.

Tuesday was another class with Andrew Heckencamp from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency listening to our Archival Documentation students presenting their rough-draft National Register nominations, then an Executive Committee meeting at Landmarks Illinois where we discussed all the hot issues like Chicago Athletic Association demolitionaddition, Shedd Aquarium’s demi-addition and Evanston’s Hahn building saved by a skyscraper and then home to get the kids from school and then back downtown for the Partners in Preservation event where the winners of the $1 million were announced and l felt good for places we work with like Unity Temple and South Side Community Arts Center but I felt bad for the Roger Brown Home and Studio and Pleasant Home, two sites where I sit on committees and even though I sat on the big committee I couldn’t get them more money but at least there was an open bar.

Wednesday we met with Bill about the other house and Wednesday afternoon I met with students and showed Bill’s sister Anne, our star faculty member, the plans for the other house and met with prospective students and then finally got some work done on the award application for Paul’s house and dashed home just in time to meet with the mason and spent the night clearing out the basement. Thursday we had another painter at the house and I met with another prospective student and went up to the Apple store because the shift key came off this machine but they were packed out so I came back and Ursula at the Help desk fixed it bless her and then I had a meeting with Exhibition and Events Committee and then home for more basement cleaning and packing and pruning.

Now it is Friday and we met a plumber and an appraiser and I talked to two roofers and then I let Felicity take me shopping even though I suffer severely from male pattern shopping disorder although I did get some shoes and it wasn’t as painful as a root canal maybe because it was Friday and now I am on the train again and it seems that this is the only place I can write or get work done like that piece I want to submit to JSAH about Barry Byrne. The funny thing about packing and going through old boxes of stuff and putting things in new boxes and trying to lighten the load is you get sort of a flashback of your life or various odd bits of it and there are always bits you forgot even if you have a memory like mine and it gives a sense of depth, of time, that is always absent from the immediate everyday, a sense of depth like I tried to convey to my students at Block 37, to see the block not just now but in time and its various incarnations and like now with the PhD and the endowed Chair I am starting to feel that depth in me although when you thumb through the photos and clippings in the basement boxes you see it was there all along and it is not new and I wonder if anything is new but when a lot is happening everything feels new because that is the sensation of new, the sensation of activity and action and energy in the immediate everyday which is a sensation not a real thing or at least not an historic fact until time circles around and reminds you that now matter how much you laugh or cry there will be a next week.


November 8, 2007

vw out my windowS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

This view is protected – for now.

One of the reasons we preserve historical things is a desire to preserve history, which is related to a desire to learn from history. The presumption is that learning from history can positively impact our decisions about the future.

In discussing the proposed addition to the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue, most preservationists talk about the terrible precedent being set. The rear two-thirds of the building will be demolished and a two-stage glass addition will be added to the top, limited by the height of the original Madison Street addition. The precedent, of course, is that every other building on Michigan Avenue will demand to do something similar.

We had a similar precedent-setting issue regarding the Legacy, the 80-story monster being perched on top of three historic facades in the Jeweler’s Row district right next to our building. It’s precedent was the Heritage three blocks north, although not a designated landmark district. We have the horrible precedent of North Michigan Avenue’s Farwell Building, to be skinned and reclad on a new structure, just as the McGraw-Hill Building was a decade ago (setting the precedent).

I have a problem with precedent. I like to argue that preservation is a practice beyond precedent because it recognizes the particularity, singularity and uniqueness of every structure in its history and design. No decision made for one building can prefigure another because they are not equivalent buildings. Preservation denies the economists’ passion of alienating every aspect of the material world into an interchangeable commodity. There is only one other building on Michigan Avenue with an L-shaped plan that comes out on the sidestreet (and it is an individual landmark), so the Chicago Athletic Association is pretty unique. Does it merit individual landmark status that would preserve more than the first 30 or 50 feet? Of course.

Lawyers love precedent. It IS English Common Law, which is just a series of historical decisions descending from the weakness of King John in 1215. The idea of precedent is tied to the idea of equity we wrote down in the Constitution – equal rights under law, speedy trials, habeas corpus and all of that democracy stuff that was so popular during the 20th century.

Regular people like precedent too – other owners in the district will march in with their own glasstop additions if this is approved, that much is sure.

Precedent is history, and it follows that same idea that we can learn from history. Nice idea, although history does not bear it out. We don’t learn from history and everyone who tries fails at predicting the future. As a student of history, I find it much more anarchic. I love history not because of its patterns or its predictability but because of its particularity, singularity, uniqueness and anarchy.

The question for you is – do you want anarchy on Michigan Avenue or predictability? Because that is the question that has created most historic districts in this country and the overwhelming answer, the democratic answer, is predictability.

steal this blog

November 7, 2007

monroe hrbr from cycS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

The premise of the internet blog is the same as the premise of the 1960s pirate radio station, the 1910s literary journal or the 1770s broadside: you can say whatever you want, partially cloaked by relative anonymity and fueled by the rapid-fire immediacy of the medium. I had this impish thought about podcasting the meeting I was in a week ago Tuesday, but the fact is that I can’t say anything about it to anyone until next week. This is not unusual –more than occasionally I possess embargoed information or insights, and their confidence is kept by human, not technological means.

The immediacy and efficacy of the latest media seems apparent in any number of stories – from the sublime: the inability of the American and Chinese governments to effectively stage manage the coverage of wars and police actions; to the ridiculous: gulp-by-gulp accounts of the latest Disney Channel druggie. And then you have the people who don’t have little lawyers in their brain who get on a rant about their employer or competitor or whomever and end of getting fired or discredited. This happens a lot in academia, which like the Disney Channel supports arrested development and harbors more than its fair share of passive aggressives.

Unlike the historical media mentioned the internet has a very personal and private interface, which means it is well suited for passive aggressives. It was developed for universities and the military (and whoever invented it should get a Nobel Prize☺) but its bread and butter is pornography, which tells you something about the intimacy of the interface and how users can operate in a public realm without any sensation of public responsibility. Hence, rants and attacks that went on in your head suddenly become mini-press releases and your warped inner workings are unfolded for all (some, really) to see.

The thing everyone loves about this current medium is its immediacy – Dave Matthews wrote and produced a distributed a song – with a full band – in one day. That’s good. But when it comes to the crazy things you say in your head, that’s bad. Should we require a cooling-off period before the purchase of a Saturday Night Special web log?

Fortunately in this blog my discourse avoids the personal, which is just as well because we’ve been through a hell of a year….

Saved By Technology II

November 1, 2007

I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I always include a lecture called “Churches, Theaters and Other Difficult Buildings”. These buildings are “difficult” because they are functionally obsolescent: They were designed for large public assemblies in a pre-automobile era, and nowadays assemblies don’t happen so much. Vaudeville movie theaters combined live and cinematic entertainment and we don’t do that anymore either. Movie theaters today need to have lots of screens for maybe 200 people each, and even big markets like Chicago can only support a handful of live performance venues of 4,000 seats or so. Churches become obsolescent when denominations change, as they have in Chicago neighborhoods for over 40 years, and despite the lingering religiosity of Americans, many people are in exurban superchurches or use religiosity as a wedge against preserving historical features of their buildings.

The problem with “functional obsolescence,” as the Modernists learned to their chagrin, is that even obsolescence becomes obsolescent. Non-functional uses become functional again. Two things gleaned from media lately: First, Wired reported with typical overstatement that soon every movie would be made in the new three-dimensional digital technology about to premiere with Beowulf. (They’ll probably use modern English, which is a shame – I would have liked a bit of “hige sceal pe heardre, heorte pe cenre, mod sceal pe maere pe ure maegen lytlap*” action) Wired quotes some dudes sayin’ that this is as big as talkies were 80 years ago, which meant and means a big capital investment for every theater. The second item was an announcement that Block 37 (20 years vacant and most assuredly NOT MY FAULT) might host a luxury movie theater. Granted, there will be seven screens, but I see a shift here.

Movies go 3-D to compete with the latest tiny tinny box (iPod ) just as they did 60 years ago during the first 3-D craze when they were competing with tiny tinny televisions. But think about the physical plant – big investment in tech for projection might favor bigger halls and fewer screens – recall that the other 1950s industry invention was the drive-in. I’m thinking this could make big white elephants like the Uptown or New Regal useful again as 3-D theaters. The mania of 20-somethings for vinyl LPs and hookahs proves the attraction of group entertainment for a overindividualized generation raised on crappy sound and teensy images.

Now, the real questions are: does this trend play out? Is Wired just blowing smoke? Do operators rehab big old movie palaces or just build new? Sustainability and green-o-rama help us here, but it is only a hunch for now. There is always some sharpster looking to take the easy way out and fill those landfills. Still, it is intriguing and might make these buildings less difficult.

Churches are another question, although the end of the latest Great Awakening suggests that we are not in the kind of religious growth period that gave us all of the “religion don’t have to follow zoning or building codes” laws of the 1990s. And heck, they might jump on to the 3-D trend too if Mel updates his gorefest Christ. Or not. Then we would have to follow the European model: no one goes to church but no one tears down a church.

How do they do that?

* cognoscenti will recognize the Anglo-Saxon passage is from the Battle of Maldon, not Beowulf.