Archive for February, 2008

Berwyn, Illinois

February 28, 2008


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Lots of preservation issues in Berwyn – the local preservation movement there has been active for some time – our students did a survey of the village in 1999 and there has been some fascinating back-and-forth-and-into-the-bathroom-bribery-with-the-feds over the lovely Berwyn Bank Building, which is finally being saved.

There is the issue of the Spindle – centerpiece of a state marketing campaign, one of two Illinois sites in a recent tourism article in American Airlines magazine, the cover of a 1991 issue of Metropolitan Review, etc. This thing is an icon and it is so much more than 1980s irony in the middle of a shopping mall parking lot – but it is made of cars and it is in bad shape and needs an expensive fix.

Then there is the Sears house – one of the ubiquitous kit houses sold by the mail-order giant in the early 20th century and the object of preservation interest for about twenty years. The Berwyn Park District wants to demolish it for parkland (how many LEED points do you lose for kicking up that much toxic dust? What, none? Oh, I forgot, LEED is a manufacturer’s club that has as much to do with being green as the Lucky Charms Leprechaun has to do with being Irish.)

At any rate, Berwyn preservationists have at the least gotten the Park District to give them three months to find a new site and someone who will take the house for free and move it. We did this in Oak Park in ’99 with a very old 1860s farmhouse, but it might be a first for a kit house – even if the kit houses are by definition portable products. If you have a site for it, let me know, because saving it is far from easy.
The bold preservationists of Berwyn have a partial list of historic properties at

Of course, the greatest virtues of Berwyn are the stunning solid Chicago bungalows that make up huge chunks of its built fabric. These are solid, sustainable buildings that it doesn’t take a campaign – or a federal investigation – to save.



February 22, 2008

Time is not really linear, but it appears to be, and so history appears to be arithmetic, at least to us Post-Enlightenment modern types. Of course, the ancient Khmer and many others saw time as circular and even last month my colleagues in India talked about time as helical. But we tend to the linear and arithmetic, as I noted in my previous blog about how people assume older buildings and building components are more worn out or replaceable, when in fact a 100-year old building is generally much more resilient and well built than a 40 year old building.

A few other examples. The first time I went to India in 1986 I took a very nice bus tour of Mysore and the guide noted that the United States had only 300 years of history while India had more than 3000. Now, if this was arithmetic, the solution would be: The history of India is 10 times greater than the history of America. It is certainly 10 times longer. But what if you add the variable of population? There are more people alive today than in all of human history – is the history that happened to 50 or 100 million people between 0 AD and 1000 AD more or less important than the history that happened to 10 billion people between 1900 and 2000? It took Paris almost two hundred years to become a city of a million inhabitants and it only took Chicago 50 years. If an historic event is experienced by a million people is it twice as important as one experienced by half a million people? Is a person who lives to be 100 twice as important as one that dies at 50? When Martin Luther King Jr was my age he had been dead for 8 years and already had a Nobel Peace Prize. And just because I have been around for a number of years doesn’t make me twice as smart as I was when I was half my age. That is definitely false.

So, history is not a math problem. In fact, most all of history exists for most people (not for me I’m a geek) in one box labeled “Back There” and it is used in the present in the same way no matter how old it is. Look at “identity dates” like 1690 (Ireland) 1865 (Atlanta) 1066 (England) 1389 (Kosovo) and age is not really important – they serve the same function in the ongoing everyday. And this would of course mess up the math if indeed the math had anything to do with it, since the number of actual Irish around in 1690 is far outweighed by the number that focused on that date throughout the last century and a half. Indeed, much of history is in fact a “story” (same word in Romance languages) used to unite, divide and exploit people. This is what I call “heritage” following Lowenthal since it is not really about the past as the past but only the past as a key or symbol for the present.

Of course, these mythologized historic events have incredible agency – people will kill themselves and others for causes that are justified and ornamented with historical facts and even historical inaccuracies, but usually there needs to be a present agency as well. The classic example nowadays is Islamic militancy which collects a variety of historic events (colonialism, foundation of Israel, that guy’s visit to a sensuous and decadent America in 1948) but would probably have much less potency if not for the economic backwater much of that world finds itself in and the identity confusion promulgated by being raised in a traditional society and then moving to a modern urban society. Most of the history that explains people’s actions is no more than a generation old: all that other history is just a collected commodity like CDs or MP3s or tattoos. Real history is messy and ugly and non-linear and most people wouldn’t base their identity on it because it isn’t simple and straightforward.

A very interesting example of this phenomenon in historic preservation was presented yesterday by Dr. Thomas Coomans, who spoke about Identity and Heritage in Belgium. Belgium is a classic example of the 19th century drive to create heritage identity and nations – the country initially focused on reclaiming and radically restoring its medieval heritage, since that recalled an era before they were ruled by Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. A combined country with a Dutch speaking north and French speaking south was especially in need of monuments to forge a nation out of difference. The tension that existed over the next century was between conservative Catholicism and liberal secularism. Vernacular architecture came to the fore in the early 20th century and a Flemish quarter with costumed actors was a feature of the 1913 Ghent exposition. World War I ravaged the country and the response was to restore buildings deliberately targeted by the Germans to attack the national identity, like Louvain library. Then by the 1930s regionalism resurfaced and the split was no longer Catholic v. Liberal but Flem vs. Walloon, a dichotomy that exists to this day. In fact, since the 1980s, it is a trichotomy, with Flanders and Wallonia and the capital, Brussels, having their own heritage agencies and laws. Flanders tends toward the medieval, recently listing a collection of beguinage, while Wallonia, poorer and less industrialized, works to preserve industrial history sites as well as archaeological ones. Brussels seeks to be a world city and capital of Europe and thus follows a path different from both regions, stressing the Art Nouveau heritage of Victor Horta. The recent restoration of the ultra modern Atomium from the 1958 exposition strives for a lost unity as the split between Flanders and Walloon has recently become a major news item in the political realm. Dr. Coomans also spoke about the problem of facadism in Brussels, which led me to ask him, since Chicago has so much facadism, does that mean we are becoming a world city rather than a regional one?

And then there is intangible heritage, the international preservation cause of the 21st century, introduced at Nara in ’94. They recently listed the carnival in Binche as a World Heritage site, certainly a good example of intangible heritage. And, they always have chocolate, and the world’s greatest variety of beer. I think that is a good place to stop writing.


February 18, 2008

Friday I gave my first Powerpoint lecture on Barry Byrne, although I have given lectures on the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe for 10 years – it was all slides until a couple of years ago. Great audience for the break-the-box lecture series at Unity Temple and kudos to new UTRF Executive Director Emily Roth! Saturday, sold the house. Tomorrow, discussing The Modern with SAIC colleagues, then off to DC to meet with AIA on putting preservation into architectural curricula.

It is amazing how resistant some architects are to preservation. They see it as stifling creativity. Huh? Do you define creativity by how blank your slate is when you start? By how much you get to twist and reshape the world without input from others? Is that dumb or what? Isn’t it harder and MORE creative to devise an architectural solution in the midst of existing conditions? Aren’t there always existing conditions? I don’t get it, but maybe that is because I don’t mind formal and discursive oppositions taken by new architectural interventions into existing fabric. Plus, if blank slates are better for creativity, why does every bit of exurban landscape LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME? I suppose one answer is that architects weren’t involved, but that just begs the question Why Not? At any rate, many architecture schools teach no preservation even though three-quarters of all architectural commissions are for existing buildings.

This resistance is especially amazing in the new GREEN GREEN GREEN environment. How can you run out and get a LEED certification and use it to SELL NEW PRODUCT? How is selling new product sustainable? “I made it out of bamboo so it is renewable.” Yeah, well, I made it out of what was already there. “I used recycled materials” Great – how did they get there? In a fusion-powered truck? My materials WERE ALREADY THERE. Green may be the newest fashion but if architects and others want to prove that they are more than fashionistas they are going to have to embrace a sustainability you can’t buy at Home Depot. You can’t buy sustainability – you have to make it locally, ideally on-site. That’s called preservation.

There is a perception problem caused by numbers. In real estate, people value buildings and their systems and materials and finishes based on age, which makes sense for about 10 years. They talk about a new building as if it were 10 better than a building 10 years old and 100 better than a building 100 years old, but this assumes that all buildings at all times were created with the same lifespan. That is not so. In fact, buildings built before 1930 are generally designed to last for a hundred years or more, from the structure to the windows and doors. Buildings built before 1920 are also more energy efficient than buildings built between 1920 and 2000, on the whole. This actually makes sense if you study history. From 1945 to 1970 we had to build tons of buildings quickly. We had lost a generation of craftsmen, and we had gained a military industrial production system that could churn out cheap buildings quickly. These were not made to last – in fact, they were designed like other postwar consumer products, to become obsolescent so we would buy more and stimulate the economy. They were also built during a rare period in history: from 1945 to 1970 energy was cheap. Energy was not cheap in 1910 and it was not cheap in 1880. But it was cheap in 1960, so we switched from double glazing to single glazing, from plaster to drywall, from subfloors to plywood and from cavity walls to platform frames. The problem is arithmetic. Since we know that buildings 40 and 50 years old are inefficient, we think that buildings 90 or 110 years old must be more inefficient, when the opposite is true. The past does not work arithmetically. A building 100 years old can last twice as long as a building built 50 years ago. This even applies to systems. We have an older boiler heating our house right now and the heating contractor advised against upgrading it to the modern ones that operate at a low and high setting and are thus more efficient. Why did he do that? Because ours already operates on those more efficient settings! That was how they used to design boilers! Like double glazing.

Next time you try on your latest green fashion, see if the mirror isn’t reflecting more than a little history.

windows windows more windows

February 14, 2008

After a very good article about window replacement not long ago, today’s Your Place section of the Tribune slipped back into bad habits with a cover story arguing that old drafty windows are “so last winter.”

A few obvious problems here. The cute graphic sidebar that accompanied the article with 6 “clear signs” for window replacement has no author but at the bottom proclaims: Source: Jeld-Wen Windows and Doors. YOW! This is not an advertisement, but it was written by an advertiser. So much for journalistic ethics in the Zell era.

But even within the sidebar the six points themselves are pretty interesting. The Number One sign that your windows need replacing? “Fog or moisture between the glass panes.” That’s right – you need to replace the double-glazed windows installed less than 30 years ago. The accompanying REAL article by Mike McClintock notes that modern windows are more efficient than those produced 10 years ago. COME ON AND JOIN THE ENDLESS CAROUSEL OF WINDOW REPLACEMENT!

Then McClintock wisely notes that energy savings DON”T pay for replacement costs. He calculates a 40-year payback. WAIT A MINUTE. Didn’t the sidebar indicate we are replacing windows less than 30 years old? Do any modern windows have a 40-year warranty? (actual answer: No.) In fact, the best modern windows in terms of performance and appearance have a 20-year warranty – one of my students just reported on her high-end windows that failed just after that 20 year “window.” McClintock then talks a lot about energy savings, bandying about a 15% figure. NOTE: This figure is basically the MOST you can lose or save from window openings. HEAT RISES. Windy days are not the rule but the exception. You replace loose rattling windows with concrete block and silicone and you will save 15%, but the average window???? 15% is pushing it.

Back to the Jen-Weld reasons to replace windows: Number 2 is moisture or condensation, which EVERYONE around here has had thanks to the weather lately, so the timing is killer for selling a busload of windows. Number 3 is wood decay, a marvelously amorphous disease. Most lower rails get some moisture and some decay, but that rarely means you have to replace the whole window. Do you amputate at the knee for a broken ankle? Number 4 is Problems Opening or Closing, a condition that afflicts all windows over five years old. They point the finger at paint (usually the culprit) but somehow the solution is not to remove the paint, which seems obvious, and then they warn about warped wood (almost never the culprit in pre-1930 windows). Number 5 is Drafts, that scourge of the 18th century, responsible for all manner of spells, dropsy, quimsy and catarrh. Jen-Weld leaves aside these historic ills for the sweet spot of energy bills, something you never have to quantify. Number 6 is excess noise, but the point of all of these is to convince the homeowner that they need new windows based on dubious DIY diagnostics. But, hey, they got a product to sell, and in fairness, they probably did take out an ad on some other page of the paper.

Do We Dare Squander?

February 12, 2008

Our alumna Kate Keleman deserves congratulations for her curation of the excellent new exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage? That seemingly unwieldy title was hand-written on a protest sign carried by Richard Nickel during the 1961 attempt to save Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater. Kate worked under Greg Dreicer at CAF who has made quite a splash in Chicago, and the graphic/physical design of the exhibit is really quite good.

Now, I am biased because I am in the show – one of many individuals quoted and pictured in conjunction with key preservation efforts, ranging from the 1920s effort to save the Palace of Fine Arts (Museum of Science and Industry), to more recent projects such as the Monadnock Building and Hilliard Center. Community efforts in places like the Gap and Old Town, as well as the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor (that’s how come I’m there) stress the important role of grass roots organizing efforts in preservation – which is the subject of a discussion I will moderate in conjunction with the exhibit on April 17 in the evening. The great Richard Nickel is included, as is Preservation Chicago and the recent effort to landmark Roberts Temple, Emmett Till’s church on the South Side.

I like the title too – it is very much of the period. The “Do We Dare” construction has completely gone out of fashion since the 1970s – somehow it speaks to the unbridled optimism and desire for change that characterized the 1960s. Even “Squander” has gone out of fashion, despite our unbridled squandering of natural and built resources. Some complain of its length, but I like that old Sun-Times photo and I like the “Dare” because it challenges us to rekindle that expansive sensibility of that period.

The show runs through May 9 in the lobby of the 1904 Railway Exchange Building at Jackson and Michigan Avenue. Go see for yourself = Don’t take my word for it – I am a museum piece after all….

Urban Renewal Returns!

February 8, 2008

lake meadow PS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Chicago is socked with its biggest snowstorm since 1999, and it seems we have been socked with big snows weekly all winter long. But we are also being blanketed with development. Well, development PLANS…
Developer Jerry Fogelson on his $4 B development near McCormick Place: “It’s the only vacant piece of land on Lake Shore Drive and it’s ugly. Our plan is to cover this entire area.” OOOOOKKK – works fine, unless it turns out ugly.
But it doesn’t end with the 23 acres between 14th and 22nd, because developer Draper and Kramer announced three weeks ago that they are redeveloping the 70-acre Lake Meadows complex between 31st and 35th Streets. This one is only a $1B development because they are demolishing the famous SOM towers built 50 years ago BY THE SAME DEVELOPER. The reasoning is also THE SAME as 50 years ago: gateway to the community, revitalize the area, etc. etc. And as much as preservationists and the general public lambasted the towers in the park – Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores were one of the SUCCESSFUL private urban renewal projects – even integrated, no small feat in 1960. Ira Bach’s guides to Chicago celebrated the modernist conceit of the highrise apartments by bragging that the buildings occupy only 10 per cent of the land, leaving 90 percent for open space….
Of course, Draper and Kramer today sees that formula – as we all do – as wrong, and so they want to bring back the street grid and low-rise, diverse housing and shops EXACTLY LIKE THE ONES THEY DEMOLISHED IN THE FIRST PLACE.
That is the beauty and tragedy of what I do: each decade unfolds another “I told you so” as the Santayana-deprived of the world unveil their billion-dollar developments and we ask why can’t you save some little piece of this it was once beautiful and functional and could be again only it needs money and care…

But that’s not how the economy works. The real estate economy – at the micro level of a billion-dollar 70-acre development – works best when it is wasting resources. The banks like new and the buyers like new and just like that there is capital to knock everything down and start again and if you ask the banks and buyers to invest in what we already have they see a smaller margin and would rather wait for someone to tickle them big-time because there is no party like the party where you plow it all under.
Of course, at the macro level, this is a bit dangerous for the economy, what with all the waste of materials and fuel costs, but that will only become actionable after a bigger climate change and a proper trans-species die-off that actually affects this macro level.

The ironies are piling up faster than the snow: A developer gets to do an urban-renewal sized project why?? Because that developer did one 50 years ago in the same place! Great work if you can get it – a money-printing machine; sort of like the replacement windows (you always have to replace them!) They should make sure during this round that the buildings only last 30 years. Hey, makes perfect economic sense…
Crain’s Chicago Business reported that “Lake Meadows could have the same catalyzing effect on the surrounding community as Dearborn Park, a big Draper & Kramer project in the 1980s that spurred the revival of the South Loop as a residential neighborhood.” Excuse me? The rehabbers in Printers Row didn’t revive the South Loop by spending HALF A BILLION in certified rehab projects between 1978 and 1988? What is that in today’s dollars?
Draper & Kramer did spur revitalization of North Kenwood in the 1980s – by proposing to tear the whole neighborhood down. That got the neighbors so upset they landmarked it, restored it and rebuilt it instead. At the time I thought that the sort of massive projects we saw in urban renewal were 20 years behind us. 20 years later, and they are in front of us, the largest residential development project south of McCormick Place. Welcome back, urban renewal!

Catching Up and Staying Warm

February 4, 2008

DSCF0531 copy

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Photo is copyright Felicity Rich, which explains its quality compared to most of the ones I post….

Okay, three weeks on the road plus the pressures of moving both our program studios and my home left me a little winded and even ill late last week so the blogs are a little behind, hence a few brief bits of catch-up:

All that air travel tempts one, despite good upbringing, to read airline magazines and one had a listing of wacky tourist attractions like the largest ball of twine and guess what – two Illinois sites which Landmarks Illinois has supported, were pictured! The Collinsville Ketchup bottle water tower, which we gave a grant to a while back, and the Berwyn Car Spindle, which is now threatened…

Preservation Chicago made news by putting Grant Park on their Chicago 7 list of endangered landmarks due to the threat of the Children’s Museum – perfectly echoing comments I made last fall about the same issue….

Lake Meadows tennis club by modernist Gertrude Kipnis demolished – Jack Spicer composed a fitting eulogy to another Mid-Century Modern loss…..

Blair Kamin in the Trib supporting efforts to save the great Gunners Mate Building at Great Lakes, bringing us to the interesting metaphysical problem of trying to save unique universals….

This is the 40th anniversary of the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance and many groups are scheduling events to celebrate it – CAF is doing an exhibit opening this Thursday curated by our alum Kate Keleman and including me in some fashion. More lectures and a Fall SAIC symposium to come….

Someone looks at my 1873 Italianate house and is wondering about replacing the windows. Dude! I got 2,300 square feet of frame house in one of Chicago’s snowiest and coldest winters. It has original windows plus triple track storms added sometime in the past. Monthly heating (and gas for range and hot water)? $167. Replace the windows and I will happily give you a dollar for every nickel you save on that bill, dude.

Some economist needs to calculate the payback on trees, because we planted a river birch next to our house a decade ago. It is now taller than the house and has knocked $20+ per month off of heating and cooling bills – why calculate the payback on replacement BUILDING PARTS? For the cost of a little water and pruning, this tree paid for itself in energy bills a hundred times already…..

I can’t think of any building part that can compete with that. Period. Full Stop.