Archive for August, 2008

Three Years

August 30, 2008

For the first time in almost four years I am teaching a Research Studio in the First Year Program at the School called If These Streets Could Talk where we deal with history in the streets. We did a mini-tour during orientation Monday along the Chicago River, which is overloaded with plaques and historical markers and such. We saw the Chicago Vietnam memorial, which follows the nearly obligatory black-slab-incised-with-names format established by Maya Lin with her epochal memorial on the Mall in Washington. This design has not only been copied in nearly every city, state and county in the nation, it has also impacted memorials to other conflicts. Funny thing is that I can remember when the design was so controversial and reviled that they had to add a realistic figure sculpture of soldiers in Vietnam to the memorial, and then another. People couldn’t get past the typical narrative sculpture, the general on the horse or whatever. But then the reality of the place sunk in much as the design sinks into the Mall, an amazing, haptic experience of the nation’s most visible wound. For two decades it has basically been the best, most beloved, most interactive war memorial ever.

The Chicago version on the riverwalk is a quiet echo at best.

We then followed that with a 1941 memorial to tolerance, the Morris-Washington-Solomon Memorial to the two financiers of the American Revolution, as I recall a project of Chicago politico Jake Arvey forging a connection to the nation’s Jewish roots. Of course the financiers lost their shirts, in the first and last time the nation failed to make good on its debts, LOL. The next memorial illustrated the problem of narrative in the ever-evolving city. A huge bronze Irv Kupcinet – (much more elegant than those of Harry Caray or Jack Brickhouse) – gestures across the river to his longtime office in the Sun-Times building. Ooops! The Sun-Times Building is gone and now Kup has become yet another shill for the new Trump Tower. (I guess it is a mark that Chicago has arrived – we finally have an outlet of the nation’s biggest skyscraper franchise). In the coming weeks students will unravel some more examples of how the changing city has squeezed or squashed the context of its historical markers.

This is the third anniversary of the start of this blog (go on, you can go back and read all 170 old posts in the archive) and we again have a hurricane heading to New Orleans, so some things don’t change. On the other hand, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball and a black American is on the brink of the presidency, two huge changes from the way things were for the entirety of my life.

School starts again and we have a baker’s dozen new historic preservation graduate students. September is going to be chiropteraguano insane for me – major lecture for Know Your Chicago, the Traditional Building Show, the Tri-Cities preservation symposium in the Fox Valley, a major symposium on the history of Chicago preservation on September 20, and a hearing at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on that excellent little modern bank across from the Chicago History Museum. And then Overbooktober, with the National Preservation Conference in Tulsa. In between we will host a number of our Master’s program alumni, run a LOT of walking and bus tours with both my Master’s students and the First Year Program, and try to keep on bloggin’.


Death To Nostalgia

August 26, 2008

Back in the late 1980s I was in a hearing at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on the landmark designation of some surviving 1870s buildings in the Loop. The great real estate expert Jared Shlaes was testifying against the designation of several buildings because they had no functional or economical use. Somehow we had become a “party” to the hearing and I was able to cross-examine him. I thought I was clever and brought up the Chicago Water Tower, which was also functionally and economically obsolete. He fired back with a withering glare noting that the Water Tower was a landmark with great nostalgic value.

That hurt, man. Not losing an argument to Shlaes (although in retrospect he was wrong – the buildings are still around). What hurt was THAT WORD. Nostalgia. He was calling me nostalgic and that stung.

Nostalgia, is, as the ending of the word implies, a disease. Pining for a past that is dead and gone. What, you say? Isn’t that historic preservation? NO. Check out this quote:

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation promotes community development in older and historic neighborhoods.”

This was news today, thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the Knight Foundation to the National Trust (link at right). The grant is part of a $5 million loan pool targeted at developing affordable housing for some 28 communities across the U.S.. As this news makes clear, historic preservation is in fact an attitude toward the future – an attitude that our environment is richer by preserving HISTORIES embodied in buildings; that our future is brighter by preserving the ENERGY embodied in existing buildings; and that our life is richer by preserving the ARCHITECTURE of earlier periods. And preservation is a mechanism for securing a range of development goals including affordable housing.

Nostalgia afflicts many of those who support preservation, but I recoil at the term. I LIKE it when things change because that is history. History is not about standing still, it is about dynamism and the mechanics and infinite variety of change. We lived in a lovely house for 12 years and sold it this spring and now everyone is telling us how the new owners painted it white. So what? They should paint it however they want. It’s theirs now. I loved and enjoyed that house for 12 years and so did Felicity and the girls and it was time to move on so we moved on. That house will always be a part of my life but I don’t need to get DISEASED about it. I need to move on.

“The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it”
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam by Edward Fitzgerald

I don’t want to perpetuate the 1970s or the 1980s or the 1990s and even if I did it wouldn’t work. Nostalgia the disease leads the pious and the clever to attempt erasure, to attempt to stop time, to hold on to institutions, practices, media, social orders and technologies that have died. That is as creepy as the stuffed Jeremy Bentham at the London School of Economics.

I hate it when people suggest that preservation is about stopping time. Ludicrous. Preservation is, in part, about limiting formal changes to the environment, but that is an attitude toward the future, not a misplaced reverence for the past. Museums can be about describing what life was like in the past, and there are architectural museums and house museums and museum villages and Civil War reenactments and the like. Those things could be described as nostalgic, although I would prefer to call them interpretive and educational. But museums – as much as they have proliferated in the last half century – are still relatively rare. You can have one for every 20,000 people or so. And even then, your goal is not to preserve something in aspic or amber or dry ice but to create an educational experience about the past that can plausibly (and usually positively) influence the future.

I like house museums. But I like historic districts and landmark buildings when they aren’t museums – and 95% of the time they aren’t. I like them because they served one purpose once and serve another now – because they have more and richer histories than most one-note new buildings. I like them because their history is visible and legible in patina and alterations over time, and I like them because they show me a style, a design and a sense of place that appeared once and will never appear again in exactly the same way.

I don’t ever want to go back AND I don’t ever want to forget.

New Harmony

August 19, 2008

Every guide, book, resident and chronicler will tell you about the “presence” in New Harmony. On the one side this becomes fodder for ghost stories, moving objects, rooms that drive otherwise rational people away, and the like. On the other side, it is the multivalent reality of the place, layered over time.

At a preternatural, precarious bend in the Wabash River at the far southwestern tip of Indiana lies New Harmony. There were settlers on this western frontier in the 1770s, but it was the arrival in 1814 of the Harmonists, a Pietist German communalist sect, that gave the town its name, following their original Pennsylvania settlement of Harmony. Led by Father George Rapp, the Harmonists, like dozens of other groups at the time, felt the Second Coming to be imminent. Unlike other groups, they were remarkably efficient and productive, and within a decade created a town of 800 that shipped goods all over the world. Then they left en masse, after 10 years, and sold the town and all of its brick-faced Fachwerkbau buildings to Welsh-Scottish industrialist and communalist Robert Owen, whose scientific messianism brought a “boatload of knowledge” to the site and made it an important center for science and culture. His communalist experiment flopped after only two years, but his family and many scientists stayed and today the town has a couple handfuls of surviving Harmonist buildings and a lot from the Owenite period, plus modern marvels like Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church and Richard Meier’s Atheneum. Over time, the “presence” has drawn many others and the barn abbey where the students stayed, was peppered with Thomas Merton posters.

I told our host, the visionary architect Ben Nicholson, who transplanted himself and his carload of knowledge to New Harmony two years ago, that perhaps New Harmony was like Weibaoshan, a place with the right feng shui, the right combination of natural elements to sustain and nurture human endeavors that reach beyond; spiritual endeavors and scientific endeavors, and in Ben’s case, artistic endeavors such as his exquisite drawings of labyrinths he showed us in his downtown studio, soon to be exhibited in the Venice Biennale.

The largest of the surviving Harmonist buildings are the Granary, heavily, heavily rebuilt, and Community House Number Two, a solid brick dormitory that does not look anything like its 185 years. Here we heard some distressing news. In the yard was a deep pit that looked like an archaeological site. I could make out some sunken posts and brick shards.

It wasn’t that. It was a pit for an air conditioning unit. They are going to air condition Community House Number Two. AAUGH! This is wrong on so many levels, but let’s start with the obvious. This is an early 19th century building designed for its climate, which is hot for 2 months a year. It has double-hung windows and a mansard roof and “dutch biscuits”, an early form of bat insulation made of planks and straw that still manages a respectable R-11. It was 84 that day and it wasn’t hot on the third floor. This building doesn’t need air conditioning.

Along with replacement windows, air conditioning is one of the great issues in preservation, and like the windows, it is a marketing problem that bears little relation to actualities like energy usage and finances. Some people “need” air conditioning the way they “need” cell phones. Ironically, many of the people who “need” air conditioning were born a decade or three before it was available in most homes and businesses.

The other levels: Sustainable? Not air-conditioning. How about a roof ridge vent? How about making those double hungs work the way they were designed, open on top and bottom to vent out the hot air? How about trees? How about a whole house fan? (there were two small ones in the attic, probably not operational and not sufficiently large). This is a tourist site, a museum meant to show you what life was like in 1820. There wasn’t artificial air conditioning in 1820. The tour guides would love to have AC because they have to work there, but for the tourists what’s ten minutes in a modestly warm attic? It has to hit at least 90 to get hot up there, because 84 wasn’t.

And then there is the “presence.” A big honking humming bear of an air conditioning unit squatting in the back garden will be the biggest buzzkill of all. Not only will it disrupt the historic ambiance, but who knows? It might drive “the presence” away.

Kudos to Ben, who also brought us to Cahokia Mounds, the Pulitzer Museum in St. Louis by Tadao Ando (gorgeous, gorgeous perfectionist concrete in a composition that marries Wright’s Unity Temple to Kahn’s Salk Institute) and the City Museum, an absolute hallucination of stuff filling an old shoe factory – every old building and object stacked up and welded together into climbing cages and slides and airplanes and cranes that kids are encouraged to climb all over. Someone must have locked the lawyers in the basement because this place is tort reform utopia. My kids LOVED it.

Plus, there were at least two bars in there, interspersed with kiddie rides, so I could have a beer before I crawled through iron tubes four floors in the air and then slid down an old steamship chimney. Maybe the Chicago Children’s Museum is right after all – start with the liquor license and build the dream from there.

The Michael Phelps of Preservation

August 14, 2008

Charlie Pipal, architect and preservationist and tour guide, has done it again and I told him he was like Michael Phelps. Only instead of collecting Olympic medals in swimming, Charlie collects Charles Peterson prizes, the nation’s big award for measured drawings of historic buildings. Charlie correctly notes that it is the students who deserve the honors, since they did the drawing. But he has brought home five of these babies in eight years of teaching, so no matter how you slice it, he has it going on.

The award also makes me look good because it brings honor (and cash) to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Historic Preservation Program. This year we got Third Prize for drawings of the Greenstone Church in Pullman, the project of the Fall 2007 Physical Documentation class. Kudos to: Shannon Berner, Christine Bernick, Vicki Birenberg, Katy Gallagher, Jennifer Harrman, Katie McManus, Mary Ottoson, Amy Porter, Molly Sargent, Emily Spreng, Sherine Sublette and Nivine Tawancy! Charlie taught an extra HABS documentation class this year based (for the first time) entirely in CAD, and did the incomparable Chicago Athletic Association building. Kudos to: Weston Davey, Mary Ottoson, Mira Patel, Jennifer Reep, Benjamin Roberts, Molly Sargent, Nicole Seguin, Nicola Spasoff, Emily Spreng and Rebecca Young. We got an Honorable Mention for that, equaling the award Charlie’s classes secured in 2006, 2003 and 2004. Here is a photo of the students and Charlie receiving last year’s honor from Walker Johnson, FAIA.

(One curious note – the awards tend to come for Romanesque buildings – Quinn Chapel AME, Thalia Hall, Greenstone Church, Western Springs Presbyterian Church – is this a stylistic preference or maybe the judges just get impressed with all of the stippling??)


August 11, 2008

Every day I scour the papers (real and virtual) for landmarks news and todays was about an arson fire apparently targeted at the restoration of the Morse theater,a lovely little 1912 nickelodeon. Graffiti in the theater (“You want war. Get uz”) seemed to indicate that those responsible were fighting gentrification of the neighborhood. The restoration of the theater was “the main spur to the transformation of the neighborhood.”

If the theater can manage to shift a “gang-infested” neighborhood into a livable community, well, I have to say that is about the best reason to save an historic theater.

But someone opposes this and violently. This strikes me as similar to the arson fires that burned a series of 6,000 square foot “green” homes out West several months back, or the spasms directed against Wal- Mart and Starbucks and McDonald’s. But the fight against gentrification is tricky business, for several reasons.

First, as in almost every social movement since 1848, there is the problem of the vanguard of the proletariat. “Get uz” is too artistically crude and deliberate to be written by anyone other than a college-educated anti-gentrification activist. A true vandal doesn’t declare war. What we have here are likely suburban-bred activists living in a neighborhood for its endearing sketchiness, for the anonymity it grants their coming-of-age adventures; for its conformity to outside views of the city as gritty; for its opportunity to speak up for the oppressed. I get it – I went through this in Wicker Park in the 1980s and Logan Square in the 1990s. But being the vanguard of the proletariat is a vanity and a conceit if the proletariat didn’t ask you.

The second problem is of course preservation. Now we all know preservation is for rich people and what happens to a neighborhood is the artists and gays move in and start fixing up the buildings and the neighborhood has this really cool bohemian phase with the old ethnics and gang bangers coexsting with the new hipsters and then when a certain number of buildings get fixed up the developers come in and Starbucks arrives and it is all ruined and preservation is to blame.

The City opposed landmarking Wicker Park in the 1980s because of fears of gentrification. Only the preservation side of the equation didn’t conform to our prejudices as outlined in the paragraph above. In 1987, unlandmarked Bucktown was gentrified in one year. Five years later, Wicker Park hadn’t yet caught up, despite a late 1970s National Register designation and a 1990 Chicago Landmark designation. Seems gentrification had bigger fish to fry.

Why is gentrification bad? Because poor people are displaced. But gentrification can occur without displacement and displacement can occur without gentrification. These are not equivalent things. And both can occur without historic districts. People who own property do well with gentrification – renters are the ones who are hurt. But are any urban neighborhoods permanent? Displacement to homelessness is the real issue – displacement to another location is not. Real estate development is a big ugly evil thing for those on the short end of the social stick, and you can’t hide from it. The real question is: what is the alternative? Anarcho-syndicalist socialized land use zoning?

John McCarron wrote a Tribune series about this over 20 years ago, when many city leaders and politicians were opposed to gentrification. McCarron was a little surprised that aldermen would oppose projects that would help their neighborhoods rise out of poverty. But poverty politics made a certain sense in the 1970s and 1980s – an alderman could count on a whole precinct of votes out of a single public highrise. Homeowners had been leaving the city for decades so they were less politically important. Political power in the inner city depended on dependent populations and ironically, on forestalling their empowerment. Because if they were truly empowered, they might leave. Or stop voting for you.

But by the 1990s, a shift was happening. In places like North Kenwood, homeowners were all that was left after years of poverty politics, decline and demolition. Suddenly, a bunch of elderly homeowners were asking for landmarks designation to protect what they had been protecting on their own for thirty years – their homes. They asked me to come help them save their houses from a big evil real estate developer and The City. So we did and 15 years ago the neighborhood was landmarked. No one spoke in opposition to the designation of that landmark and perhaps no one spoke for the proletariat if any were still there and I spoke for the elderly homeowners and some new homeowners who promised they could rescue buildings considered unsalvageable.

Old-line poverty politicians accused them of “middle class aspirations.” Yow, there’s a curse you could bestow on two and a half billion Chinese and Indians. The only people who don’t have middle-class aspirations are middle-class vanguards of the proletariat – they have “working class hero” aspirations. I get it. I had that.

Today North Kenwood has gentrified (and even integrated) and some of those who fought to save it are now the old-timers, being left behind by a new generation. There are people who live in a place for 50 years but most of us, whatever our means, live in a place for 5 years, so both the gentry and the hoi polloi are always moving, like history. That is modern life – once you leave the rainforest or the farm, life will no longer be static but dynamic, always changing.

Which, perhaps counterintuitively, is why we save buildings. Because they provide an element of stability and identity to our dynamic, fragmented existence. Until the anarcho-syndicalist paradise of UZ arrives, historic buildings may be the only unchanging things in our communities.

postscript: thanks to bwchicago for correcting my oversight – the theater is on Morse in Rogers Park, not Uptown.

National Register

August 7, 2008

The National Register of Historic Places has been around for 42 years and includes thousands of buildings. It was designed as a speed bump for Federal highway and urban renewal programs whose clear-cut approach to development in the 1950s and early 1960s had excited opposition. It remains as powerful today as it was 42 years ago: as powerful as a speed bump.

The National Register cannot prevent anyone from demolishing anything. There. The secret is out. It can slow down any project which is funded or licensed by the federal government, and often in those cases, buildings get saved. Not always. Only local landmarks laws can stop an owner from demolishing a building. That was true in 1966 and it is true today.

So, why are people in Oak Park and Kenilworth getting bent out of shape about National Register districts? Kenilworth, a wealthy community that made the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered List thanks to a teardown frenzy, had its Village Board vote 4-2 in favor of putting the town on the National Register only to have the Village President veto it. The Board has apparently studied the facts and is overruling the veto.

Now, in fairness, many suburbs use the National Register as a gateway to local landmark status. I can remember when I was on the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council in the late 90s and lawyers from Northwestern University came out in force against an Evanston National Register district, claiming that it would eventually become a local district. Which it did, although NU had the clout to pound it into submission through gang lawsuits. Their lawyer fought the National Register for the same reason the NRA fights an assault-weapon ban, because if you allow one bit of anti-gun (or anti-development) legislation, there is no end to it.

In the real world, this is whack logic. Probably the largest logical fault is the idea that landmark district designation inhibits development. Landmark districts inhibit development the way adult use ordinances inhibit development – they drive away the fly-by-night hack-job developers. They tend to increase property values for the same reasons any exclusionary zoning does, because they require a certain level of skill and civitas in order to get into the club.

In Downtown Oak Park at Harlem and Lake Streets, an oft-stymied proposal to put the community’s most recognizable face on the National Register returned this summer, to howls from two local businessmen. This is especially funny in Oak Park, where Downtown Oak Park has struggled for 30 years, while the commercial district at Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street – called The Avenue – has thrived. The Avenue is listed on the National Register AND is subject to local landmark review.
Those are the facts, which get in the way of the whack logic.

The other fact is of course the Colt Building fiasco, which I wrote about in this blog three years ago (check the archive) which gave preservation a bad name because even though the preservationists, including me, did NOT want to save the Colt Building, some local leaders did. This gave many in the Downtown Oak Park area a negative view of preservation.

Fact: An inhibition of development in Downtown Oak Park caused by people DOING THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT PRESERVATIONISTS SAID. Fact: National Register designation offers tax incentives to owners of commercial property when they rehabilitate but HAS NO EFFECT on any demolition or building plans they have that use private funds. Fact: National Register does NOT EQUAL local landmark designation. You have to pass a law to do that.

But facts should never get in the way of whack logic. Here’s how it goes: the area is economically challenged, the owners are struggling, so we shouldn’t add regulations that make the situation worse. However much it might make sense in the abstract, the facts on the ground don’t follow the whack logic. Add to this Oak Park’s funnest fact: the Historic Preservation Commission approves permits four times faster than the Plan Commmission and Building Department. Honest. That is what the Building Permit people told me when I dropped off plans for my back porch.

Watch out whenever anyone says “It’s the principle of the thing.” Too often that is an excuse for ignoring the facts.


August 3, 2008

August already in Chicago, normally time for some landmarks shenanigans by the powers that be. At least, that used to be the tradition in the 1980s – announce a big historic-building-damaging project in August when the goo-goos were off in Saugatuck or Door County and couldn’t mount public opposition. That may be less true in the Internet age, because you can get the internet next to the pool in Rowley’s Bay. We shall see if down time dog days produce anything this year, but in the meantime I need to catch up on landmarks news in Illinois…

The big news at Landmarks Illinois is the selection of Jim Peters as the new President of Landmarks Illinois. Peters brings excellent credentials, being an award-winning faculty member of our SAIC Master’s program in historic preservation for seven years, a former Director of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, and a certified planner with a preservation degree. Jim also knows everyone and knows how to get things done, which is the LI way. I can proudly say I was on the Search Committee that unanimously chose Jim.

Budget cuts everywhere. The DysState of Illinois has halved its staff budget at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency which has cut the hours at historic sites and has already suffered a decade of budget cuts. Hello? What is the state’s biggest industry? Tourism, you say? Well, then, let’s shut down all of the tourist sites! These state pols couldn’t find out which side their bread buns were buttered on with both hands and a flashlight.

At the National Trust budget tightening is striking as well, thanks to the faltered economy, although not nearly as draconian as Illinois. Usually a down economy means an uptick in my industry (one of the nation’s few with a positive trade balance) education, although we will have to wait until the fall class shows up to prove that one.

Jerry Mickleson of Jam Productions bought the Uptown Theater, which has been shuttered since the early 80s and despite landmark status in ’91 has continued to fall to bits because it is a massive theater with no parking in an endearingly sketchy neighborhood. Jam was the last one to use it, booking rock acts, a couple of which I saw in college, and they probably have a better sense of how to make it work than those who love the theater more.

That is one of the great conundrums at the heart of historic preservation. We save buildings because we fall in love with them, and we fall in love with them because we see them so much or learn so much about them and the more we take in each historical and artistic detail the more we want to preserve – on a pedestal – the object of our affection. But like all love objects, historic buildings should not be put on a pedestal and that is why so few can become museums. Pygmalion is an enduring human fiction.

In this regard I was chatting (electronically) with Mark Harmon, Site Director at the Gaylord Building in Lockport, about the future of that National Trust property (where I chair the Site Council). The building decided decisively NOT to be just a museum when it opened in 1987 and again 15 years later. Half of it has always been a restaurant, a paying tenant. The other half is interpretive (or interpretative if you like an extra syllable) with various galleries and visitors centers occupying its three floors over time. Half museum, so to speak, and our strategic plan a few years back basically came to the conclusion that we have to make our museum-side more commercial (we would love to have a 19th century general store there) and the restaurant side more interpretive, to better integrate the identity of the National Trust’s first adaptive re-use property. This is the goal we are working toward, as Mark sagely noted and I responded that the greatest innovation we could offer the preservation world would be leases for commercial tenants that hold them to certain interpretive goals.

It is a fine balancing act between the refined tastes of the artist and the base urges of commerce, between Pygmalion and the blow up doll. That balance is an art and it is the reality of life – as opposed to the artificiality of the pedestal and the love that smothers.