Archive for September, 2008

floods keep me busy

September 30, 2008

It felt like I was crisscrossing the northern half of the state last week, and in a sense, I was. I did two tours for the Art Institute on Wednesday and Thursday to LaSalle, to visit the incomparable Hegeler-Carus mansion, an 1874 Italianate-cum-Second Empire extravaganza that never left the family, and to ride the new historic canal boat on the I & M Canal at Lock 14. The floods of almost two weeks earlier prevented us from riding on Wednesday and curtailed our ride Thursday.

The floods also drew me out Wednesday afternoon post-tour to Plano, to see the Farnsworth House and assess the damage.
There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the electricity is working and, more importantly, so is the insurance. The bad news? The wardrobe may be a loss – an accurate 1996 replica of the original.
The end walls of primavera wood are in bad shape, and we will probably debate how much needs to be replaced. We need to investigate the structure underneath the travertine panels, and we also have water in the window wells that needs to be addressed.
We discussed strategies for opening the house on a limited basis during construction – as was done at Montpelier – so people could see the process. This was a good idea – I saw Montpelier during the process and loved it.

We also have to deal with the question: the house has been flooded or almost flooded by 3 100-year floods in 12 years – why don’t you move it? Or put it on retractable stilts or somehow get it out of the way of the floodwaters? Well, of course the first answer is we saved it 5 years ago from being moved out of state, and despite Mies’ love of “universal architecture” this was designed for a specific location and a specific client.
The second answer occurred to me as I was perusing my latest issue of ARCHAEOLOGY which described the various depredations threatening the Egyptian sites at Thebes. My first memory of National Geographic magazine is the cover in the 1960s when they moved the Ramses tomb to make way for Aswan Dam. So, why not move Farnsworth House? Well, my memory of that NG cover was how they had to hack Ramses into little pieces to move him – the same is true of Farnsworth House. Even though we are dealing with postwar building techniques, I doubt we could get those hidden spot welds on the I-beams right today. We don’t like what happened in Thebes, and now the Valley of the Kings is subject to flash floods thanks to the unintended effects of the dam, which got rid of the annual floods and siltation, which caused farmers to increase both irrigation (which increased floods) and fertilizer use (which then threatens the stone artifacts with its toxicity). So, flooding – the human-directed kind – is a huge issue in both places. But the question (To move or not to move?) must be asked and we at Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust are going to be exploring all of the options very seriously. In fact, we hope soon to welcome public suggestions for solutions and how much they would cost.

After the tour Thursday I visited with four of the veterans of our lovely Art Institute China trip this summer as the museum celebrated its tour programs. Friday I zipped out to Lockport for the Gaylord Building Site Council meeting, where we debated the budget and the upcoming opening of the Lincoln Landing – a new park in front of the building that replaces the cluttered cabin collection of Pioneer Settlement with a new sculpture celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s connection to the canal. The park design is nice and will enhance the building.

But there is a nagging Lincoln thing here. Lincoln is my favorite President and I can recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, but as a historian I am troubled by our Illinois tendency to equate Lincoln with ALL local history. The story of the I & M Canal, which straddled the continent, built Chicago and opened up the West to settlement and industry even before the railroads, is a hell of an historical story. It doesn’t need Lincoln to make it important. Fascinating historical narratives are buried in indifference, awaiting the brush of Lincoln’s sleeve to be made real. The same thing happens in architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, especially in Oak Park. A nice building is a nice building and a good design is a good design, but unless Frank Lloyd Wright sneezed on the blueprints, it isn’t really great architecture.

Anyway, I’m not done with Friday. I headed out Friday evening to the Dunham Riding Club in Wayne to give a talk for the Preservation Partners of the Tri-Cities on the National Register (I’ll be doing a similar discussion in Kenilworth in a couple of weeks). A nice audience and they were offering up a super tour weekend, including the stunning 1937 Campana Building in Batavia. It’s a great building and a stunning tower-and-wings that looks ready to soar above the farm fields on the Fox Valley. I would hazard to say it is a more impressive building that the nearby Fabyan Villa in Geneva, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Abraham Lincoln must have been involved somehow….

tomorrow? Hull House…


Finances and the End of the Free Market

September 23, 2008

The recent revelation of George W. Bush as the leader of the new United States of Soviet Socialist Republicans has been an historical shocker. Heir to a political legacy based on opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the serial federal bailouts of the last week made Roosevelt look like a libertarian by comparison. It doesn’t seem to disturb those who have trumpeted free markets or put onerous free market deregulation requirements on the Asian bailout a decade ago. It does disturb people like me, who never bought a building with less than 20% down or even tested half the depth of my credit card limit. I was raised on fiscal responsibility and it has been more than a bit sickening to watch the drunken frat party on Wall Street for the entirety of my adult life. Not to mention the pretend conservative blowhards on TV and the radio. They should spend the rest of their lives eating their false words. And getting a real job – how long can you be a carny, after all?

The stomach does another churn when you realize how much of our urban and rural landscape was destroyed by free-money-no-credit-check real estate developments. I bought and sold a house between December and March of this year and had to get several mortgages because I bought the new (1897) house before I sold the old (1873) one. If you read the papers, you might wonder how this could happen what with the subprime mortgage crisis and its successor, the entire-credit-system crisis. Well, you have to be able to see the trees for the forest. Both of my houses were historic and in historic districts in Oak Park. I asked one mortgage banker about defaults and his answer was simple: we don’t have any bad loans in Oak Park. The bad ones are in new developments on the fringe.

Which makes perfect sense, because just as the government is now bailing out irresponsible financiers and insurers, they got to that position by promoting ecologically irresponsible, high-energy-consumption subdivisions on the periphery. They not only gambled with easy credit, they gambled – and lost – on the environment. Those farm fields were by no means ecological treasures, but they weren’t covered with gypsum, concrete, styrofoam and sticks like they are now.

Besides the death of the Reagan Revolution, the current bailout has spurred all kinds of I-told-you-sos, which it deserves. Some of my favorites are the Henry Paulson Nigerian e-mail, which you can see on BoingBoing, along with a site that asks the Feds to bail each of us out of all the silly purchases we have made in our lives. Good luck on that count, but we can dream- even those of us who have always been rooted and responsible.

Flooded Farnsworth

September 17, 2008

All photos courtesy Landmarks Illinois, 2008.
The biggest news over the weekend was the incredible flooding throughout the state and the two feet of water and mud that soaked the interior of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Plano. I am doubly responsible for this landmark, which is owned by the National Trust (I’m on the Board) and operated by Landmarks Illinois (I’m on the Board). The immediate hit is coming to Landmarks Illinois, which will lose $60,000 in tour income in the coming months – the height of the tourist season. It is tragic that this disaster occurred at all, doubly tragic that it occurred at the start of the two best tourism months in Northeastern Illinois – September and October.

Kudos to Whitney French, who is amazing. She is the Site Director of the Farnsworth House and she is amazing when giving a tour, amazing in her attention to every window frame and tree on the site, amazing in her intelligence and resourcefulness, and amazing in her dedication to this building. When something like this happens, she puts in ALL of her time, something I can’t claim.

The tragedy here of course is that Mies built the building to a height protecting it from all but the once-in-a-hundred-years flood. The only problem is that thanks to our emissions-enhanced environment and oodles upon oodles of new suburban development upstream, we have had a hundred-year flood at least three times in the last decade or so, and right now they are coming every year.

This building needs your help. Give not once but twice – the links are on this page. Give to Landmarks Illinois to help bring the building back as quickly as possible and give to the National Trust to build the endowment needed to support this unique icon of modernism. This is one of my favorite buildings in the world. It sings like few others. It’s worth it.


2014 UPDATE on Farnsworth House
2014 Update

what’s going on

September 13, 2008

busy busy September. I had the honor of being one of the four keynote speakers at the Know Your Chicago Symposium on Wednesday and had the opportunity to discuss the history and future of historic preservation in Chicago before a large and appreciative audience. Next week is the Traditional Building Show and the History of Chicago Preservation Symposium on Saturday and the following week I have two tours to LaSalle, a Gaylord Building meeting and a speech for a preservation conference out in Wayne, Illinois. Right now I am out in Oxbow with my first year class and it has been raining all day, the distant northern edge of the hurricane hitting Texas. Actually the rain just stopped.

This week, my First Year Program Residential College Research Studio I class, which I call If These Streets Could Talk, took a walk through the Loop in the morning, visiting the pedway and the Field Building and the Miro and the Federal Plaza farmer’s market and then we had our orientation to the Burnham and Ryerson library. After lunch we walked west on Randolph to the Haymarket, to visit the statue put there in 2004 to commemorate the Haymarket Tragedy, which was once known at the Haymarket Riot, an 1886 clash between anarchist labor leaders and police that led to a trial where several anarchists were convicted based on their beliefs not their actions.
We were there to analyze and sketch the site, which includes Crane’s Alley where someone – no one knows who to this day – threw a bomb into the massive phalanx of 175 police who came at the end of the rally to disperse it. My students drew the 2004 statue, which appears to show workers building or perhaps unbuilding a cart like the one which stood on the same site for the speakers that fateful night of May 4 1886 and it has ambiguity, which is the essential precondition of art. The piece is by Mary Brogger and it looks like wood but it is metal, composed of almost Haringesque featureless figures (one student, Talya, put the features on in her sketches) handing or unhanding planks and wheels and boxes…

It also attracts graffiti, especially from the political and spiritual descendants of the German anarchists who spoke there, and those who were hung because of what happened there even if they weren’t there at all.
The site has always been evocative for me because the alley, the Crane Factory and Zepf’s Hall on Lake Street are still there, giving a reasonably coherent context for the event. One of my students Karina was actually sketching the incident – Mayor Harrison visiting on his white horse and the column of police advancing down DesPlaines Street. The site works like that. For years there was a police statue here to commemorate the 8 police who died, one by the bomb and seven in the aftermath as everyone started shooting every which way. The police statue was attacked by a streetcar driver in the 1920s and then the statue was moved but it was blown up in 1969 and 1970 before being finally moved inside of the police academy a mile away. The site then couldn’t be marked for years because of the conflict between the police impressions of the site and those of the labor historians but that changed in the 21st century and now we have the site for my students to study as an exercise in historic interpretation. But no matter how good your interpretation, you have to fight with the advertising hoardings that bedizen our environment, and I was really struck by those near the Haymarket, faux-Lichtenstein super-comicular ultragraphic billboards that were as beautiful as they were mercenary.

so what should I tell the students – fight the sign? hate the sign? outsign the sign?

Skill Sets

September 4, 2008

We had our Landmarks Illinois Issues Committee meeting today, which included a presentation on why a nice 1887 Romanesque loft building had to be demolished for a Ronald McDonald House, the ongoing challenges of preserving ANYTHING on the North Shore and a classic dodge in Robinson, Illinois, where the locals used state/federal money to build a new gym while keeping the old one. Then, when the new one was done, they demolished the old one for playing fields. Very clever. You see, if they had announced they were going to demolish it before they built the new one, the project would have been reviewed under Section 106 (federal) or Section 707 (state). The average municipal hack would simply have stiff-armed the 707 or 106 process and bulldozed anyway, but the Robinson hoods went that extra step and avoided the review altogether.

I guess that makes them more clever than the people who wanted to redevelop Doctor’s Hospital in Hyde Park. This one has been an issue for a few years now, and it really sits elegantly along the northern reaches of Jackson Park. Locals stymied a plan for two highrise hotels on the site and pushed for a hotelier who could redevelop it – a pro bono plan showing how that could be done was also completed. But the hotel developers can’t make it work with their system – because their system has no flexibility, no creativity.
This avoidance of creative thought has bothered me throughout the quarter century I have been in preservation. Even as a twentysomething punk I would rail against those UNCREATIVE developers who couldn’t think about how to make an old building work. It bothers me even more in middle age because I think of all the things I have done and all of the adjustments I have made in thousands of days of living and here someone can approach a multi-million dollar project with a single, inflexible system. It’s immature. When I was young I thought these people were incapable of creativity or designing a solution around an existing condition. But after a dozen years as a full-time educator I have a hard time seeing people as incapable. Resistant and obstinate and lazy, yes, but not incapable. It is a studied ignorance.

That resistance is something we associate with stagnant bureaucracies so why does it infect businesses? Isn’t capitalism dynamic? Well, not always, because some cogs in the market can survive by bottom feeding on cost reductions and precision cost calculations. They eliminate uncertainty and the loans and VC flows because what you see on paper is what you get in the real world.
But Hyde Parkers knew they didn’t want a portion of their community to LOOK like that spreadsheet, especially since right now it is beautiful. Two spreadsheet designed towers from EVERYWHERE AND ANYWHERE would cheapen the community and give motive to every other owner to bottom feed as well, to remove uncertainty, chance and creativity from their property.

Do you know what elimination of uncertainty looks like? Do you want to live there?