Archive for January, 2009

Appellate nuttiness

January 31, 2009

Crain’s is reporting this afternoon that the Illinois Appellate Court struck down Chicago’s landmarks ordinance as unconstitutionally vague. This is a victory for some guy called Hannah who spends his time suing the city. I don’t know if it is because of his inability to compete with other developers, but his tack is to change the rules rather than abide by them. He got three justices (elected? connected??) to agree with him.

Insane. I wonder if they are familiar with the US Supreme Court’s rulings on local landmarks ordinances. Or the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, which makes the local landmarks law more comprehensive than even our zoning ordinance. And how will the alderman react to the court taking away one of their powers??? Who bought this one and for how much? The city says they will take it to the Illinois Supreme Court but officially it is a remand to Circuit.

This is significant. Or maybe not. “Significant” is one of the words these justices (look them up – see if they have credentials) found unconstitutionally vague. These justices certainly have no “values’ or “importance” (more words that they find unconstitutionally vague). Just strike down a law that has been around for over 40 years. And do it on Friday night so some lowlifes can knock their buildings over the weekend.

Quick thoughts – did they not strike down the demolition delay ordinance? In which case, we have 90 days to pass an ordinance without vague words, since most of the landmarks are Orange or better in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. That means they are still protected.

Insane. The Chicago Historic Resources Survey is one-of-a-kind and it is the definition of a comprehensive planning tool – which is the whole reason the New York ordinance made the constitutional grade 30 years ago. Chicago’s ordinance is even more comprehensive than that one, a fact awaiting true judgement.


Chicago 7

January 28, 2009

Preservation Chicago released its “Chicago 7” list of endangered Chicago landmarks on Monday, and one of them was very close to my heart – the “old-fashioned” wood window. I have often spoken about the virtues of old wood windows – made of stronger, straighter, better insulating wood, and how with a little caulk and a storm window they can outperform any vinyl replacement unit. You can scroll back through the old blogs – in November I reglazed one of my windows in my 110-year old house and marveled at a project that cost a couple hours and $20, versus the hundreds it would have cost if I broke a “modern” replacement window. I even had an installation in the “Department Store” with Felicity Rich this past fall featuring old wood windows surrounded by the barrage of advertising that has made replacement windows a force to be reckoned with in the last decade. The bottom line? People replace their windows because of the advertising, not because of any value in the new windows – or any failure of the old.
They also listed one of Chicago’s beautiful churches, St. Boniface by the incomparable Henry Schlacks. This 1902 Kashubian parish at Noble and Chestnut was closed some years ago and neighborhood activists fought to prevent its demolition, so the Archdiocese apparently decided to wait until the building was falling apart. This is called “demolition by neglect” and is the ultimate passive-aggressive move. Often it is accompanied – as it is currently at the U of I campus re” Mumford House, with plaintive hand-wringing over a building’s deteriorated condition. Huh? You mean, you owned this building and allowed it to deteriorate and now you are complaining it is deteriorated?

Two on Preservation Chicago’s list are modernist and one of those – Meigs Field Terminal – got little support from local architecture critics, and likely the general public as well. The modernist gems on Landmarks Illinois’ last list in the fall scored embarassingly low on public opinion registers despite their high architectural pedigree, including Bertrand Goldberg’s stunning Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Getting popular support for the highly abstract visions of late 20th century Modernism is an ongoing challenge. Sometimes those buildings are a conservation challenge as well, because they were built in the era of thinner structures, single-glazing, and more ephemeral materials. Not like traditional wood windows.

LA Weekend

January 27, 2009

A great time was had by all at our Los Angeles meetings of the National Trust Board. There was a lot to be done, with a new Diversity Director (Tanya Bowers), an amazing story about the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where LSU wants to demolish a very solid 1930s hospital that was used all the way up to Katrina. They also wanted to tear down 200 houses for a new hospital. Fortunately, Trust Trustee Jack Davis and others demonstrated to the Legislature that the project would be more expensive, more wasteful and SLOWER than if they restored the building. Typical hospital planning, really. You can check it out on PreservationNation.
We also had a lively discussion in the Restoration Committee about “deconstruction” spawned by some irresponsible TV show that chronicles someone salvaging off all the bits of a perfectly good house before they demolish it for a McMansion. This is actually a great challenge in preservation – how do you convince people that things have great historic and artistic value without encouraging the dismembering of that value?
An invite to one Trustee’s lovely Spanish Colonial Revival courtyard house in Beverly Hills was a highlight, and her love of art and architecture was apparent from the appealingly laden bookshelves near the entrance and the consistency with which she applied the Spanish Colonial aesthetic of rough-hewn tables and chairs throughout the house.
Saturday we had a fabulous tour all the way from the coast to downtown along Wilshire Boulevard, which includes one of my favorite bits, the Bruce Goff addition to LACMA, here lovingly photographed by Felicity Rich.
LA is a great place for modern architecture (along with Victorian and Spanish Colonial) but it is often a challenge to get public support for saving it, a point that came up during our meetings and was very apparent when Landmarks Illinois’ Chicagoland Watch List came out and the modernist buildings (including those by noted architect Bertrand Goldberg) finished last in popularity contests. The bus took a swing through the Windsor Square historic overlay zone – LA has always created historic districts through zoning rather than the cultural department that deals with individual landmarks. This is an area of eclectic 1920s revivals and bungalows.
BTW, photos here are by Felicity Rich.
The tour stopped in Little Tokyo, a place which inspired my interest in historic site interpretation almost nine years ago, and so I will be sharing my images with both my graduate and undergraduate students this semester. This is a 1995 project that included research on all of the previous business owners. (this one is my image)
The tour continued through the Victorian district of Angeleno Heights
We then saw another Trustee’s house, originally the Storer House by Frank Lloyd Wright, one of his 1920s textile block houses and I loved the resonances with Unity Temple and the interesting verticality (and generous ceiling heights) of the composition, which was exquisitely sited overlooking the city.
The coup de grace was the Sheets-Goldstein House, a 1963 John Lautner design without a right angle or safety feature in it. Owned for the last 37 years by Jim Goldstein, he hired the original architect in 1980 and worked with him until his death. The thing is a giant triangle of concrete on a 400 foot cliff with a John Turrell sky room and glass walls being the only thing separating you from the edge of the cliff except for the many place where there is no wall, only cliff. Just stunning.
photos by Felicity Rich

A New Birth of Freedom

January 20, 2009

You have to really, really cling to an anti-historical ideology not to be excited today. I am currently in the ballroom of the 112 S, Michigan Avenue building, the 1908 Illinois Athletic Club by Barnett Haynes & Barnett of St. Louis (with a major remodeling in the 1910s?) where I am watching, along with a couple hundred other SAIC faculty, staff and students, the Inauguration.

Indescribable emotions. The only Chicagoan ever elected President. Perhaps the first preservationist – he was known for his support of preservation in the Illinois General Assembly and Michelle Obama was on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The first President of my generation after years of being the shadow of those Baby Boomers. Not to mention the whole African ancestry thing. So nice to finally put the lie to race, that artificial construct. Do you know that in the famous Supreme Court case upholding segregation – 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson – they couldn’t even tell Plessy was black by sight? I remember the excitement of electing Harold Washington Mayor of Chicago 25 years ago. I felt proud then and I feel proud now. Pride is a human emotion based on association, not biology. This Spring I am doing a series of community tour designs in various Chicago neighborhoods and one thing I have always noticed about people in communities is how they feel personal ownership and pride in their community history – even if that history had no direct connection to personal “heritage.” I remember being in Miami at my first National Trust conference 17 years ago, being auctioned off at the Preservation Action auction as a guide for a tour of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, complete with brunch at Gladys’, now sadly gone. This is my history too, and I know I will find that ecumenical outlook among the community activists we will be working with this Spring. I get excited about all sorts of Chicago history, about all the layers of history in these streets.

Do you think it’s just me? I get proud of places I have adopted, from Leeds to Weishan, and I boast about them. Maybe it is an American thing, a nation born as an idea more than a place, because the place was contingent and fugitive, even perhaps for the first Americans who came 14,000 years ago, and then for the denizens of Europe and Africa who followed more than 13,000 years later, framing a nation without a heritage, without a land or a race really, without all those artificial constructs the Enlightenment was promoting in order to grease the skids for capitalism and industrialization. A paradox, really, a nation founded on Enlightenment ideals that had no roots and struggled to make the sort of artificial roots the Enlightenment was promoting. Heck, Plessy v. Ferguson was a twisted attempt at those roots. How exciting to be here in a time and place to witness the historicity of an idea; the culmination of a promise.

I am fond of saying that all ideology is wrong, because it is static and history is dynamic. But there are ideas that motivate and inspire and have agency in history. They exist on both sides, those pushing us toward peace and unity and those pushing us toward division and hate. It is so very wonderful to see the good ideas arriving on the stage of history and the humanity that made this possible. Here he comes.


January 14, 2009

Context is everything. It is the reason we bought the Farnsworth House five years ago – because it was going to be ripped out of its historic context – the site it was designed for, the place where its history happened. There are some monuments and buildings that are incredible works of art and some have been moved AWAY from their context in order to save that art. My first memory of a National Geographic cover was the moving of Abu Simbel for the Aswan dam. But something is lost, even when a great work of art is subjected to this sort of move in order to save SOME of it.
The Mumford House is not a great work of art, but it is a fantastic piece of history. It is a remnant of the experimental south farms of the campus, and they even preserve some crop fields nearby as well, or they did a couple of years ago. The oldest structure on the U of I campus in Champaign, the house is the remnant of the campus’ earliest history. It can only effectively represent that history WHERE IT IS. This significance saved the building in the past but now the bosses want to move it to a site miles away where it can be forgotten. And where it will lose much of its value. There is a hearing next week – January 22 – where you can try to explain to the powers that be that this is a bad idea. Or check out the Landmarks Illinois link to make your views known.
Most people don’t get it. I have seen many houses moved to save them, but in every case something was lost, and that something was historic context. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, various historical societies and industrialists like Henry Ford began collecting historic buildings into petting zoos of history and architecture. There was some value in that, but A LOT LESS VALUE than saving something where it happened.

The shocking thing about the Mumford House is that the preservation planner for the U of I endorsed the move as quickly as the FDA approved Viagra (It does what? No, we don’t need tests – that is SO approved!). God knows why. This has led a lot of otherwise thoughtful people to assume that this is a preservation decision and that moving the building – AND giving it to a department that doesn’t want it for a use that doesn’t exist – is saving it. In fact, it is hiding it in a corner where it can be subject to further abuse. In this case, context is everything. You move it, you lose it.

schools and sustainability

January 9, 2009

Illinois is one of six states working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the US Environmental Protection Agency to develop policy on sustainable school siting. What’s that? Well, basically, for years we have been building new schools out in cornfields and letting old ones closer to where people live go to waste, or worse. This is being done through the Lt. Governor’s office, so participation is free (Ba-Dum-Dum!) and you can either attend a big symposium on the topic in Joliet on February 27 or just submit comments to

The issue is sustainability, but it is also preservation. I recently looked at an old Sanborn map of Oak Park – from the 1920s and 30s. It was amazing how much was exactly the same. Over 90% of Oak Park’s single-family homes date from before 1939 and that was evident from the map – you could still use it to identify most of the residential buildings. The exceptions were a few (surprisingly few) commercial areas and some of the 1960s apartment highrises along the railroad tracks. And the schools. This was the one resource COMPLETELY altered in the last 70 years – schools.

And no wonder. Schools are the only ones that don’t have to play by the rules. They can basically ignore local planning and zoning laws. Schools are basically foreign embassies (except I can think of several embassies that preserve and rehabilitate historic buildings) thanks to certain state laws. They have a free hand denied every other building owner. And they play that hand.

When the new middle schools were built in Oak Park a decade ago, the state facilities officials treated the local community like peasants and blithely informed them that they didn’t have to listen to anything the community said. They magnanimously said they would listen anyway but then claimed all the suggestions were too late to have any effect on the process.

In the morning I walk my daughter to a design-free school building where she huddles with the other sixth graders in a foreshortened patio a car-width away from a busy street. This used to be a generous 100-foot-plus setback when my wife went to the same school which meant both FUNCTION and DESIGN were better. The absence of architectural design in the new middle schools is unfortunate in a community whose architectural character inspires ongoing human and financial investment as well as tourism.
here is what it used to look like
I hope this initiative can lead to more sustainable planning. Jim Mann used to tell a story when he ran the National Trust’s Midwest Office office a few years back about the governor (Maryland maybe??) who realized that in the next decade he was going to build 100 new schools and tear down 100 old schools. He saw the insanity of the planning process and the incredible amount of waste of taxpayer money that meant. Now we in Illinois have a chance to end this cycle of waste.

books authenticity movies

January 6, 2009

I finished “Who Owns Native Culture?” by Michael Brown an investigation of the legal and political status of indigenous peoples, read a history of soccer, got through half of Bill Bryson’s History of Everything, and swallowed Yuhl’s cultural history of Charleston’s early 20th century image-making. I am topping off this literary feast with Levinas’ seminal 1948 essay on aesthetics, all within a six-day trip to Mexico so of course I am thinking about authenticity.
No sooner had we arrived in Mismaloya than we were confronted by large protest signs painted on sheets accusing the government of robbing the people of Mismaloya of their “unique patrimony,” a neat echo of the various case studies in Brown’s book, although in this case less the specialized sovereignty rights associated with specifically indigenous peoples but rather the rights of a localized people. The protest was authentic: grass roots, geographically localized – and it was claiming heritage, so in a broad sense it was indigenous. Indigenous tends to mean specifically the pre-settlement peoples of “settler” nations like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia and Brazil, although in most of those places the majority of indigenous peoples live somewhat inauthentically in major cities.

From what I can gather the Mismaloya protest is occasioned by the overdevelopment typical of tourist areas, which always threatens to destroy their authenticity. But then we went to dinner on the beach and were confronted by the origin of Mismaloya tourism, beyond the natural beauty typical of the larger Bahia de Banderas region: a movie. Because of course the attraction to Mismaloya began in 1964 with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr and the Night of the Iguana.
A couple of days later we did a “canopy”tour in the jungle at El Eden, which we were constantly reminded was the set of a movie twenty years later – The Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Can the set of a movie be an authentic experience? It can certainly have a big impact on tourism, and on the preservation of historic sites. The Hearst Castle in California is a tourist site that gains much of its impetus from the film Citizen Kane, which was after all a fictionalized account of its builder. In Thailand, they had to rename a section of river Kwai to satisfy the demands of tourists flocking to see a surprisingly modest bridge made famous nearly fifty years ago by Sir Alec Guiness. Paris, with no shortage of authentic sites, experienced a recent boost at those sites associated with the novel and film Da Vinci Code. I remember visiting a bridge in Nassau at the age of 10 that I had seen in Thunderball, the most lasting (and thus most authentic?) memory of a certain family vacation.

It occurs to me that I am constantly peppering my tours with references to the use of various locales in famous or even less famous films. It also occurs to me that I have seen life size statues of Elwood and Jake Blues all over Ireland and lots of other places, too, and that moviemaking is simply mythmaking or storytelling or cultural production or whatever the theorie du jour wants to call it and it is an authentic expression of people and places and times and the stories it tells and the places it tells them add to history and add to architectural significance. And while this might seem too “meta” to be authentic, the case of Night of the Iguana – where the filming itself became a celebrity case long before the film’s release – isn’t this is fact part of the story of the place? I recall being in Monaco on the road where Princess Grace died and that was real and authentic and she had a real and authentic and even royal life that began in movies. A movie can be considered an artwork, so if we flock to see Michelangelo or Botticelli in Florence or Da Vinci in Paris can’t we flock to see Scorsese in New York? Is the Fontana de Trevi an 18th century treasure or a celebration of the 1960s sexual revolution by Fellini? I would hazard to say it is both. We like our authenticity to be pure, but that purity is itself a cultural construct. As the saying goes, the truth is never pure, and rarely simple.