Archive for September, 2009

Olympics in Chicago 2016

September 30, 2009

It is potentially foolhardy to predict the future, even on the Orwellian internet that allows you to rewrite history as fast as you can type, but the fact of the matter is it is September 30 and Chicago has not been awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics but the POTUS is going to shill for the city at the IOC meeting in Copenhagen so I think we are the team to beat.

Some of my friends are totally against this, for reasons ranging from the obvious public cost and funding issues to the landmarks issues, which include permanent alteration of the most intact Frederick Law Olmsted landscape in Chicago – Washington Park – to demolition of a bunch of Walter Gropius buildings for the Olympic Village. Those issues are still there and they are not finalized, although the city is proceeding with the demolition for the Olympic Village with typical clumsiness, most recently half-demolishing the Laundry Building with a comically clumsy asbestos-abatement that involves a lot of plastic wrap blowing in the wind. Hmmm. Seems to defeat the purpose.

I was in the Bird’s Nest and outside the Water Cube this summer in Beijing. Heck, I saw them last summer from a distance. For Beijing it wasn’t about money, it was about pride. They ALMOST won the right for the 2000 games – that was a tough loss and they knocked it out of the park in terms of an event and promotion of the home nation and even the home city.

I guess it is pride that makes me lean toward wanting the Olympics. The funding issues don’t bother me – Millenium Park was four years late a hundreds of millions over budget and two weeks after it opened it didn’t matter. Every citizen felt a part of that place and made that place their own and the park is kicking off 20 times its construction cost in nearby rehab and development.

The landmark issues do bother me. Gropius is not my favorite architect, but he has a lot of the 20th century resting on his back and to have a near south side in an American city with a chunk of Mies on one side and a chunk of Gropius on the other side is an architectural historian’s fantasy island. Forget the Wiessenhofsiedlung: check out Michael Reese and IIT.

Washington Park is an area of concern. Our best bet after the temporary stadium goes is a 2,500 seat amphitheater that might disappear like the ha-ha of a Jacobean castle. Might. From some angles. I still don’t get why they can’t put it on the mostly empty blocks just east of the park – and closer to the ‘L.”

I traveled the world 23 years ago and everyone asked me whether Chicago was near Los Angeles or New York. And how was Al Capone. I came back and realized Chicago is as worthy of attention as any great city I have seen. It is what it is, and it is a city that can sit with Barcelona and Rio and Beijing and Athens and Rome and London and Seoul and Sydney.

22 years ago Le Monde said Chicago’s great contributions to world culture were the blues and architecture. Yes. Sure you got the wink-wink politics (that ain’t beanbag) and development deals that seem crafted out of Play-Doh in a nursery school and a funding scenario that looks like it is sailing off the edge of the earth and some real important historic resources that may – or may not – be ruined in the less-than-transparent process, but…

maybe sitting on that stage will remind others to make us realize what we have.

FRIDAY AM UPDATE: The decision is a few hours away. Eric Zorn’s piece in the Trib today nailed it: having the Olympics is like having a child. It doesn’t make practical or economic sense; it is about love. Colleague Craig Downs put it well on FB: if we get it I will be happy; if we don’t, I will be relieved. That’s about right.

10:22 AM. Apparently Chicago flubbed the final presentation. Rio is now the favorite.

11:37 AM. Totally flubbed it. We finished last. Yow. Now what are we gonna do with those Gropius buildings? Good news for Washington Park. And cricket.

12:23 PM. Rio wins. I guess that was sort of obvious in retrospect. Sex appeal. Nobody beats Rio in terms of sex appeal. Eric Zorn was right about the nature of the decision, just wrong about who the IOC wanted to impregnate.


Landmark houses in different places

September 20, 2009

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Here is a lovely 1920s William Drummond home in River Forest that was recently sold for a few nickels shy of a million dollars as a teardown. Drummond was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s longtime apprentices in the Prairie era, and he lived in River Forest, where he designed numerous Prairie homes, a church, the library and the women’s club, now an award-winning private home. His 1920s designs featured these long sweeping rooflines that blended the continuity of modernity with formal nods to the traditional styles like Tudor that had captured popular taste in the period. This is one of a small number he did in River Forest, and it is gorgeous. It has a lot of interior layout issues, due to the integral garage, but it is unfortunate that a competent designer was not hired to make the house work for modern needs. You don’t need a competent designer for a teardown – anyone at all can do that. It is simpler. It takes no thinking or endeavor, only money.
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The Sunday paper (Tribune) has an article on this house, called “Coloring Inside The Lines” by William Hageman. That is a nice title, because it describes what happened here and what should have happened to the Drummond house in River Forest. This is the famed 1860s Bellinger Cottage on Chicago’s north side, which survived the Great Chicago Fire thanks to Policeman Bellinger, who reportedly poured hard cider on the house to keep the flames away. It is a small cottage that new owners – who spent over a million on the house – wanted to add on to. They did, but they stayed within the historic guidelines – not expanding into the side yard or altering the building’s appearance from the street. They moved a stair that had chopped up the inside of the house – a similar issue to that presented by the Drummond’s interior. They hired my friends at McGuire Igleski Architects, who know how to work with owners and landmarks commissions. The article mentions the importance of the architects, owners and builders getting in sync. And now they are in the Sunday papers.

I don’t know if the house that replaces the graceful Drummond on Park Avenue will make the Sunday papers, but I doubt it. Since they don’t have to color inside the lines, there is little call for creativity and little need for coordination. You just follow a formula. But they could have done something fantastic, adding on the rear, reconfiguring the interior. You can’t buy that facade – those bricks, those openings today. It isn’t that they are expensive – they don’t make them, period. This house is irreplaceable.

River Forest has an extremely weak landmarks ordinance and Chicago has a working one. A so-called “property rights” advocate might say this is better for River Forest. I say you get a better picture coloring inside the lines than scribbling all over the place.

October Update: The River Forest commission held a hearing on the issue which included this blog. It also included KEY information from Landmarks Illinois, which was not brought up locally: if you saved the house and added on the rear, you could take advantage of the Illinois Property Tax Freeze. It seems few people were aware of that. I hope the owners take advantage of it – unless they are tax enthusiasts who eschew such givebacks.

December Update: The Drummond is gone. The property tax enthusiasts who own the site won.

Chicagoland Watch

September 17, 2009

Landmarks Illinois has made another splash with its annual Chicagoland Watch List thanks to the high profile Rose House and pavilion in Highland Park, a modernist treat by James Speyer that EVERYONE knows as Cam’s house from the 1980s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I knew that when I toured the house about 15 years ago. Modernist steel and glass boxes set into one of the suburb’s trademark wooded ravines, the gem is threatened by possible subdivision despite landmark status and a $2.3 million price tag.
You should go to Landmarks Illinois’ website ( to see the whole list, which includes a two-lane rural road in McHenry County, the South Side Masonic Temple, and an entire neighborhood’s worth of urbane and sustainable terra cotta and brick treasures at the intersection of Halsted Fullerton and Lincoln:
One of the threatened sites has personal resonance for me, the “Colony” in Wheaton at the Chicago Golf Club. I remember the circular fan you could sit on and white wicker furniture you could pick at until grandma yelled at you and a screened porch adjacent to the golf course. Her unit burned some time ago, but the remaining homes by Jarvis Hunt cannot be replicated today. They are unprotected, as is the fabulous Ed Dart Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago. Ed Dart is turning into the Louis Sullivan of the 20th century, the incredibly talented architect whose buildings are vanishing one by one, obliterating a history of grace, light and humanistic resonance.
It is worth noting one category of buildings that appear several times, including the Rose House above, the Cornelius Field House (also in Highland Park) and two of the three Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, like the Walser House on Chicago’s west side. They are landmarks. Landmarks in danger. Not because they don’t have legal protection – but because THEY MIGHT BE DEMOLISHED ANYWAY.
In the popular imagination, landmark status means a building will stay there forever and can’t be torn down. This is not true. Landmark status – and only local landmark status can potentially forestall a private demolition – does not mean buildings get saved forever or preserved in some pristine state.

Landmark status means there is a review process when a building permit is requested. A landmarks commission can choose to approve a permit that would demolish or irrevocably alter a landmark. When I was on the Oak Park Preservation Commission in the 1990s we approved at least four demolitions in the historic district in three years, and I can give you Chicago examples. Landmark status means REVIEW, not PRESERVATION. In Oak Park and other suburbs, the local districts and local commission don’t even have binding review over insensitive alterations, only demolition.
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Plus, landmark status does not mean you have to maintain a property. It is not only a PROCESS, it is a reactive process. You pull a building permit, and the landmarks commission reviews it. What if you don’t pull a building permit? Ever? For anything?
Answer: nothing. Yes, the building department can go after you, if your building starts to look like a hazard. But not the landmarks commission – they only get to speak when they are spoken to.
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Ah, the persistence of ignorance. There is an Op-Ed in the Wednesday Journal (Oak Park) titled “Historic District bad for downtown Oak Park” by Frank Pellegrini. I guess I had my Op-Ed a year ago, and it is worth repeating my pull quote here, since this guy remains unaware:

“The National Register cannot prevent anyone from demolishing anything.”

The Op-Ed goes on about restricting property rights, discouraging investment, regulations and bureaucracies. These keywords are listed rather than logically linked. Unlike most commentators who employ labeling rather than argument, Pellegrini hints that he might actually be aware of the nuances when he says that the National Register designation is honorary but “could be a prelude to a more restrictive local registry” which is true. But all of his arguments depend on that local registry, and his vision of how that process would play out – which is opposite of how it has played out, as seen below.

The National Register doesn’t bring in any bureaucracies unless you go begging to the feds for money. The most galling fact about the situation in Oak Park is that FACTS are staring everybody in the face to counter this opinion. Pellegrini asserts that landmarking will discourage investment, add costs due to regulation and bureacracy, etc. So how about an example? Is there a historic commercial district nearby that has these regulations? Can we see this disinvestment at work?

Yes, there is one IN Oak Park and it is four blocks away. And it has maybe one vacant storefront in the historic buildings. Hmmm. Why isn’t investment being discouraged in that district? If Pellegrini was correct, all the business would run away from the Avenue to Downtown Oak Park to escape the fearsome regulations strangling their rights. That is definitely not happening. He must not be correct.

The opinion is accompanied with an illustration of the demolition of the Colt Building, which you can read about in old posts here from 2005 and 2006. Now I get it. He is upset about the Colt Building. The Colt Building was saved by the Oak Park Village Board AGAINST THE ADVICE of the local landmarks commission and the statewide preservation organization. It costs the Village oodles of money and then was finally demolished years later – just as Landmarks Illinois and the Oak Park Preservation Commission had recommended years earlier.

Listen to the preservationists: they’ll save you money.

SAIC starts in Chicago

September 13, 2009

Fall arrives with the excitement of a new school year. Like last year, I am teaching both a First Year Program class for incoming undergraduates, and our graduate students in the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program. SAIC maintains an enviable, nationally recognized position at both levels, and enrollment is up this year. When I advertise our graduate program, I advertise Chicago, because to me the city is the best classroom of all, and that is how I treat my undergraduate course as well, a Community Based Practices Research Studio that I call If These Streets Could Talk. We spend a lot of time walking the city, sketching it, and looking at monuments to history, both purposeful, like the plaque on the Chicago River marking the site of the Eastland disaster, or the Chicago Vietnam Memorial
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as well as the accidental, like the statue of Irv Kupcinet by my frend Preston Jackson. “Kup” is well rendered, but his gesture toward his longtime place of employment – the Chicago Sun-Times building – has morphed into a seeming advertisement for the new Trump Tower, which now occupies the site.
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Another oddity, occasioned by the otherwise excellent Millenium Park, was the removal of Aaron Montgomery Ward – whose massively unpopular lawsuits helped preserve the lakefront for the public – from the site facing his own Michigan Avenue building to a site a mile to the south. It is still in the park, so it still makes some sense, but not as much as it did before.
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Ward figured big in the story of Chicago’s incredible park system, the subject of a tour I led late last week for the museum. We did the whole 30-mile ring around the city, from Grant and Burnham Parks to Jackson, the Midway, Washington, Sherman and the three west parks of Douglas, Garfield and Humboldt before returning to the lakefront and Lincoln Park.
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We punctuated the tour with two modern churches designed by the teacher of Frank Lloyd Wright and one of Wright’s best students, Barry Byrne. In 1922 Byrne designed St. Thomas Apostle church in Hyde Park, the first Catholic church to anticipate the liturgical reforms of Vatican II forty years early. It is a wonderful continuous fold of brick wall wrapping a single, uninterrupted open space and while elements suggest the Gothic or Spanish colonial, Byrne’s contributions and those of sculptors Alfonso Iannelli and Alfeo Faggi are entirely original.
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sta view in
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We went through the entire boulevard system,which was and is unevenly developed but amazingly complete – as compelling a plan as the 1909 Bunrham and Bennett plan we are celebrating this year. And it is full of gems, like the Humboldt Park boathouse, a Prairie masterpiece by Hugh Garden in a setting so sylvan and lustrous it is hard to believe the Loop is only four miles away.
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In the afternoon after an amazing pizza lunch (chocolate pizza!) at Piece in Wicker Park,we visited Louis Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, where my friend Fr. John Adamcio, dean of the Cathedral, made us welcome and the afternoon sun made the interior shine.
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The tour ended at Lincoln Park Conservatory, designed by Joseph Lyman Silsbee, the first architect to employ Frank Lloyd Wright in Chicago. This is fall in Chicago, which is always its best season, crisp, clear and comfortable. And exciting, now that school is back in session.
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the greenest building is the one already built

September 2, 2009

Guess who is finally saying what I and others in preservation have been saying for a while – LEED certification is not a great measure of environmental impact? Actually, it is coming from the horse’s mouth – the certifiers themselves, who found – shockingly – that many of the new green designs did not PERFORM as they were designed. From the New York Times a few days ago:

“But in its own study last year of 121 new buildings certified through 2006, the Green Building Council found that more than half — 53 percent — did not qualify for the Energy Star label and 15 percent scored below 30 in that program, meaning they used more energy per square foot than at least 70 percent of comparable buildings in the existing national stock.”

One of the disadvantages of the LEED system compared to the other systems is that it is a voluntary program that – until now – had no certification process. If your architect or engineer said your system would use 50% less electricity, then you wrote that down and got credit for it. You got credit and you advertised it as a LEED certified building whether or not you ever remembered to turn out the lights. Or look at the electric bill.

There are other systems out there. Canada uses Green Globes, which is more focused on energy use, and both Green Globes and LEED are based on the earlier British BREEAM system. Dunno why, but like television, we get all our good ideas from the Brits. At any rate, LEED focused initially on materials and production, not operations. Which is of course where all the action – pollution and waste – is.

But there is a problem in the focus on use, too. I have often written about the irrationality of the replacement window. I first addressed this issue back in 2001 and have presented on it in numerous venues (Chicago, Joliet, Plainfield, Elgin, to name a few). My conclusion for the last eight years has been the same: window replacement is driven by marketing, not energy efficiency.

It is ironic that the “green” and “sustainable” concern of the last decade has been used primarily to sell tons and tons of mostly plastic products. Energy efficiency in individual products and buildings has improved dramatically, but buildings also got bigger and one is tempted to believe we got a whole lot of Jevon’s paradox – increased fuel efficiency at the micro level leads to increased use at the macro level. Like highways – more lanes means more use and congestion, not less. Jevon figured this out over a century and a half ago.

Plus the hegemony of green marketing has created a massive disconnect between data and interpretation. I was struck by the March issue of National Geographic, which featured a thermographic image of “an older house in Connecticut.” The roof and eaves were red and orange, indicating heat loss. The window panes were blue, indicating little heat loss, and the caption announced the installation of new double-paned windows. The walls were green, indicating some thermal loss, and they were yellow-orange just outside of the window panes – on the window frames.
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How was this data interpreted? The caption indicates that the new windows were blue and noted that heating could account for half the energy costs for a house. This is wrong on a whole bunch of levels. First, the thermographic image with the glowing red roof shows the obvious: HEAT RISES. It doesn’t travel sideways. 80% of it goes up, regardless of your windows. There is no way window replacement can save more than 20% of heating costs. What the image showed was that the owners of the house didn’t insulate the attic properly.

Second, the image actually illustrates the biggest fault of window replacement: poor installation. The window frames were glowing yellow and even RED in one portion. This meant that the new tight replacement windows were not preventing thermal loss but pushing it away from the pane and into the frame. Exactly what I said in 2001 and every year since – unless you address the window frame, a super tight window may simply push the thermal loss AROUND the window pane and through the frame. Did they caulk???

What would have been useful would have been a thermographic image of the same house BEFORE they changed the windows. Then we could understand the impact – and skill – of the installation. Why didn’t they address the big issue, the roof?? I’m not surprised that a big time mag like NG goofed this up, because the marketing of replacement windows has inoculated us against a lot of common sense facts we learned about thermodynamics back in grade school. But come on – how can you draw conclusions without a baseline?

The government noted that the peformance of its pre-1930 buildings exceeded the energy efficiency of their buildings built 1930-2000. And those older buildings can be made even more efficient with a little insulation and caulk.

I am glad that LEED is improving – it is coming up with a better list of criteria to account for the embodied energy of existing buildings and fabric. It is now starting to look at performance rather than design. But we all have a ways to go.

HISTORICAL NOTE: I am now in the 4th year of this blog. 248 posts. Read them all here.