Archive for January, 2010

Creative Destruction

January 30, 2010

I got a question about Creative Destruction at my lecture at the Chicago History Guild a couple of weeks ago and my first response was: “that is the hottest thing in preservation scholarship.” It has been for over decade, actually, from Max Page’s Creative Destruction of Manhattan and Michael Holleran’s Boston’s Changeful Times to the recent release of Randall Mason’s Once and Future New York. Dan Bluestone has also contributed to this scholarship, as have many of the pieces in Future Anterior and other journals.

I think many people confuse creative destruction with the concept of creativity and the tabula rasa, and thus come to the curious conclusion that preservation stifles creativity. This noxious notion doesn’t pass the sniff test: any child can draw on a blank canvas – it takes real creative skill to express yourself in context.

What creative destruction really means is the selective erasure of certain landscape elements (including buildings) in order to reinforce a particular story. It has happened a lot in preservation history, with perhaps the most famous example being the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and 1930s, where lost historic buildings like the Governor’s Palace were reconstructed from scratch while historic buildings from the 19th century were demolished in order to “restore” the place to a more perfect vision of its Colonial past.

In Mason’s Once and Future New York he notes that this is NOT how we think of historic preservation/building conservation today. Today we approach it from the point of view of avoiding waste, maintaining identity and depth in a fast-paced society, and conserving precious resources. A building is an incredible amount of embodied energy and destroying it is like throwing out gasoline or burning forests.

But that is not the history of saving buildings. A century ago, during the Progressive Era, the preservationist impulse arose – as it often does – in response to rapid changes in society and the landscape. The United States was becoming an urban society for the first time, and immigrants were pouring in, causing cultural consternation among the established classes.

In this environment, landmarks were preserved as moral and cultural lessons. Most of the buildings saved in the 19th and early 20th centuries had connections to Revolutionary War heroes or other “founding fathers.” Those preserving them were explicit in their motives: they wanted to keep American culture in the face of foreign influences and they wanted stability in contrast to the uncertainties of modernization.

Mason recounts how the preservation project became the creation of a memory infrastructure designed to reinforce a certain narrative of American history and American society. And, in many cases, to actively erase the foreign immigrant presence, as in the development of the Bronx River Parkway, which restored an idealized version of nature to be appreciated from automobiles by, among other means, removing immigrant settlements along the route.

Creative destruction thus served the purpose of shaping historical narratives embodied in built forms. It didn’t matter if those forms were built out of brick and stone or forests and streams. Mason’s other examples included City Hall Park, a major preservation effort that focused not only on saving the early 19th century City Hall but on removing later buildings like the Tweed Courthouse that had been added to City Hall Park, obscuring the original landmark and conveying unpatriotic messages about corruption.

By the time Colonial Williamsburg opened in the 1930s, preservation had been professionalized, largely by architects. It had also expanded its focus beyond associations with founding fathers to include architectural landmarks. And the same approach of creative destruction helped shape architectural narratives. The practice of restoring an historic landmark to a certain date may involve “creative destruction” of later additions, again in the service of a more coherent narrative or more coherent design. In the case of sites like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio or the Gaylord Building, reconstructing the original appearance enhances a visitor experience, and ideally the interpretation documents everything that happened.

Reading Mason’s book I started thinking about our own more current memory infrastructure, which has evolved over the last 50 years to incorporate more social history, more vernacular architecture, and a massively broader understanding of the American experience. For my entire life the memory infrastructure has been almost the exact opposite of the jingoistic solipsisms of the Progressive Era preservationists: it has been all about diversity and immigration. A quick visit to one of the most important preservation projects of the last 20 years – Ellis Island – is proof of that, as is the POTUS.

Of course this doesn’t mean the old sites are no longer seen. No, they have been reinterpreted. At National Trust sites like Woodlawn, Belle Grove, Montpelier, Cliveden, Drayton Hall, Oatlands or Shadows-on-the-Teche, the history of the enslaved population in the 18th and 19th centuries has become a central part of the interpretation. And rather than creative destruction, that expanded narrative results from creative investigation – archaeology of slave quarters, research into a great variety of historical records, and contacting ALL of the descendants of those who lived and worked at these sites. Unlike the preservationist project of 1910, which involved winnowing and narrowing the story, our current memory infrastructure requires an ever expanding field of relevance and revelation. And it is growing.

postscript: Creative destruction also refers to conditions in capitalism where technologies or systems are superceded, which is not terribly relevant to buildings and landscapes still used and usable.

Miami Beach

January 25, 2010


all photographs copyright Felicity Rich

In my role as a Trustee of the National Trust I attend three meetings a year and while the meetings themselves are intense and plentiful, we do reap the benefits of visiting stunning historic places in great American cities. This weekend we were in Miami Beach, which seems quite the posh destination, and it is. Thanks to preserving buildings.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

In the 1970s and 1980s South Miami Beach had serious issues of crime and drugs. It also had blocks and blocks of fantastic but run-down Art Deco hotels that had opened in the 1930s when Miami Beach became a vacation destination. A few visionary developers, including National Trust Trustee Tony Goldman, started restoring these buildings and today South Beach draws tourists from all over the world to its beaches and protected, restored Art Deco district.

Friday Tony hosted us on The Hotel rooftop for drinks before we visited another Trustee’s stunning contemporary rooftop condo with views of South Beach.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

There was a great symmetry to this meeting because our President Dick Moe is retiring and this was the site of his first National Preservation Conference in 1992. That was also my first conference, as a staff member of Landmarks Illinois. That was in the wake of Hurricane Andrew and there was much cleanup yet to do but Miami impressed me at the time. It was also sad because this year we lost Floyd Butler, who had founded the Young Urban Preservationists, a way to teach inner-city kids, and he and I had spent much time together in Miami in ’92.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Thursday we had dined at the home of Arva Moore Parks McCabe, a pioneering local preservationist, who last night related how she came to the Trust in 1973 seeking help saving a house in a historic district and the Trust sent her to Oak Park, Illinois. It worked, and she and others of the Dade Heritage Trust have saved much in the meantime, including a fascinating effort by Trustee Jorge Hernandez and others to save the Miami Marine Stadium, one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered properties last year.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

The Miami Marine Stadium is a 1963 concrete composition that is part of an outdoor marine arena unlike any I have ever seen. The folded slabs of the roof and bleachers projecting over the water recall the most visionary concrete designs of the 1950s and 1960s and even in despair the building impresses.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Local preservationists have defied the odds and the authorities to make significant progress towards its eventual preservation. We had the honor of touring the site by boat with the architect who designed it as a young man, Hilario Candela.

Then we had a lovely dinner at Vizcaya, the stunning Italianate Deering mansion on the shore in Miami, an over-the-top historic house and gardens that is open to the public and which the National Trust helped local preservationists save from over development a few years ago. The whole place is made from coral stone and there is a massive boat folly across from the terrace that reminded me of Cixi’s folly, the marble boat in the Summer Palace in Beijing. Vincent Scully whom we awarded the Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award in Nashville was there and I got to speak with him.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

It was interesting to hear Dick Moe and Arva Moore Parks McCabe and others talk about a Miami that “got no respect” from the preservation movement back in the 1970s, because my first exposure to the place in ’92 was all about preservation. How saving and rehabilitating buildings revitalized a community down on its heels and made it an international destination. Almost a generation later, the Miami Marine Stadium presents the same opportunity. Every generation can reclaim its unique and valued connection to place. If it chooses to.

Dolkart’s Row House Reborn

January 13, 2010

I just finished reading Andrew Dolkart’s new book “The Row-House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908-1929” (Johns Hopkins 2009) and I loved it. Dolkart tells a story that is fascinating from several perspectives in the history of building conservation, and he tells it very well. The book springs from a simple fact: people started rehabbing rowhouses in New York (and elsewhere) in the early 20th century. Sometimes these rehabs respected the original exterior of the buildings, essentially following current preservation practice for locally designated historic districts. Sometimes they heavily altered the exterior, following emergent fashions for “Colonial” or Mediterranean renaissance stylings. This involved chopping off no-longer fashionable stoops and window surrounds and other extraneous Victorianisms.

Near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village. Photo copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

You see these rowhouses everywhere, and Dolkart has unearthed tons of period commentary and reportage on the conversions: they usually involved complete interior remodeling of partitions, kitchens, and the like. They also often involved exterior remodeling that typically eliminated the stoops for new groundfloor entrances; shaved off many of the window and door mouldings; rendered the facades with stucco; often added multipane, casement or studio windows; developed rear gardens in an early and successful attempt at gentrification.


93 Perry Street facade. The archway at left leads to the garden and rear building in this 1928 rehab by local architect Floyd McCathern. Dolkart includes a 1932 photo in his book. This photo is copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

Dolkart’s investigation therefore explores one of the philosophical issues that constantly recurs throughout the history of conserving the built environment: when does something become historic and WHEN are we trying to restore things too? Clearly changes to rowhouses that happened in 1912 or 1922 are now “historic,” yet Dolkart notes that many such changes are eliminated with the full approval of landmarks agencies when owners propose restoring a rowhouse to its original condition of the 1840s or 1880s.

Dolkart’s contribution is significant in his detailing of how these remodelings were considered in terms of architecture and real estate development. He first details the many projects of Frederick Sterner, who redesigned many houses for himself and other high-end patrons, transforming the East 60s from an immigrant area to an island of elite pied-a-terre. Dolkart crafts a compelling architectural context for these conversions as representing a distinct social and aesthetic history that is implicitly worthy of some preservation.

The Parge House on East 65th, Frederick Sterner’s final house. The use of ornamental relief in the exterior stucco (pargetry) was a feature of Sterner’s work. Photograph copyright 2006 by Felicity Rich.

Dolkart devotes a significant section to Greenwich Village, which I studied as part of my dissertation. The Village is fascinating for two reasons, both of which are central to Dolkart’s story of early 20th century creative rehabilitation. First, the Village had a strong artistic identity, an identity I explored in my dissertation, relying on many of the same sources Dolkart cites (and critiques). This artistic identity was turned into both heritage tourism and real estate speculation, as the artistic identity of the community became a rationale for rehabilitating buildings by adding artist’s garrets, large studio windows and the like, even as the buildings were being rehabilitated beyond the means of most artists to rent or own.

Greenwich Village – another photo copyright 2006 by Felicity Rich. I guess she was noticing these buildings a few years back…

In my dissertation I dealt with Greenwich Village because it was central to the adoption of local landmarking and preservation in general but it lacked traditional architectural integrity, and these 1910s and 1920s row-house rehabs are part of the reason it was originally proposed to be 18 separate historic districts. Thanks to a centuries-old artistic identity and the concept that landmarks designation would help make the district more architecturally cohesive over time, it became a single district in 1969. I used it as an example of the community-planning impulse in landmark designation, which has at least two aspects: first, the motive to preserve not simply architecture and history but community in the largest sense, and secondly a future-orientation focused on community improvement and employing landmark designation as the motor and model for that improvement. Certainly many of the 1910s and 20s rehabs have been “fixed” since the designation of Greenwich Village, which is why Dolkart began looking at this issue in the first place.

My only critique of the book is its perhaps natural limitation – an Epilogue of less than 10 pages called “Beyond New York City” with brief mentions of Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. In my work I compared the ongoing conservation development of Greenwich Village – “Zoning Bohemia” – to its Chicago counterpart of Old Town, certainly smaller and about 10-15 years behind its Big Apple cousin. But as soon as I started reading the book it immediately brought to mind the same type of 1910s and 1920s rehabs in Chicago’s Old Town, like this:

Now this is of course one of the now-famous and independently landmarked homes that Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller fabricated out of existing building stock in the 1920s. But Old Town also has stuccoed, Mediterranean-Revival-roofed houses on Lincoln Park West and altered Italianates with casements and studio rooftops – all added during the transformation of the district into an artistic enclave in the 1920s. There was even a wave of 1960s rehab that inspired the district itself in the 1970s, and much of that did not follow traditional architectural preservation standards.

I am grateful that Andrew has written such a nicely researched and crafted book and I hope it inspires us to look at the early waves of rehabilitation and how they thought about buildings and communities. It was a welcome, enjoyable and inspiring read.

JANUARY 19 update:

Here are the buildings on Lincoln Park west I was thinking of. I haven’t researched these so I don’t know when they were altered, but the first (actually on Menomonee at the foot of Lincoln Park West) has extra-long windows, a rendered upper facade, and diamond panes in the lower windows:

Next, a few houses north on Lincoln Park West, are these two old Italianates made into Spanish Colonial houses with render, a pent tile roof, and adobe-like walls. Again, I haven’t done the research but I am guessing 1920s.

And of course the Crilly Court gardens remind one of the many rear garden schemes Dolkart found in Manhattan. This is where the Old Town Art Fair started in the 1940s, 15 years after Greenwich Village started its art fair.

There are quite a lot of 1960s-70s rehabs in Old Town, when the area become popular and started lobbying for landmark protection.

APRIL UPDATE

I found another near Michigan Avenue -as I knew I might, since the area around the Water Tower – Towertown – was the artsy area before the creation of North Michigan Avenue in 1920. I also noticed several over on La Salle near Burton Place, the ultimate arthouse block done by Kogen and Miller in the 1920s. Here is the one off Michigan Avenue: