Archive for April, 2010

SAH in Chicago!

April 19, 2010

Well, it is finally here after years of planning. The Society of Architectural Historians, an international organization promoting the study of the built environment, is having its 63rd Annual Meeting in Chicago this week. I have the honor of being Local Chair and I am excited to welcome so many friends and colleagues to a city whose architecture has always been central to its identity.

Over 500 architectural historians from everywhere will be here, and many are taking tours of every kind of local landmark from the Gold Coast to the Farnsworth House; from Oak Park to Hyde Park; from the Reliance and Rookery and Marquette and Monadbock Buildings of the Loop to the grand mansions of the North Shore. I have Terry Tatum to thank for coordinating a dizzing array of tours led by local experts, and Sally Kalmbach for coordinating a medium-sized army of volunteers manning all of the scholarly paper sessions on Thursday through Saturday, as well as tours and special events. THANK YOU!

We kick it off with two all-day symposia on Wednesday – one on Historic Preservation, coordinated by Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois and featuring the challenging topic of preserving public housing, including discussion of our efforts to create a public housing museum in Chicago. The other symposia focuses on landscape architecture and the direction of scholarship in this growing field. Wednesday evening one of my mentors, Robert Bruegmann, opens the conference with “Chicago: First City of American Architecture” although I can almost guarantee the talk itself will dissect that title.

The sessions proper kick off on Thursday with topics ranging from sustainabilities and superblocks to ancient Rome and Gothic in Latin America. Thursday evening we have the awards ceremony and a presentation by Alice Friedman, and Friday and Saturday morning we have more sessions, following by a day and a half of tours. Saturday night we are having a large benefit in the Gold Coast and the whole affair promises to be a whirlwind, especially for us locals pulled in a hundred directions. I presented a paper on Barry Byrne at the SAH Conference in Richmond, Virginia in 2002 and absolutely loved the event – took a fantastic tour of modernism and the recent past, saw the Jeffersonian rigour of the state capitol and the Victorian industry of Shockoe Slip, so this is a great honor to be welcoming the same scholarly crowd to the city I have never left.


Opening Day at SAH went well – saw my dear friends, session chairs from the panel I was on in ’02- Victoria Young and Christine Madrid French. Jim Peters set up a FANTASTIC Historic Preservation colloquium with three excellent speakers on the preservation of public housing. Elizabeth Milnarik gave a nicely illustrated, reasonably detailed history of public housing in America and Europe. Europe, never uncomfortable with the concept of a public realm, leapt into public housing after World War I, whereas America was still in the “philanthropy plus 5 percent” mode whereby a few wealthy individuals like Julius Rosenwald and Marshall Field created affordable housing via a limited profit private market.

Even in the great government era of the New Deal, Harold Ickes did not propose government built housing right away but eventually it happened – a series of low-rise projects that in many ways thrived for much longer than the 1950s-1960s segregated highrises we all remember. Mike Jackson spoke about preservation of public housing, including an award-winning 2006 project in Danville, IL that used the preservation tax credits AND secured LEED Gold status. He also noted – check this out – that ONE-QUARTER of the preservation tax credit projects in Illinois involve affordable housing. TAKE THAT, all you “either-or” folks. Finally, Sunny Fischer led her discussion of the National Public Housing Museum she has been spearheading with moving tales of her own – largely positive – experiences growing up in public housing in New York. She said the message she received as a child was simple: “my city, my government wanted us to make it.”

The public housing museum has an exhibit in the Merchandise Mart you can see right now. The Colloquium was followed by a tour of several sites, including the museum’s future home on Taylor Street in a one of the Jane Addams Homes built by the fed 70 years ago; the still-to-be-redeveloped and hopefully preserved Lathrop Homes, and several other sites.

The evening featured a very entertaining business meeting and powerpoint on SAH achievements by President Dietrich Neumann, and of course Bob Bruegmann, who asked whether Chicago was the first city of architecture and detailed a great variety of publications about Chicago architecture over the last century, giving us a nuanced picture of Chicago’s dominant narrative; its counter-narratives, and even its ongoing practice, that like all “Facts” serves narratives, counternarratives, ideologues and iconoclasts equally. Then he left it for us to decide whether Chicago really was the first city of architecture, but in a sense it was clear from the list that this is a city that tells itself stories about its architecture and has done so for at least four generations, embedding the concept of architectural distinction in its civic character. Whether Chicago is the first city of architecture may not be determinable, but it is a certainty that the first thing Chicago does is tell the world and itself about its architecture, and these narratives counter or canonical, have brought architects here to practice from all over the world for over a century. And this week they bring over 500 architectural historians.

September 25 UPDATE

And now it is finally over. Other highlights from SAH: Thursday night’s plenary speech by Alice Friedman at the Murphy Auditorium, which deftly combined the evolution of the discipline with her own pathbreaking investigations into the gendered nature of architecture and remained a rousing paean within and without that most deserving critique. I got to see far fewer paper sessions than I wanted, but each left me wanting more: I loved the discussion following “Counter-Histories of Sustainability” on Thursday, which revisited the 1960s and 1970s attempts at systems-based architecture, but goshdarnit aesthetics always creeps in. It seems every attempt at modernity and the discarding of traditional aesthetics ends up becoming aesthetic – or does it? It did strike me that the 1970s anti-aesthetic architectural ecologists were at least concerned with process and results: something the product-based LEED system may never get too. It was also fitting that the discussion was taking place more or less on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.

Saturday I was focused on getting the tours up and out, with some glitches but the weather could have been worse. Saturday night was the SAH benefit, honoring the Chicago 7 – those 1970s rebels who upturned the Modernist Miesian apple cart – and Chicago Women in Architecture. It was a fantastic event in the Merchandise Mart, and I got to chat with many great Chicago architectural and preservation people, including the incomparable John Bryan, who so graciously endowed the Chair I hold, Gunny Harboe, Jim Peters and David Bahlman, who made the trip from his new digs in Connecticut. Geoffrey Baer of Channel 11 was the MC and gave me a very kind shout-out during the proceedings. We shuttled some more tours off this morning and I met one of them to tour the River Forest Women’s Club this afternoon, that stellar story of a 10 Most Endangered (2005) building that within three years became the Preservation Project of the Year (2008) thanks to Paul and Ellen Coffey. They met all of the preservation standards in spades, and made it more environmentally friendly as well, putting in a geothermal system and cutting its heating costs by four-fifths. Preservation is Sustainability. And it often looks pretty darn good.


Plainfield: Historic?

April 7, 2010

Another downtown bites the dust – or should we say drinks the Kool-Aid? The latter phrase has been overly misused the last decade or two but it is quite appropriate. Historic downtown Plainfield – a lovely Will County town west of Lockport, has voted down historic landmark status, despite a 21-20 majority of downtown property owners being in favor of it. This was reported in the Chicago Tribune today.

Despite the slim majority of owners in favor, Village trustees voted 4-2 against the district, essentially caving to a minority. Negative motivations – like fear – tend to trump the positive motivations, like the economic security provided by knowing what kind of downtown you are going to have in the future. Another negative motivation: fear of the frightening property regulators, who have somehow not interfered with two renovations of this historic property owned by Pat Andreasen, listed on the state, national and local registers.

Actually, the economic motivations of historic districts are complex, because they are on both sides of the issue. Historic districts have ALWAYS been motivated by a desire for economic stability – to reinforce the investments people have made in their property and to insure the value of their property’s surroundings. This is natural, because real estate is an asset whose value is almost entirely external – it is based on location, location and location. Historic districts create a palpable, physical security about location.

Yet the opponents also have an economic motivation. But it is not a rational, steady economic motivation but more of a “dropped-from-heaven” fantasy motivation that works wonderfully in the abstract and JUST often enough in reality to keep hope alive. Because while historic districts insure and protect and enhance value, they also limit WINDFALLS, those magical moments when the property you owned your entire life suddenly becomes the object of desire of a heaven-sent hotel-condo-highrise developer and you are able to finally realize the POTENTIAL value the zoning board so generously gave you six decades ago.

It is sort of like the lottery – it happens, just not to you or me. But there is enough hope there to keep some people dreaming, and their dreams fuel a sometimes rabid opposition to historic preservation – even the kind that DOESN’T prevent demolition – which is the kind proposed in Plainfield. Repeat after me: this historic designation DOES NOT prevent demolition. But it might force you to talk to your neighbors.

So, here is the pull quote, from local property owner John Bates: “I’m not opposed to historic preservation. I’m opposed to something that limits the options for me to maximize my investment.”

Dude dreamt the dream and drank the Kool-Aid. Sorry, Mr. Bates, but you ARE opposed to historic preservation. You can’t have it both ways.

Interpreting Philadelphia

April 5, 2010

I just got back from Philadelphia, which is an interesting case study not only in historic preservation but in the interpretation of historic sites. You can find historic house museums, living history interpreters, historic neighborhoods, historic markers, and of course major patriotic sites, like the room where both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were written.

That room of course is in Independence Hall, one of the first sites preserved in the 19th century, for its patriotic associations. That is why sites were preserved – patriotic associations – pretty much until the early 20th century. Architecture was simply a means to that end.

Independence Hall became a Pennsylvania state building in 1800 when the government moved to Washington, D.Cl, and its wings were demolished (they are now rebuilt). Indeed, this site has a lot of rebuilding over time. Today the hall and a number of other buildings – including Congress Hall – are all part of a National Park. The Liberty Bell is in a new visitors complex, nicely positioned so when you look at it you can see the tower it used to hang in until the mid-19th century.

The amount of intervention in the fabric of Independence Hall has been significant since it became a National Park, which includes much of the land around it. Every preservation student learns about how two blocks of historic buildings were removed to create a mall or vista to Independence Hall, part of the urban philosophy of degagement that influenced the treatment of landmarks for about a century after 1860. It is like the medieval quarter cleared in Paris to give us all a triumphal view of Notre Dame.

Of course, so much time has passed that many of the 1960s modernist highrise buildings surrounding the mall are now, themselves, historic landmarks, for their architectural significance. Architectural significance became a preservation goal in its own right a hundred years ago, and is arguably the dominant preservation motivation today.

We even had the chance to stay in the PSFS, the first fully modernist skyscraper, now reborn as a hotel and lovingly restored with a fidelity to the period (1932) and its aesthetics that is almost disarming. It is well interpreted, with graphic signage in the elevator lobbies and plaques letting you know what kind of marble was used for the walls.

We also found some living history in the Free Quaker meeting house where a costumed interpreter did an excellent job engaging his audience.

The relatively new (and expensive) Constitution Center museum does a multimedia show with a live actor that I found pretty effective, along with exhibits on the Constitution itself and the bill of rights. This is a modern museum with plenty of interactive stuff, none of which you can take pictures of, at least until you get to the room where life-sized statues depict the Constitutional Convention and allow a more basic form of interaction. I guess “interactive” is at least as old as statues.

What strikes me about the interpretation of historic sites in this most historic of American cities, where they have been interpreting history longer than almost any other American city, is that every method of interpretation is still there and still used. Even the metal signs, which are the oldest form of site marking around, are still being made – we saw some from 2009 – and they use the same awkward kerning and raised lettering that they did back in the 1930s.

There are also the typical National Park Service wayside signs, their shape, height and angle unchanged from Yellowstone to Lowell and everywhere in between.

In fact, this one is from Franklin Court, one of the most interesting historic sites, where the Market Streets storefronts were restored, but Benjamin Franklin’s shop and home – long ago destroyed, were not rebuilt in the 1970s by Venturi and Scott Brown but instead interpreted with ghostly contours of steel describing the shape of the house in space, with giant scoops of concrete leading the viewer into views of the archaeological remains below. Unusual when it was done, this was the harbinger of a whole new form of interpretation and wayfinding that helped replace the familiar bronze lettered sign and National Park Service wayside.

They also use plaques on the sidewalk. I have always liked sidewalk interpretation. It takes advantage of where most people are looking when they walk, and it gives you the foundation of a haptic understanding of history.

There are also the graphic signs one finds in many cities that use text and some imagery. We saw several in Society Hill, a neighborhood preserved in the era of urban renewal, including this sign in front of the Physick House, commemorating the pioneering surgeon and inventor of soda pop.

And also this one to Edmund Bacon, the modernist city planner who reshaped Philadelphia in the postwar era and authored the 1970 book Design of Cities that epitomized the renewal approach so many cities used in the era of thinking big, planning big, and demolishing big.

Society Hill was a combination of preservation and renewal, with highrises and infill townhomes. Like Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago, it also had its Freak Street, which was and is South Street, a counterculture mecca.

South Street was distinct from the tony townhomes once occupied by Revolutionary War luminaries like Thaddeus Kozcziusko and James Madison on their quiet, cherry-blossom-lined streets, a place that was all about the middle-class values driving both urban renewal, preservation and sprawl in the second half of the American century.

Another fascinating site of interaction is the “Rocky” statue, outside the Classical Museum of Art, but not allowed to occupy the entrance pedestal its namesake movie character occupied some 33 years ago. Still, it has become a site of pilgrimage, if not as dignified as those of our Founding Fathers, it is certainly popular as queues form for people to take their photos with a statue not of a general or statesman, but an actor playing a boxer.

So, you can read the signs, see the plaques on the street celebrating items present, past and both together, tour the national parks with park rangers, see actors recreating Benjamin Franklin and dozen of other denizens, and even enjoy the preservation delights of the late 20th century: landmarks of architectural history and historic districts that utilize preservation (or, we should say, heritage conservation) as a community planning tool. The historic interpretation of Philadelphia spans the range of techniques, media, styles and forms and very, very much of its works. Heck, they even have the “Ducks” I thought only made sense in the Wisconsin Dells.