Archive for May, 2010

For Richer or Poorer

May 29, 2010

One of the truisms in the heritage conservation field is that buildings are preserved in two economic conditions: wealth and poverty. With wealth you can reinvest in and maintain property in its original state; in poverty you lack the finances to demolish or alter historic property. In the middle, the whims of temporal fashion and a modicum of money lead to constant alterations that destroy a property’s integrity, while the spasms of economic opportunism foster removal and replacement.

I realized this a quarter-century ago when I was living in East Ukrainian Village/West Town/Wicker Park while working on the history of Bridgeport. West Town had not seen new investment in over 30 years and had a rich stock of historic buildings with a lot of historic integrity. It was poor. Bridgeport was technically the oldest neighborhood in the city, dating to 1836, but as seat of Chicago’s political dynasty for a half-century it always had a enough money to modernize and thus had very little in terms of intact historic resources.


East Village, 2006

Now, if you have read my 2005 Future Anterior article “Race Against Renewal” you know that historic districts have in fact been used by inner-city communities as a way to improve their neighborhoods and satisfy middle-class aspirations. How can this be if the middle-class are the ones messing up historic buildings?

The answer lies in the tipping point: when a district tips from being an under-resourced working class neighborhood into the middle-class. At that tipping point, the sweat equity efforts of hundreds of rehabbing historic homeowners are trumped by developers scrambling to redevelop property and build new buildings.

The urban pioneers – those with middle-class aspirations – create the market by improving their properties and living there, improving the neighborhood’s perceived safety and prosperity. Then the market steps in like Bigfoot and tips the apple cart, scrambling to cash in. In some cases, there is active displacement of the pioneers; in most cases, there is an influx of new homeowners sans history, with little understanding of the neighborhood’s evolution.

East Village is emblematic: the historic districts enacted a few years ago are discontinuous, interrupted by stretches of mini-highrises and other demolition redevelopments. These developments in the late 1990s and early 2000s were cashing in on the efforts my friends and I made in the 1980s. The historic district is itself a picture of that tipping point: a neighborhood that was intact and then disrupted by new development out of character or scale with the original.

Many other historic districts have a similar issue: Eleanor Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, can tell you that much of their permit review over the last two decades has been for Wicker Park and Calumet-Giles-Prairie districts, two neighborhoods designated at the end of the 1980s when they still had a lot of vacant land from postwar disinvestment.

In my historic districts seminar, we look at these phases of development and their contradictions: we want to preserve the original architecture of an area, in order to relate its history visually, but that history may include periods of redevelopment. Also, historic district designation often comes, as shown above, at or about the tipping point when new development starts to take over and push the neighborhood into a newer, and sometimes less felicitous, incarnation. Indeed, historic district designation is usually an expression of that tipping point: a way for those that MADE the neighborhood what it is to hang on to their investment, their sweat equity. Those that complain about the districts are usually the johnny-come-lately developers, swooping in like vultures to lay claim to the killing someone else made.

So, in a sense, the truism follows: as inner-city districts are rehabilitated, they become those middle-class communities like Bridgeport subject to the ephemeralities of architectural fashion and the temptations of redevelopment. The current lawsuit against the city’s landmarks ordinance includes an East Village plaintiff seeking exactly that sort of economic opportunism.

Critics say that historic districts are an attempt to freeze time, which of course they are not. But they are an attempt to freeze the frenzy of redevelopment that seeks to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Historic districts are an a nuanced planning tool that can secure past investments for rehabbers. insure the prosperity of a community, guarantee aesthetic integrity and limit the depredations of the spasmodic redevelopments that caused Chicago sociologists in the 1920s to adopt the fatalistic view that all neighborhoods must grow and then die and be rebuilt from scratch. That idea is generations behind us and it is not a sustainable urbanism.

The Reality of Window Replacement

May 21, 2010

Ugh. There it is again. A newspaper article in the home section advising you to replace your windows: “The days of painting exterior wood windows are gone. Look for low-maintenance vinyl or aluminum windows that come with a factory finish that should last for years.” Heck, they might even last for 10 whole years.


they could even last for twenty if you don’t mind fog

The article does not address the issue of energy savings, since the article is about low maintenance, but it is worthwhile to review the four pillars of replacement window mythology:

Energy Savings: Heat rises, it doesn’t go sideways. Insulate your roof and you have saved 80% of all the possible energy savings. Replace your windows with brick walls and you only have 20% to play with.

Oh, but they are double-glazed, you say. LIKE EVERY WINDOW DESIGNED FROM 1860 to 1928. Every Victorian and early modern building constructed in a climate that includes winter was double-glazed. We just got rid of a lot of those storm windows because we didn’t like the maintenance.

Cost: Yes, a vinyl or aluminum replacement window costs less. So it lasts less and performs more poorly over time. A repaired original wood window will last another 75 years. Most replacement windows have a 10-15 year warranty: the max is 25, which means they need to be 3 times cheaper than restoring your original wood window to compete over time.

Installation: A tight new window will do NOTHING for heat and AC loss if it is improperly installed. Most air infiltration goes through the frame, not the sash. About a quarter of new windows are improperly installed. Conversely, caulking the exterior brickmold on an existing window, installing jamb liners and fixing putty lines can often save as much as a new window.


Ease of use. My knees will rebel against my staircase LONG before my elbows and shoulders will have any trouble opening and closing my 112-year old wood windows (each sash is 3 feet wide and 3 feet high). If they get sticky, I rub some candle wax in the jamb and put a drop of oil on the metal sash cords.

Maintenance. The context of the article is keeping home maintenance from ruining your weekends. Yes, a real window will require some painting and maintenance now and again. But it CAN BE FIXED. In an hour or two.

A replacement window can’t. It needs to be replaced. That is why they call them REPLACEMENT WINDOWS – because you have to KEEP ON REPLACING THEM. It is a FANTASTIC business model because of this planned obsolescence. These guys will be in business eternally because you have to come back to them every 15 to 20 years.

The article also talks about other low-maintenance home improvements. It notes that cement fiber siding panels “are all the rage, ” come in 20 colors and is competitively priced against vinyl siding. This is like saying that pleather trousers come in 20 colors and are competitively priced against polyester. The real angle is “the panels will last 25 years or more,” but the reality is that goes double and triple for the wood siding and stucco they want you to replace. They can last over 100 years if you aren’t allergic to maintenance.

nice pants, dude

SPOILER ALERT: EVERYTHING REQUIRES MAINTENANCE. If you want a home that DOESN’T require maintenance, well, start emptying your bank account because I also want to sell you hair-loss products and eat-what-you-want diets THAT REALLY WORK.

You can shovel this stuff into any kind of pile you want, but it still smells.

Check previous posts on this issue here. and here. and here.

President Lincoln’s Cottage

May 19, 2010

We held the retirement party for longtime National Trust President Richard Moe at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., one of the newest National Trust historic sites and a fitting place to pay tribute to a leader who helped transform the preservation movement into a vital, relevant force for how people decide the future of their communities in this country. Dick Moe took a collection of mansions and made it a representation of our multiple cultures, from Acoma Sky Pueblo to the East Side Tenement Museum, from Tuoro Synagogue to the Gaylord Building, from the Farnsworth House to the Hotel De Paris. He ushered the fight against sprawl and the struggle for sustainability into the heart of the preservation movement. You can’t posit a more transformative leader. Moe will remain involved at Lincoln Cottage, an 1840s Victorian cottage where the 16th President spent a full quarter of his Presidency.

I was intrigued by the interpretation of the Lincoln Cottage. First, a separate historic building, a lovely tile-roofed Renaissance Revival building from 1905 serves as the Robert H. Smith Visitors Center. This was one of the first LEED certified Gold historic rehabs, fulfilling the sustainability mission Moe set out for the Trust three years ago.

Now, many historic sites use tour guides, and many use short introductory films, videos, and audio and signage as interpretation. None of this is new. But President Lincoln’s Cottage combined these traditional forms in a new way. You begin with a 7-minute video about Lincoln and the cottage, but it is projected on three window shades, which at the conclusion rise up to reveal the cottage beyond. You then follow the guide to the cottage itself, but rather than simply one voice, the guide triggers video and audio in various rooms, detailing both the character of Lincoln and the nature of the house and his occupancy of it.

Too often museum professionals and others take an “either-or” approach, charging headlong into technology or remaining staid in a timeworn approach to touring a site. I like the model here, because it keeps the visitor engaged with the video and audio in a way that does not happen when it is only the media and the participant alone. Moreover, it provides that alternating voice that is so essential to maintaining interest in a story. There is an arc to the narrative, centered on the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, and I have to say I did not realize the full breadth and nuance of that story until I toured President Lincoln’s Cottage.

The house itself is relatively barren – only a few period pieces of furniture – the Lincolns would haul their furniture up the 3 miles from the White House – and we have little knowledge about how the second floor was used for bedrooms, but the interpretation not only acknowledges all this, it makes it an advantage. Jim Vaughan, Vice President for Historic Sites at the Trust, said he has been trying to move beyond the velvet ropes at historic sites for thirty years and this site has no velvet ropes. But it ropes you into its story and its sense of place and provides a good model for how to bring historic sites to life.

SEPTEMBER 2011 UPDATE: For updates on earthquake damage at President Lincoln’s Cottage, go to Preservation Nation

Oak Park Commercial

May 5, 2010

My graduate student seminar this Spring at the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program is focused on historic districts: their history as an expression of community planning and their evolution as an aspect of the historic preservation movement. It builds on my dissertation, which argued that the historic district impulse is about community control in a much broader sense than the more refined motivation of architectural and historical building conservation. Mostly I focus on the residential neighborhoods where the movement has been prevalent over the last eight decades, places like Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago.

This semester we had the opportunity to survey two commercial areas in Oak Park, the South Town district on Oak Park Avenue near the Eisenhower Expressway and Harrison Street, the arts district Oak Park has been promoting just north of said expressway along its eastern edge.
Besides fulfilling the “real world” project standards we prefer at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the survey project has also been an interesting investigation into the nature of non-residential historic districts, which have their own history. In the 1970s, numerous courthouse squares and historic Main Streets and downtowns were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby examples include Lockport, an 1930s canal town just 35 miles from Chicago.

Some of these commercial historic districts have also achieved some form of local landmark status. In Oak Park itself, the Avenue district at Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue is part of the Ridgeland district on the National Register and now reviewed by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission.

The Avenue district has been quite a commercial success over the last two decades it has been a landmark, in contrast to Downtown Oak Park, which has resisted BOTH historic district status and consistent economic vitality.

I’m not saying those two are correlated: you can certainly have economic vitality without historic district status, and you can have historic district status without economic vitality. Historic districts tend to stabilize and increase values, a pattern more evident in residential neighborhoods, although the Avenue is a good example of how it works in commercial areas. Recently Chicago has designated more commercial districts, beginning with Armitage-Halsted in 2003 and continuing this year with Milwaukee Avenue, part of the Wicker Park National Register district that was originally excluded from the Chicago Landmark district in 1990.

Now all of this is prelude to what my graduate students are doing, which is following the preservation process: survey, evaluate, register. Tomorrow night they will present their findings to the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission. They may find sufficient buildings of merit to recommend a potential historic district: they may not. They may identify some buildings that merit designation (South Town already has one local landmark) or they may not. Their findings will be presented tomorrow night. The process is what is important.