Archive for July, 2010

Ghost Sign at Roger Brown Studio

July 28, 2010

SAIC did a good job repointing the wall at the Roger Brown Study Collection at 1926 N. Halsted in Chicago, saving and enhancing the existing Daily News ghost sign that has been there for the better part of a century. Here is the before-and-after courtesy of Ron Fitzpatrick, Director of Design and Construction.

This ghost sign may have helped inspire Roger to choose the building for his home and studio back in the 1970s. Ghost signs are a fascinating phenomenon, and hard to preserve. We just lost the 1960s Pago Pago sign downtown, and invariably they appear and disappear quickly. Here is one that emerged for less than a month in 1997, on North Avenue near Humboldt Park. It is clearly a pre-Prohibition sign revealed when a nice Victorian was demolished adjacent to Roeser’s Bakery – Seipp was a major Chicago brewer and the builder of Black Point in Lake Geneva.

SAIC MSHP alumna Nicole Donohoe did her thesis on ghost signs, an amazing inventory (the largest thesis ever in our program!) and even got on WTTW once thanks to her great work.

more to come

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Duisburg

July 26, 2010

A month ago I was in Duisburg, the Ruhrgebiet city in Germany that is today a scene of tragedy following the death of 19 attendees at the Love Parade, an event held in Berlin for almost twenty years after the fall of the Wall. A tunnel to the festival ground in a former railyard became choked with people and a stampede led to death and hundreds of injuries. The event will never happen again, and an inquiry is beginning. The human tragedy is paramount, but it also represents a setback for a city that was beginning to reinvent itself. The Duisburg I saw this June was very different from the city I saw in 1982 and 1986, when it was still in the throes of the loss of heavy industry, coal and smokestacks that built it. It was dark and plain, and even the commercial center had few felicities. In 2010 the center is marked by the city’s new icon, a Niki Saint-Phalle that is more colorful than anything I remember from the 1980s.

The center of the city was revitalized. Old buildings and new buildings and kid-play fountains and a sunny density to the street traffic. Again, a contrast to the city of 1986 but a contrast I would probably find in Chicago as well if I had not seen how it transformed over the last 24 years.

The Rathaus


Theater and fountain, Duisburg


art and the pedestrian mall downtown

A listed (landmarked) 1960s department store downtown

The Rhine itself is marked with art, a huge Orange monolith. The former docks and shipyards have been transformed like similar districts in London, courtesy of SIr Norman Foster.


loft living in the new docklands of Duisburg


New Buildings in the Duisburg docklands


the five ships

And this preservationist enjoyed the fragments of the old city wall that survived from medieval Duisburg, for this is a city not well known to the outside world, but with a thousand years of documented history.

But today it is “Eine Stadt im Trauma” Blame is being parceled out, claims that Duisburg could not handle the 1.4 million strong Love Parade, claims that the security plan was faulty; that the event plan was faulty; that somewhere, fault must be found and death and trauma somehow avenged. I wonder how much this will set back a city I have long known and felt at home in: a place where I saw so much growth after nearly a quarter century away – what will happen now?

Chicago is Coming

July 22, 2010

The number of international tourists to Chicago has been climbing visibly in the last decade or so. Sure, this is more noticeable to me because I live in Oak Park, where the devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright are as likely to be German or Japanese as they are to be North American, but the shift is visible. It is clearly visible in Millenium Park, at age six the new symbol (s) of the city and a guaranteed attraction for visitors (the Bean) and locals (Crown Fountain) alike.

But in the last couple of months there have been more significant clues. In May, we learned that Chicago has the seventh best restaurant in the WORLD (Alinea), beating out New York City, and a couple of weeks ago Michelin announced it will finally do a Chicago red guide (that means restaurants – as many of you know, I used to write the green guides for Michelin, which are the cultural and historical ones) this fall. The number of five-star hotels has grown significantly, and despite low polling numbers in the city, Mayor Daley has lots of suburban and out-of-town fans thanks to his street plantings, graffiti abatement and thing for wrought iron. The city looks good.

We also have somehow become the center of summer music festivals, with both the established alternative (oxymoron check) festival Lollapalooza and the newer alternative alternative Pitchfork festival in Union Park, which is a part of the West Side that was not frequented by out-of-towners in the 1980s. They are filming Transformers 3 downtown right now and Batman took advantage of some of the cities iconic landmarks and streetscapes a couple of years ago.

We also have (again, despite recent poll dives) the President’s house, something every tour bus I have taken around in the last year has demanded. And we will have it for at least another two and a half years, if not longer. I think the city’s time is coming. We’re over 500 feet above sea level next to the fifth largest fresh water lake in the world, so we are in decent shape for global warming. We have a reasonably diversified economy and remain a vital transhipment point for every kind of good on every kind of vehicle. Our airports fly directly to China, India, Russia and most other places daily, and today Virgin America announced it will start hipster service to London (fixie planes?)

We have the longest and greenest lakefront of any world city (I didn’t fact check that but you would need a hell of an estuary to beat it) and a slew of cultural attractions and you don’t need a car to enjoy any of it. Plus, we have all of this famous architecture, which is what green guides (and iPhone guides, etc.) are made of.

the recently restored ironwork at Louis Sullivan’s famed Carson Pirie Scott store.

Robie House – restored and more interiors visible than ever!

Speaking of Chicago architecture, you MUST dash right over to the Chicago Cultural Center to see Tim Samuelson’s fantastic Louis Sullivan show – comprised of artifacts, drawings, photographs, big chunks of stone and iron and terra cotta, and a brilliant design by one of Chicago’s greatest artists, Chris Ware. Not only does the show offer a wonderful overview of a magnificent artist, but it offers new and intriguing perspectives from a man who has spent a lifetime studying Sullivan. Do. not. miss. it.

Chicago is coming. It is becoming the destination it always could be, and it is getting the recognition. And it isn’t just downtown. The transformation of the near south and west sides over the last decade is pretty stunning.

Yes, you could complain about political corruption and government budget crises, especially if you live in one of those cities known for clean government and bountiful budgets.

(Hello? Anyone?)

August 17 UPDATE: Chicago just rose to 6th in the global cities ranking. Read about it here.

Lake Geneva

July 12, 2010

One of Chicago’s great architecture and preservation supporters has been kind enough to attend many of my public lectures over the years and become a good friend. He asked me to present a lecture to the Lake Geneva Conservancy this September for their annual benefit, and as a prelude gave Felicity and I a tour of Lake Geneva this past week. The lecture ruminates on the past and future of heritage conservation, and Lake Geneva presents excellent examples of the various facets of the history of preserving buildings.

We began at Black Point, the Seipp-Peterson house, built in 1888 by Adolph Cudell for the brewer Conrad Seipp as a summer vacation home. Its preservation over the past decade represents a fairly recent phenomenon dating to the early 1990s, namely the NIMBY house museum backlash, where nearby property owners, guarding their privacy, object to public tours of houses. Black Point responded, as Oak Park did in 1996, by limiting the tours and the accessibility – like the Seipps and Petersons, you must arrive by boat. Despite the limitations, the backlash has been strong.

We then visited the Lake Geneva Conservancy itself, an open land preservation organization headquartered in this lovely 1857 stovewood house, the Douglass-Stevenson House, in Fontana, one of three towns on the 7-mile long lake. This is a classic example of preserving one of the oldest houses in town for a local semi-public use. Walworth has a lovely old train station as well, and our friend pointed out the various train and trolley track routes – long since paved over, that served the vacation community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

We then visited the town of Lake Geneva, where an active preservation movement created both an historic Main Street and a neighborhood historic district.

There is a lot to see, including the local historical society in an old mill building, and the recently improved Mill Race itself. This is a nice place, with active shops and nice storefronts, some even nicer than their historic forebears.

There is also the legacy of the sort of haunting, ferocious mistake that spurs many local building conservation efforts. A hulking, massively artless highrise right in the center of downtown. I wondered how such an out-of-scale clunker had been permitted, but then the answer was even more damning – they tore down a Frank Lloyd Wright hotel on the site in the 1970s.

Actually, that photo doesn’t reveal the poor detailing visible up close.

The planning disaster did the job. Height limits and historic districts soon followed. This is a familiar story: people only take action in regard to preserving their built environment when great buildings are lost. And when bad buildings replace them.

The final chapter of Lake Geneva’s preservation history is still being written, and it is apparent from the boat tour of the lake. The boat driver narrates almost the entire two hours, and video screens show historic photos of the mansions and homes and camps built all around the lake from the 1870s through the 1920s. They have to, because many, many of the original structure are gone. This is a place full of teardowns.

Preservation has not reached these sites beyond the town boundaries. Like Lake Tahoe, there are a flurry of different jurisdictions. Moreover, as you would expect, people want to maximize value – and windows. You can always tell a new house from an historic one by the windows. The new house may adopt Queen Anne or Romanesque or Prairie styling, but its windows – especially in a lakefront vacation home – will be massive. There are a few great mansions left on the lake, like this Howard Van Doren Shaw composition from 1906.

So, I suppose Lake Geneva has it all: house museums, historic districts, Main Streets, NIMBYism, teardowns, jurisdictional disputes and conservation easements, which are largely used here to preserve the open space, a very worthwhile pursuit. Many thanks to the Lake Geneva Conservancy for inviting me to be their benefit speaker this fall.

Retail Sprawl

July 9, 2010

From the Business section of today’s Chicago Tribune:

“In the past, fueling growth was as easy as building a big retail box on an empty farm field. For the past three decades, retail space grew roughly five times faster than the population.”

That’s a testament to the causes of sprawl and non-sustainable development.


Do we have five times as much stuff as we did in 1980? Perhaps, or perhaps the stuff we have doesn’t last as long as it did in 1980. Or maybe our quality of life is five times better? Not by my reckoning. But we have a lot fewer “empty” farm fields, and the big boxes are still coming – including one at the Wilderness battleground in Virginia, where Wal-Mart wants another store, even with two already within a 20-minute drive.

Is this an efficient economy?

Amsterdam School

July 3, 2010


Amsterdam is a wonderful city for architecture and urban planning. I was struck on a recent visit by the Burgess & Parsons nature of the place: like Chicago it is a series of concentric rings that neatly describe the city’s development over time. You can actually tell how far you are from the center by the style of buildings.

You begin in the center along the oldest grachten or canals, with 17th century buildings and even a few churches that are older. These reflect the Golden Age when Holland invented the global corporation and led the world in commerce. Stepped gables and narrow fronted deep buildings along canals define this period.


This is then followed by an ring of mostly 19th century buildings in what we would call Victorian Gothic in America.

At the periphery, where we stayed, there is postwar development, towers in the park and neat square boxes of homes in typical International Style suburban developments, albeit with the usual Dutch obsession with the bicycle.

But in between is my favorite part. A full thick ring around the center of 1910s and 20s housing projects – the first modernists, all realized in an expressionistic vein in the 1910s and 1920s by idealistic, socialistic housing organizations. We saw these as soon as we took our first tram ride and they are mesmerizing.


The planning of this ring was done by Berlage but the buildings were realized by the brilliant architects of the next generation, like Michel de Klerk, who did the internationally famous Het Schip for the Eigen Haard housing group. These architects combined their social ideals with expressive brickwork, sculpture and a warm, earthy modernism that contrasts strongly with the Neue Sachlichkeit that dominated the later 1920s on the continent.

De Klerk was judged the best of the bunch by Barry Byrne, the Frank Lloyd Wright-trained architect who visited the city in 1924 and it was fun to be there looking at the buildings he saw. They look a lot like Byrne’s own buildings.

This is the De Dageraad project which De Klerk did with Piet Kramer, who showed Byrne around in 1924. Compare it to one of Byrne’s schools:

The Dutch modernists worked with sculpture and molded the brick into various shapes and colors, eschewing aesceticism and creating housing that is still vital and viable today.


They actually have a museum of the stuff, up at Het Schip, the greatest of the projects, and possibly the most difficult to locate, but well worth the trip.


They even have more than a few “Prairie” style buildings. H.P. Berlage, Holland’s Louis Sullivan, was considered too conservative by Kramer, De Klerk, Wijdeveld and the others, having come out of an earlier generation, but he PLANNED that ring of housing projects that stretches right around the center of the city just beyond the museums. And here is the Berlage School, much reminiscent of Wright:

or this little gem next to the Van Gogh Museum

There was hardly time to see and appreciate it all. It is worth another visit and it is worth wider respect – it has started to creep into the guidebooks, but for most tourists, it is hard to see the city beyond the careening, tie-rodded ornamental gables along the grachten. But a visit to the ring that began a century ago is worth it. And they are preserving it.