Archive for August, 2010

Preservation Wins in Edgewater

August 30, 2010

POST DATE: August 30, 2010 – Exactly five years and 296 posts since this blog began.

Last week a lawsuit against the Edgewater Historical Society (EHS) was dropped, marking a significant victory for preservationists in the north side Chicago community, and indeed, for all Chicago preservationists, since another lawsuit against the city landmarks ordinance is still out there.

The suit argued against community activists who sought to landmark the neighborhood following plans announced to tear down an historic house. They claimed over a million dollars in damages, even though the district never was created.

The Edgewater lawsuit was particularly obnoxious, because the plaintiffs sued not only the Historical Society but several individuals on the society board. It was an attempt to chill the ardor of community activists by suing them PERSONALLY for what they were trying to do for their COMMUNITY. There are actually laws against these SLAPP lawsuits – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – because they are specifically intended to intimidate and inhibit public speech and action. It seems some think community organizations should have the same legal protection that corporations do.

Historical fact: the corporation was invented to limit the personal liability of those who undertook business ventures for profit. It seems only fair that not-for-profits get similar protection, hence the wave of Anti-SLAPP legislation being passed worldwide.

The Edgewater ruling was cheered by Preservation Chicago “as a great relief to preservationists, who are closely watching a similar lawsuit filed by Albert Hanna against the creation of the Arlington-Deming District and the East Village District.”

I have previously commented on that case. The big irony in all this is that people oppose landmarking because they don’t want to limit the value of their real estate, but people have ALWAYS supported landmarking because they want to preserve the value of their real estate. The opposition always heats up with the real estate market, while the conservation option arises either during periods of down markets like the 1970s or in areas that have experienced long-term disinvestment.

We are reading a lot nowadays about the end of the hot real estate market, the death of homeownership and the decline of the McMansion (Bob Bruegmann suggested as much two years ago – see my post on real estate economics) now that the 30-year housing bubble has burst.

The right and left wings are arguing about who caused the housing bubble (if you are on the right, blame Fannies for giving mortgages to lowlifes who couldn’t make payments; if on the left, blame the banks who purchased, repurchased, rebundled and kept buying those toxic assets.) but the simple fact is that when the value of a house doubles in five years, as they started to do in the 1990s, and wages don’t, there will be a correction. This bubble started a quarter of a century ago, and it got really big.

Over historical time, real estate values also go down. Here is a house that cost $8,000 to build in the 1860s and sold in the 1920s for less than half of that.

In my 2008 blog post mentioned above I also related the story about buying two Frank Lloyd Wright houses for a dollar, which was tens of thousands of dollars TOO MUCH, because the properties had a negative value thanks to their location. According to the newspaper this morning, two Frank Lloyd Wright houses in California may be lost, thanks to their inflated values in that most inflated of markets. The Ennis house was listed at $15 million and now can be had for half of that, while La Miniatura dropped from $7.7 to $5 million and may be bought by art collectors, disassembled, and shipped overseas.

The point is, the market was psychotically overheated and overvalued. It reminds me of the Marshall Bennett quote about real estate development after World War II:

“It didn’t take vision because the market was fantastic. You had to be an idiot not to make lots of money. Really. I’m not kidding.”

Oh, I can’t resist. Here is what Bennett – a big real estate developer – said about the crash of the commercial real estate market at the end of the 1980s:

“A developer is like an alcoholic before he joins AA. If you give him money, he builds. He doesn’t care if there is any demand for the space: he knows that someone is giving him money and he can go out and build. Again, there was no vision – there are very few of us who are smart enough to listen to ourselves.”

“America does things completely differently from anyone else. We overbuild and we overcontract.”

Footnote for Bennett quotes: “Seized the Day: Chicago chronicles from seven who helped shape the city”, Rob Mier and Laurel A. Lipkin, Chicago Enterprise, October 1992, p. 18.


Wrigley Building and other non-landmarks

August 26, 2010

In a week a new school year will start and this blog will celebrate its fifth birthday. It is August 2010, and in the old days August was a time when people were vacationing and out of the office and out of touch with the media so it used to be a good time to tear down buildings or approve plans that might not otherwise have public support. I don’t see that this summer in Chicago, but there are landmarks in the news.

First, a moment to honor the passing of Phil Krone, political insider and dedicated preservationist, who led the first urban pioneers (according to the obituary Wednesday, he coined the term “urban pioneer”) to restore the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard, the sole west side historic district in the early days. This is one of the city’s smaller historic districts, but it is significant – a rare remnant of a thriving exclusive 19th century neighborhood. Krone didn’t stop there – I remember him telephoning me in 1989 with some idea about how to save some landmarks we were striving to preserve at Landmarks Illinois, and he telephoned me again last year with ideas about how to save the Gropius buildings at Michael Reese Hospital. In the late 90s it seemed he was at all the meetings of the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, listing buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. He was a true friend of preservation and will be missed.

The other day Blair Kamin had a really excellent article on additions to historic buildings, decrying the refrigerator-like banality of the remodeling of the Wrigley Building’s courtyard. He pointed out that the default architectural option – do it in a bland modernist way – did not serve the richly ornamented historic building. This brought cheers from Steve Semes, who I have mentioned in the past, an advocate for additions that follow more traditional design idioms, and the Wrigley is an excellent example of a situation where Steve is right and the choice was wrong. At the same time, Kamin showed the criticality of his thought by including a second article illustrating an example of a modernist addition – the new project for Fourth Presbyterian Church – that makes sense. This isn’t an either-or proposition or an ideological battle: sometimes the traditional style is the right choice (Wrigley Building, but they flubbed it) and sometimes a glass modernist addition makes sense (Fourth Presbyterian). I am so very glad that Blair gets it and can explain it to those who think you need to take sides.

Nope, not a landmark

Of course, the kicker to all this is that the Wrigley Building is NOT an official Chicago Landmark. It has no protection, and the dumb refrigerator facade they put inside the courtyard could legally be put on the other side of the building. It was proposed for Chicago Landmark status in 1987 and John Baird made a valiant effort to convince the Wrigley family to go along but failed. The building has not been owned by the Wrigleys since 2000. Blair added another article a day later detailing many other iconic Chicago buildings that do not have local landmark protection, despite their appearance as “landmarks” in popular perception.

Blair included the Esquire Theater, Old St. Patrick’s Church (which, like the Wrigley, got close to landmark status but then balked), Marina City (likewise – due to a split between the commercial and residential owners I believe), the Murphy Memorial, and Merchandise Mart.

I argued against landmarking the Esquire 20 years ago because it had already lost its integrity thanks to windows punched into the facade and the destruction of the interior.

Now of course the Merchandise Mart and Marina City are located, like the Wrigley, on the Chicago River, which means they are more easily viewed and more likely to become iconic because they are so visible. That also means they were well designed, because the architects knew those sites would be visible and they lavished extra attention on them. And many of the other “vista” landmarks ARE designated Chicago Landmarks – the Board of Trade, Tribune Tower, and the lesser known but urbanistically exquisite buildings at the south side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the London Guarantee Building (1923) and 333 North Michigan Avenue (1928).

As Blair explained, the reason some iconic buildings are landmarks and some are not is clout. Actually, even some of the landmarks, like Tribune and Board of Trade, are subject to very specific landmark agreements that were approved by the city because the owners had clout – plus enough civic sense to realize that their buildings were landmarks.

LABOR DAY UPDATE: Blair’s non-landmarks article appeared in the Tribune print edition today – a full page that is well worth a look.

Age Value and the 50-year rule

August 13, 2010

The latest issue of Forum Journal (from the National Trust for Historic Preservation – you can join here.) has an article questioning the 50-year rule. The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Park Service promulgated policies for listing properties on the National Register. Eight categories of properties have to jump some more hurdles to become landmarks: birthplaces, gravesites, cemeteries, memorials, relocated buildings, reconstructed buildings, houses of worship, and buildings less than 50 years old.

Now, first it should be noted that I can name properties in each of those categories that ARE on the National Register of Historic Places, but they had to prove extra significance.

Field memorial, Daniel Chester French, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

The article, by Elaine Stiles, notes that the 50-year rule actually dates from the Historic Sites Act of 1935 as a guideline for the Park Service and its publicly owned sites. They originally rejected all sites before 1870, and then revised it in 1952 to “50 years”. Stiles notes there is no evidence as to why 50 years was chosen, but it is a problem, since most buildings are threatened with demolition or remodeling within 25 or 30 years of their initial construction. Heck, the Rookery by Burnham & Root (1886) was totally remodeled on the inside only 19 years later, in 1905.

by Frank Lloyd Wright

it was remodeled again 25 years later by Wright’s student William Drummond, with elevator doors by Annette Cremin Byrne. The point is, the cycle of building remodeling is a lot quicker than 50 years. EVEN some of the most famous battles in preservation history happened to buildings about my age. Penn Station, the epochal demolition in the early 1960s that helped spur New York City’s Landmarks Ordinance, was only 52 when the wrecking ball hit.

Chicago’s Robie House was only 47 years old when the Chicago Theological Seminary proposed demolishing it for a dormitory.

Now, the idea of letting some time pass before you decide whether something is worth preserving has merit. A century ago Alois Reigl defined several reasons for saving historic sites, including “age value,” “historical value,” “art value,” and “use-value”. For Reigl, “age-value” and “historical value” were about the past, while “art value” and “use-value” were about the present and future.

Personally I think our preservation/conservation field today is all about “use-value,” but our criteria still put a lot of weight on the artistic and historical merits of properties we want to conserve. Reigl defined “age-value” with reference to evidence of decay or aging, which would inspire nostalgia. Like historical value, it resided in the past. This is arguably a Western value, deriving from the aesthetics of decay so prevalent in writers like John Ruskin, and I agree that there is something to the sense of age that certain historic sites can evoke.

Society Hill, Philadelphia

Joliet Prison

I used to always relate a story I heard about Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1894 Winslow House in River Forest. I heard that a woman lived across the street from the house for decades and she told an interviewer that she had looked at that house every day for 50 years and never got tired of looking at it.

I don’t know the validity of the story, but it seemed an excellent definition of a landmark. Although, in reality she was referring not to age value but art value, one of Riegl’s present values. If it looks good for a half century, odds are its “beauty” is not a passing fashion.

One of the examples in Stiles’ article was Chicago’s Inland Steel building, built in 1957, landmarked by the city in 1998 and listed on the National Register in 2009. Actually, the story is even more amazing than that.

Inland Steel was considered a landmark before it was even completed. It was included in the first lists of Chicago landmarks, and there is actually a city landmark plaque from 1960 (the paint probably wasn’t even dry yet) still visible on its exterior.

Inland Steel was considered landmarkable in 1960 and it still is today – Frank Gehry even became a part owner he thought it was so cool.

But back to Stiles’ argument against the 50-year rule, which notes several places, including Chicago, that have no age limit on their landmarks. Indeed, in Chicago we have a National Historic Landmark that made the grade at the youthful age of 25. Then again, it was the site of the first self-sustained nuclear reaction, which is a scientific achievement we all agree was more than a little significant for subsequent earth history.

We also designated numerous Mies van der Rohe buildings before they hit 50 years old, because, well, we knew he would remain one of the most significant architects of the 20th century.

It isn’t simply the date of construction that is important, either. in 1990 the City of Chicago landmarked – to great public acclaim – the Chess Records Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the only Chicago Landmark to have a Rolling Stones song named after it. The building dates from 1911, but it achieved its significance – as Chess Records – from 1957 to 1967.

But the real problem is not exceptional sites but typical sites. Stiles notes that only 3 percent or less of sites on the National Register are less than 50 years old, and that most places that matter to people today will be less than 50 years old and will NOT meet the standard of “exceptionally important.”

When we were landmarking properties in the 1970s and 1980s, we were coming up against 1930, which represented the beginning of a generation-long hiatus in the construction industry – very little was built between 1930 and 1946. But once we hit the 1990s, postwar buildings started to become eligible even under the 50-year rule, and today a building from 1960 is eligible. But that also means many 1960s and 70s resources are being threatened, if they have not already been lost.

Mid-North area, Chicago

Galewood, Chicago

Leon’s Custard, Milwaukee

twinned ranch houses, River Forest, Illinois

1960s office building, Oak Park, Illinois

At SAIC’s Historic Preservation Program, we have been dealing with this issue for years. Anne Sullivan started a course in Preserving the Recent Past in the 1990s, and for the last four years together with Landmarks Illinois, (and thanks to Jim Peters) our students in the Preservation Planning Studio class have been surveying the postwar buildings of suburban Cook County, and finding a host of swinging 60s gems, almost none of which have any form of protection.

Age value is important, but it is only one of the criteria used to determining what to conserve and retool for the future.

I suppose I am sensitive to the 50-year rule since I became eligible myself this summer. My half century birthday occurred in two buildings, this one I woke up in in Germany, a Jugendstil treasure from 1907

And this postwar Buitenveldert townhouse in Amsterdam that I went to sleep in. Heck, it was probably younger than me.

I found them both to have art value, age value, and historical value. And they both obviously had “use-value” because families live in them. And now I am commemorating them.