Archive for September, 2010

Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago

September 30, 2010

The next great new building in Chicago is Perkins and Will’s new hospital building for the Rush-Prebyterian St. Luke’s Hospital complex on the Near West Side. The new building features a multi-lobed design rising above a square base, looming over the Eisenhower Expressway and expressing with its insistent curving form a humanism central to the successful medical relationship. It is new and exciting.

And it is very similar to a 35-year old building, now threatened, by the architect who first brought this undulating form to the world of medicine when he crafted a maternity hospital that seems, in retrospect, like the first acknowledgement of the feminine in hospital architecture. In fact the new building touts the virtue of its plan in the same terms Goldberg used for his building in 1975:

“The tower’s butterfly-like shape allows for clear sight lines to every room from one of the nurse’s stations on each floor, allowing caregivers to see and respond to patient needs more quickly.”

Demolishers love to tell you how older buildings are functionally obsolete. I love to tell them I told you so. The Garrick Theatre was demolished in 1961 for a parking garage. The parking garage was demolished 35 years later for a theater. What goes around comes around and obsolescence rarely lasts a long time.

A major new effort to save Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital has been mounted by our friends at Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, and promoted by no less than Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who linked to this Facebook advocacy page.

This is a fantastic building. Unfortunately we live in a world where hospitals and universities present the greatest threats to our landmarks. Because they need to do the latest and greatest thing in their new buildings.

Even when the latest and greatest thing is 35 years old.

NOVEMBER UPDATE: The National Trust Midwest Office and Landmarks Illinois (I am on both boards) are working hard on to save “the cloverleaf” Prentice. I would also note that my first Prentice photo above has gone all over the interwebs – Blair Kamin credited it a few weeks back on his blog, and then Metropolis POV ran it again today sans credit.

DECEMBER UPDATE: I left the following description – from colleague Anthea Hartig – on the Save Prentice Facebook page:

“The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.”

And the question: Can you think of another building that achieves this as well as Prentice?

The responses were: Mies’ Crown Hall, Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Saarinen’s TWA flight center, The Monadnock Building, and Ronchamp. Here was my response:

These are great examples of the architecture-engineering discourse, although I think Saarinen’s comes closest to Goldberg in seeking an aesthetic structural efficiency, and TWA has a lot of formalism in there. I think Pei and Corbu are even more formalist (nothing efficient – but everything beautiful – about Ronchamp). The Monadnock is perhaps the first iteration in the discourse, more elegant than efficient, while Crown Hall gains and suffers from Mies’ perfectionism and bravado: Prentice is a well-turned ankle while Crown Hall is a bulging bicep.

See the Facebook page and the new video here.


Last week Northwestern Hospital announced they will demolish the building after the tenant moves out in September. They have no plans for the site – it is pure Neanderthal land banking. Odds are it will sit vacant a long time.

Alderman Reilly has asked Northwestern to hold off on applying for the demolition permit until the Landmarks Illinois Re-Use study comes out in a few weeks, which they are doing because – why not? They are using the building until September, and since it is just a dumb land bank, it doesn’t exactly matter when they demolish, because they won’t be rebuilding for a long time.


JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

2012 UPDATES: See my July 2012 blog updated through late August


Chicago’s Gold Coast

September 24, 2010

I took my Archival Documentation class up to the Chicago History Museum on Wednesday to get started on their research there. On the way there and the way back, we walked through the Gold Coast, a National Register of Historic Places historic district that encompasses about a half-mile (4 blocks) of Dearborn, State, and Astor Streets and Lake Shore Drive. It is bordered on the east by the lake and on the west by Sandburg Village, a typically soporific postwar towers-and-townhomes urban renewal development.

Chicago’s wealthy lived first on the west side, near Union Park, then on the near south side, along Prairie Avenue, and only from about 1890 on did the north side Gold Coast evolve into the most privileged area. Launched by Potter Palmer’s 1882 mansion, demolished in 1950, the Gold Coast was originally Italianate and Second Empire townhomes of relatively imposing proportion, although decidedly a notch below similar 1880s homes on the south side.

The largest home was and is the mansion of the Catholic archbishop, which predated even Palmer. By 1900 the grand Renaissance-inspired palazzo of Patterson-McCormick by the majestic McKim, Mead and White had arisen, along with the stately French elegance of the George Isham House by James Gamble Rogers.

This latter would achieve another sort of fame in the 1960s and 1970s when it became Hugh Hefner’s first Playboy Mansion. In the late 1980s it was Hefner Hall of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and on Wednesday nights I would pick up my then-girlfriend from class there.

The Gold Coast always had larger buildings, multi-story apartments arrived at the beginning of the era and by the 1910s and 1920s, many of the original low-rise mansions on Lake Shore Drive had given way to taller, but no less elegant and exclusive buildings.

But after Palmer’s mansion was replaced by a couple of bland slabs of artless brick-meat in the 1950s, residents started to take umbrage with the high-rise explosion which seemed to be cheapening as well as crowding the district. The National Register of Historic Places, as everyone outside of Kenilworth knows, provides no protection against private development, so in 1975 community residents created the Astor Street Chicago Landmark district, to preserve what was left of one of the Gold Coast’s most famous streets.

The district also includes several individual Chicago Landmarks, including the Three Arts Club (1914, Holabird & Roche),the three surviving Houghteling Houses by John Wellborn Root and the Charnley-Persky House on Astor, an important work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan that is now home to the Society of Architectural Historians.

Perhaps the most exclusive part of the Gold Coast is technically a bit south and east of it in Streeterville, but the East Lake Shore Drive Chicago Landmark district is notable for being the first downtown Chicago Landmark, created by the City Council way back in 1985, despite some strong opposition. Thankfully, this block of buildings visible from a mile to the north and anchored by the incomparable Benjamin Marshall elegance of the storied Drake Hotel, remains intact today, the city’s finest lakefront residential face.

In the late 1980s I was involved when the City created the Seven Houses on Lake Shore Drive Chicago Landmark, linking the four surviving mansions on the 1200 block with the three surviving mansions on the 1500 block in a bifurcated district that nonetheless survived court challenges from an owner who wanted to put up a 42-story addition to a house they had been given for free many years earlier. Here are the homes on the 1200 block:

And here is an Astor Street highrise of the type that inspired the historic district but might have been an object of preservation itself had it not suffered a 1990s recladding that blunted its original 1963 Bertrand Goldberg design.

Some of the more felicitous touches were the 1930s Andrew Rebori buildings, small-scaled like their Victorian forbears but with curving brick and glass brick walls that give them a sleek modernity and a gritty handmade quality at the same time.

It is a rarefied neighborhood, but thanks to the preservation of human-scaled architecture from 1880 to 1940, Chicago’s Gold Coast is a worthy walk.

BTW: Another great post from Blair Kamin today here. And not just because he used my photo….

Lead Paint, Asbestos, and other excuses

September 14, 2010

There was an article the other day about the demolition of the Clow Stephens House, an 1870 farmhouse in Plainfield Park. Among the comments from the Park District that owns it was: “The windows have lead in them and some of the flooring and shingles have asbestos.”

People who cannot fathom how an historic building might be reused and rehabilitated often conclude it must be demolished. Sometimes it is simply a failure of vision. Sometimes decision-makers have no experience with historic buildings: sort of like the contractors who offer to replace your windows because they have never fixed one and don’t know how. Sometimes it involves bean counters who only know how to finance something new (developers are usually better at historic buildings than bankers, BTW.)

But once they decide on demolition, they start loading up on excuses. The most popular excuses seem like “trump cards” because they invoke scary and unknown risks to health and safety, like lead paint and asbestos. The demolishers brandish these excuses like revelatory weapons never before seen by innocent little preservationists.

WRONG. One of the first things you find on the National Trust website is a guide to the new lead paint regulations that just went into effect. Most preservationists – contractors, developers, architects and advocates – know quite a lot about lead paint. We have been educating our students about lead-safe practices since we started our program in the 1990s.

I bet they didn’t even test the Clow Stephens House for lead paint – didn’t feel a need to. Probably recognized the asbestos shingles by the makers mark.

this is another old house in Plainfield
Lead paint went off the market 32 years ago, which means you can accuse any building built before 1978 of probably maybe having lead paint in it. So what if it does? Follow the rules. It isn’ t that hard.

Asbestos is another demolition “trump card,” but like lead paint the only time you have to worry – or spend a lot of money – is when you are disturbing the stuff or otherwise getting into a friable situation. Like the lead paint. Abatement can be expensive, but you may not have to abate depending on what you are doing. The more you preserve, the less you disturb and the less you must abate.

Which brings us to the BIG DUMB. If I am preserving my house or apartment building or whatever, I only have to abate lead and asbestos if I am disturbing them. Guess what disturbs them? DEMOLITION. Nothing kicks lead and asbestos into the air more than demolition. When they demolished the US Gypsum building in downtown Chicago in 1994, they spent about $1 million on the demolition and about $4 million on asbestos abatement. Yes, a rehab may require some abatement, but you can only achieve the maximum cost of abatement when you demolish the whole thing.

The Plainfield Park Board has $30,000 to demolish the house. Which might have been enough if they didn’t have to abate the lead paint and asbestos. How you gonna pay for that? Aren’t you glad you brought these issues up?

FOLLOW-UP September 16: Two WIll County preservationists I respect very much have indicated that they have been unable to come up with a re-use scenario for the Clow Stephens house due to its location, condition and Park District needs and uses, despite trying for many years. The best scenario would be a new owner who would move it. This of course, does not negate the point above – that lead and asbestos are bad excuses for demolition.

Switch to Lincoln Park in Chicago. Nice apartment buildings on Lincoln Park West, co-ops and condos built in the 1910s and 1920s. They are ripping up the lobby of one and the big excuse here is ADA of course.

So they pull out a paneled wall, rebuild one section of the lobby and put a big ramp in the north entrance. Revamping a formerly closed south entrance would have been simpler and involved less disruption to both the design and all of that paint and stuff, but they didn’t. I guess part of the appeal of conforming to ADA is making it really obvious so no one can miss the fact that you are conforming to ADA.

I did get to see the new paint rules in effect. Here is your secure tube for disturbing old paint:

Hull House Reopens!

September 8, 2010

Hull House Museum reopened September 9 with a day-long celebration that started at Noon in Daley Plaza, celebrating the 150th birthday of Nobel-prize winning social activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.

Come see what Lisa Lee and Mike Plummer (and my good friend Bob Johnson, who redid the interior) have done with the interpretation, which I reviewed last night:

IT’S GREAT! There is an openness to the overall design that is inviting and a contrast to the ancient stereotype of the house museum. It also more realistically conveys the use of the house, which was full of people and activities, and not a traditional Victorian house.

The interpretation is complex but crisp, innovative in its use of technology without being smitten with technology. In fact, it uses pretty much every kind of interpretation there is, from wall text and vitrines for objects to cell phone audio tours and interactive “find this thing” worksheets.

These are in the rear parlor, which served as a dining room early on, and has old historic books you can look at (and some you can’t, but they are both there) and art from Hull House residents.

I can remember being at a building conservation conference in Sweden three years ago and hearing about cell phone audio tours – Hull House used them even before this reinterpretation – and they are sagely used not to talk about the past alone but link the social justice mission of 19th century Hull House with similar (and sometimes identical) missions today.

I learned a lot in the front parlor, which focuses on key women reformers, Florence Kelley, who fled an abusive husband in the 1890s and helped eliminate child labor; Ida B. Wells, who fought lynching, Julia Lathrop, Ellen Gates Starr and more. Their stories are in circular vitrines that combine objects and text, while the wall mailbox used by residents is repurposed to link to present day issues.

One of the most innovative rooms is the octagonal bay, where there is a sound installation that combines audio files from Hull House residents and commentators with period sounds like streetcars, typewriters, sewing machines and more. Sound history is a relatively new field, and it is exciting to hear it in this context.

The thing that really got me excited when I walked in was the new model of the Hull House complex, lovingly rendered by John Peplinski, who dug even deeper for photos and images than I did when I first traced the history of the buildings back in 2003. The level of detail in the model is amazing, and it is set in front of the famous – but flawed – painting of the 1856 Hull House that was used for the 1960s restoration.

The model is fantastic – you can see the diamond-paned windows and diaper brick patterns so indicative of Pond & Pond’s work, you can see the bridges and balconies and even the TB tent on top of the Crane Nursery. It was very exciting to see it in such detail.

And just next to it, projected on the window – the wonderful 1930s film of Halsted Street by Conrad Friberg, a social documentary of the time that I always show my students (along with the 1997 Halsted Street film by David Simpson). And there it is facing Halsted Street…

Now one of the very exciting things about this reinterpretation is that the second floor is now open to the public. Jane Addams’ bedroom is well rendered with more decidedly Victorian wallpaper (a Morris pint), the famous painting of her longtime companion Mary Rozet Smith, a desk with significant correspondence, childhood memories and family items, her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize and a wall of press clippings that illustrate both her fame and the vitriol directed against “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Another room details the influential pioneering sociological study Hull House Maps and Papers, and another focuses on the Juvenile Justice System pioneered at Hull House.

It is mind boggling to think of all the reforms that came out of this place. Child labor laws. Juvenile justice courts. Housing and income surveys. Hazardous chemical controls in workplaces. Playgrounds. Kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten – they found and reinstalled this century-old plaque commemorating Jenny Dow’s innovation.

At the National Trust we have spent a decade trying to move house museums “beyond the velvet ropes” and this reinterpretation does just that. But the house speaks too, in new ways. A series of “Architectural encounters” demystify everything from wallpaper and paint to the original purplish bricks of the Hull House, buried under a new brick skin in the curious 1960s restoration.

We learn about the meaning of interior finishes and we see that it is BOTH a Victorian house like so many we have seen before but it is also something else.

One of the most felicitous moments for me was reading Jane Addams’ account of how nice and comfortable the dining room was, a typical bourgeoise appreciation of fine accoutrements, and then reading upstairs about her early encounter with poverty as a child seeing the crowded houses of Freeport, Illinois and declaring that she would live in a big nice house but that that house would be in the crowded poor district. Which is exactly what she did with her life. This is not pure benevolence or guilt nor is it some sort of sacrificial asceticism – she wasn’t slumming it, she was bringing her world to theirs and trying to understand both worlds and trying to figure out how to ameliorate the painful parts of society. But she didn’t walk in with the solution, only the desire to build a bridge – Hull House – between the haves and have-nots.

I have said it before and I will say it again, what is fantastic about the history interpreted here is that it is not interpreted as something removed in time or place, but something that happened in this place and is still happening and is still relevant. In the Juvenile Justice room you are invited to write a poem and send it to a prisoner. Because they asked for poems. You are invited to look at Jane’s books and to see the ceramics made by 1930s Mexican immigrant Jesus Torres in the Hull House kilns and you and I and everyone else are invited every Tuesday to Rethinking Soup for free soup and a chance to talk about current issues like food sourcing, nutrition, sustainability. They grow much of the food they serve across the street and they strive to engage all of the issues that the original residents engaged as they sought to understand the entirety of the society and city they lived in and to do something about it.

Can You See This?

September 2, 2010

A company named Woodstar Products in Wisconsin can’t. On the left is the design for a carriage door we sent them. On the right is the door they sent. Do these look the same to you?

To anyone who looks at things – or designs things – there is a significant difference. The most dramatic shift is of course the size of the window openings in relation to the door. Nearly as dramatic is the division between the window openings, which has dwindled from SOMETHING in the design to BARELY ANYTHING in the executed door. These are of course the scourge of our modern world, the internal plastic way-too-thin mutins put into every double-glazed window today. Aesthetically, they have the same effect as putting masking tape on windows.

Now I suppose we should take some responsibility for this – Woodstar asked if we wanted double glazing and we responded affirmatively. Why not? The mutins in the original design certainly had the 2-inch width needed for double glazing. I was assuming they would build the doors like Lee Lumber would. Instead, they threw the most common off-the-shelf window in there and made the rest of the door to fit.

The result of course, is that all of the proportions are off. The windows are too high and the wrong shape. The door’s overall dimensions are correct, but the relationship between the parts is altered in almost every respect.

Can’t they see this? I think Woodstar’s deficiencies are shared by many people, who simply don’t see design and proportion. Why this lack of visual sense is found among those who design and build things is the real question. They also charged $600 for fence-gate hardware that can be had at Menard’s for less than $200, so mucking up the design in order to make it fit a cheapo stock window fits their pattern, but it of course leaves us with the problem of trying to fix something that was made wrong.