Archive for October, 2010

Marfa, Texas

October 28, 2010

Marfa, Texas is a town with one stop light named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel and a far drive from just about everywhere else in the world. But its isolation hasn’t prevented it from becoming a destination and famous place for longer than I have been on earth. You can begin with the lovely Second Empire Presidio County Courthouse in the center of town, preserved as part of the great courthouse preservation program of the Texas Historical Commission.

The courthouse square seems unfinished, with most of the buildings on one end of it, closer to the intersection two blocks away with the road that matters, the one that connects to Alpine, at 5700 people nearly thrice as large, and El Paso, 3 hours distant. Marfa has some great buildings from the early 20th century, most notably the Hotel Paisano, with plaques aplenty describing its architectural landmark status and shops dedicated to the Marfa’s first great film, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Burton’s GIANT (Dennis Hopper also appeared).

Marfa Bank and part of the 1931 Brite Building

Marfa also hosts an inexplicable meterological phenomena called the Marfa Lights and they have even built a viewing platform outside of town where you can see these floating, colorful lights that appear and disappear like mirages in the early evening.

Marfa got its next burst of fame in the 1970s when the minimalist artist Donald Judd began transforming an old military base into a massive exhibit of his own and other guys (heavy emphasis on the male gender) modern art the Chinati Foundation, which still attracts carloads of artsters and hip types to see what is an impressive place on the edge of town and several buildings in town as well. Judd’s aluminum and concrete boxes and Dan Flavin‘s flourescent light installations are the highlight on the old military base, while John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures fill the downtown gallery.

Marfa still attracts artists and the Chinati Foundation has sponsored a great range of new and diverse work. A few years ago, Marfa became home to a public radio station, thanks to the efforts of my brother Tom Michael, who runs KRTS. The establishment of the radio station provides a cultural anchor for this unexpected cultural mecca – I know my brother meets more artists and musicians in Marfa than I do in Chicago

Marfa has more than its share of artists and entrepreneurs, and it needs them because it is out in the desert. Yet the town has a lot – the Marfa Book Company has an astonishing selection of literature and book and there is even a fabulous restaurant Cochineal with a massive wine list (5 different kinds of Grüner Veltliner! – I NEVER find Grüner Veltliner in towns 20 times as big!!) and lots of other interesting shops and venues, like Katherine Shaughnessy’s Wool & Hoop and the Ballroom.

And then there is the adobe, because while Marfa lies in Far West Texas, the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend, it is southwestern and adobe is found a lot.

this is an adobe wall at Judd’s town complex

In this regard, I spoke on Marfa Public Radio about the preservation of the Hunter Gymnasium, which may well be the only Art Deco, WPA-built adobe gymnasium in the United States of America.

I met with Mike Green, the architect completing the Historic Structures Report on the gym, which is remarkably intact with its earthen buttresses and subtle streamlining. It needs work, thanks to rising damp and water infiltration that has been made much worse by the application of elastomeric paint on the interior.

The gym also had a pitched roof installed to replace the original flat one, but it has very solid bones and I would love to see this one-of-a-kind treasure restored.

A National Trust for Historic Preservation motto is “This Place Matters” and Marfa is a place that really matters.


Preservation Education

October 21, 2010

This fall I handed the Directorship of the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program here at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago over to Anne Sullivan, AIA. Anne has taught in the program since it began in 1994 and is currently president of the Association for Preservation Technology, among other accomplishments. I of course remain the John H Bryan Chair in Historic Preservation.

But I also remain involved in preservation education and next week in Austin, Texas I will be part of a panel discussing the future of preservation education. This is a topic I spoke on in the Ukraine in 2006 and Sweden in 2007, and at that time I was focusing on the need for hands-on opportunities for students, and how important that is to the learning process. Haptic. Muscle memory. Seeing more by DOING.

I also talked about the proliferation of short courses, continuing education courses and “certificates” that bundle together various preservation classes, since we had just approved new standards for these non-degree programs during my tenure as Chair of the National Council for Preservation Education (NCPE).

But next week my role at the Conference will be to ask questions about where preservation education is going in the 21st century. A key question involves the NCPE Standards for preservation degree programs, which date back 30 years and are focused largely on history and documentation, a legacy in some ways of the Historic American Buildings Survey, crafted by the AIA and the feds back in the 1930s.

As usual, practice is outpacing theory. Almost all preservation degree programs include the following coursework, none of which is required by the NCPE Standards:

Preservation Law
Building Materials Conservation

And the following courses are rapidly expanding across our programs:

Real Estate Development
Curatorial Management

The last of course is the trendiest, but preservationists are better equipped than most to sort the wheat from the (extensive) chaff in the sustainability cornucopia. We have embodied energy, zero transport costs for structure, and landfill-light rehabilitation options that NEW construction cannot compete with in less than 30 years.

I will be outlining these issues for a panel and then we will hear about how preservation graduates are being employed: and what they are NOT learning that they NEED to learn. When preservation education began, we assumed we were training students for government jobs. Now, of course, the majority of our graduates are going into the private sector: federal programs never grew to their imagined scale and the introduction of tax credits 35 years ago means that much more preservation happens in the private sector.

What courses do our students need? What skills do they need? How have changes in preservation practice been reflected in preservation education?

The discussion will be next Saturday October 30 at 8:45 AM in the Hilton Austin, Room 406 – Register for the conference here. I will report on the results!


The session went very well and we had a really good discussion. Basically, the information Trent Margraff gathered from analysis of job listings and Ann Thornton’s analysis of skill sets all agreed on several key points:

Most new preservation jobs are in the private sector. This was not a surprise, but a confirmation of a long-term trend.

Students need more business, management, negotiation and innovation skills. These are the golden keys of the private sector and generally not central to programs based in architecture, history and planning. However, many programs do deal with these issues in real estate development and site management. But we need to do more. This is something I am very cognizant of in the realm of historic sites, which are desperate for more business management and operations skills.

Oak Park best neighborhood

October 13, 2010

Historic Preservation (Heritage Conservation) has done it again. Oak Park became one of the United States’ top ten neighborhoods, according to the American Planning Association, and it did it the old fashioned way: it saved its historic buildings.

The Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and made subject to local landmark controls in 1994 (notice the distinction, Kenilworth???) is the best place to live in Illinois, according to the planners. As the article notes, Wright and the other Prairie architects wowed them a hundred years ago and they still are. Must be some good architecture, no?

My only quibble with the report is that it lauds Oak Park for being a rare combination of historic preservation and urban development. This is a false dichotomy, as I have reported before. PRESERVATION IS DEVELOPMENT. Clearly, preserving Oak Park’s historic buildings have been the centerpiece of its development strategy. And it works: only two other Midwestern neighborhoods made the top 10 list.

This is a social contract, people. You want to live in the best neighborhood? Then you KEEP what is best about it.

Uptown Theater

October 11, 2010

When the River Forest Women’s Club was rehabilitated as a residence a few years ago, it had at least half a million dollars of deferred maintenance, and the average house museum probably has a similar total – or more, in work that needs to be done. Usually, of course the projects would only cost a few thousand, but they were put off and put off again and then a decade or two later you have a six-figure problem.

As the building gets bigger and the timeframe of deferred maintenance gets longer, the problems multiply. So today our Master of Science in Historic Preservation students toured the Uptown Theater, the biggest and most stunning vaudeville show palace ever built. With over 4,300 seats, it is more than twice as big as the restored Rialto Square in Joliet, and almost a thousand seats more than the restored Chicago Theater downtown, both designed by Rapp and Rapp for Balaban and Katz, who decided to do the Uptown as their crowning glory. It was phenomenally overbuilt, with 17,000 lights, an acre of dome above the auditorium (clear view from every seat) and a seemingly endless array of decorative corridors dripping with pomp and circumstance. I kept seeing griffins in the iron balconies, crests and even the remnant curtains and then at the top of the house there were 34 more griffins, each 8 feet high ringing the dome.

But the Uptown has been sitting vacant since 1981, and for about a decade it was owned by some of the worst slumlords in the city. They let drain pipes freeze and water cascaded down the building, destroying intricate plasterwork. The water collected in the basement several feet deep. Even the massive rise of the terra cotta facade has had to be partly removed to address three decades of deferred maintenance. This building basically needs $50 million to become whole again.

The number exceeds the deferred maintenance needs of three dozen historic sites.

We toured the building at the invitation of Jerry Mickleson of Jam Productions and with the expert guidance of David Syfczak, who has cared for the theater for many years, and Jimmy Wiggins, a mechanical savant who thrilled us with his stories about the systems in the basement, including three original boilers, a beautiful and ancient air conditioning system. and a stunning hydraulic piston used to raise the 70,000 pound steel fire curtain. Jimmy has figured out how to restore that system, which will save about $2 million in the rehab. In fact, the restoration plan starts and ends with the premise that the building was planned and designed well, a refreshing approach. Indeed, it is amazing how much of it survived completely intact into the 1980s before the slumlords took over.

I last toured the Uptown about 15 or 20 years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised that the deterioration is not much worse than then. A million or two of emergency repairs have been done, sealing the leaks, fixing the drainage and turning on the ventilation. Mickleson, who has been the butt of some bad press on the project, is spending the six figures needed annually to arrest the deterioration and keep the building alive until it can be fully rehabilitated. Syfczak and Wiggins are doing a great job putting it back together – with full respect for the original genius of the place. Now if we only had that $50 million….

Dying hospitals, living pubs

October 8, 2010

So MUCH heritage conservation news in Chicago lately. After the talibanic theft of writing from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple (see last post below) we now have reports that the one building the city saved at the Michael Reese Hospital site – the original Schmidt Garden Martin Prairie-styled structure from 1907 – is falling apart and beset by squatters. The article in the Tribune quotes a city spokeswoman, when asked why the city hadn’t fixed the roof, responding: “Time, the elements, exposure – all of those things took a toll long before we got into this building.”

I should add that quote above to my recent post on BAD excuses for demolition. You own the building, you own its problems. They did a walk-through in June 2009 and bought it then. Don’t tell me everything suddenly went south. The pioneering Chicago preservationist Richard Nickel once said that the only enemies of historic buildings were water and stupid men. Fact is, the water only gets there if the people look the other way.

On the GOOD NEWS front, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks today took a step toward designating a collection of my favorite buildings, the Schlitz pubs found all over town. The most notable of them, like Schuba’s on Belmont and Southport Lanes a few blocks south, have wonderful large terra cotta globes (supposedly modeled by Wright sculptor Richard Bock) and they generally follow a sort of Central European neo-Baroque in their ornament.

Division and Wood Streets, Wicker Park

Armitage and Oakley, Bucktown

For about 20 years I carried around a list of these buildings, adding more as I found them. Schlitz apparently built almost 60 in Chicago – they would only serve Schlitz beer there – a system common in England but forgotten in America following our little Prohibition experiment in the 1920s.

And they span every corner of the city, from 35th and Western

to Broadway and Winona way up north

There are also some from the Stege Brewery, and this little gem from the local Peter Hand brewery, which I remember, because it only went out of business in 1978.

Wolcott and Thomas, East Village

I used to vote in that bar when I lived a block away in 1984-85. Unfortunately, the Peter Hand and Stege and Standard Brewery pubs (that one is at Grand and Hamlin, I recall) are not part of this Chicago Landmark nomination.

This is a forgotten history but one well worth preserving, and not only for beer geeks (like me) or local history geeks (me again). The City, through the Landmarks Commission, has been doing an excellent job lately of telling neighborhood stories by designating types of buildings found in a variety of neighborhoods, like fire stations and neighborhood banks. The tied houses have the added attraction of some special, period architecture and art, like this stained glass Schlitz globe you find in the transom at the South Chicago tied house at 94th and Ewing.

Oddly, this one is not included in the designation.

Nor is the great Southport Lanes, still a tavern and one of the only places left with hand-set bowling lanes.

Why? Perhaps because it is owned by a big company that owns a collection of venues, and I must add that we had some BAD experiences with their clumsy management last spring. But this designation is getting a lot of traction – Lee Bey and others are blogging about it and I think it is worth a toast!

Unity Temple lettering stolen

October 4, 2010

This is sad. More than 50 of the letters that adorned the entrance of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Unity Temple were stolen amidst an Oak-Park frenzy of copper and bronze theft, apparently by salvage thieves seeking the resale value of the metal. Here is a link to a local article on the theft.

Theft of building pieces has been a thriving business around here for over 40 years and probably longer. The famed “brick thieves” in Chicago tried to take one of the exterior urns from Robie House a few years back.

A thief was caught on camera not many years ago stealing a newel post from the Monadnock Building (although ironically, he was stealing one of the few non-original replacement newel posts) and the brick thieves did a number on the beautiful Art Deco panels of the Chicago Bee Building in the Black Metropolis Historic District before one was caught and the building restored.

But the Unity Temple theft is especially galling because the site is already suffering from major structural issues caused by water infiltration – and another piece of vandalism in the last year, when someone threw a bucket through the sanctuary skylight.

It is always personally painful when an element of such a public landmark – a place of such international significance in the expression of art, design, culture and the human spirit; a place that is shared and treasured by so much of society – is trashed for the short term pleasure of a few antisocial individuals.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Cucina Paradiso, the fabulous restaurant around the corner from Unity Temple, is donating all proceeds from the dinner on Thursday, October 21, to the restoration of the letters at Unity Temple. Cucina Paradiso is located at 814 North Boulevard in Oak Park (right off the Green Line stop at Oak Park Avenue) and their telephone number is 708-848-3434. THANKS!