Archive for April, 2011

Filoli, Cooper-Molera Adobe, and the Gamble House

April 28, 2011

A month ago I posted about visiting three National Trust historic sites on the east coast, and last week I was on the opposite coast visiting our California sites, Filoli in Woodside, California, and Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey. I also got the chance to tour the famed Gamble House in Pasadena and I am including it here, since the Trust does not (YET) have a site in Southern California.

Filoli has an interesting history, insofar as its GARDENS were donated to the Trust by Lurline Roth in 1975, and there is still a great focus on the gardens, which cover some 16 acres and employ over 1,300 volunteers! There is also a successful garden shop and the site has maintained that attraction for Bay Area residents.

In 1978 Warren Beatty decided to film a part of “Heaven Can Wait” in the house itself, a massive 1923 red brick Georgian Revival with a blue ballroom to die for (which happened to be the primary set used for the film.) The ballroom features murals depicting both the Bay Area and Ireland, where the Bourn family vacationed.

The house is somewhat limited by very traditional “velvet ropes” interpretation, although given the quality and quantity of 17th and 18th century English antiques (plenty of chinoiserie – California is LOUSY with Chinoiserie!) the ropes are a necessary evil. As we begin to conceptualize 21st century historic sites, our goals are to increase their visibility, utility and vitality within their communities; maximize their potential as entrees to the National Trust and the preservation movement, and make them economically viable. If they aren’t viable as historic sites, they may well need to go back into the private market.

One idea for Filoli is to open it up more on the weekends when cyclists travel through the valley. A small concession offering drinks and snacks to the cyclists who already travel to Filoli could prove an important revenue stream, and even more importantly, an engagement stream.

On to historic Monterey, one of the oldest historic districts in the United States (1937- same year as New Orleans!) and home to the Cooper-Molera Adobe, the only adobe National Trust historic site. The house itself is actually only partially adobe, with an addition done in kiln-fired brick. The house dates to 1830, prior to Monterey becoming part of the United States, with additions in the 1850s.

The interior is interpreted with period furnishings, again in a pretty typical “house museum” aesthetic, although that is useful for the many school groups they get. One room is preserved as sort of on-site archaeology, with exposed foundations, original deteriorated wallpaper, and the like.

In addition, there is an “event space” that can be rented out adjacent to the house.

One of several outbuildings is used as an interpretive center, and there are several others that need rehabilitations, notably a large two-story barn.

There are also gardens, planted in a manner appropriate to the 1860s, with a smaller but no less dedicated volunteer crew. The whole complex is surrounded by an adobe wall (portions have a stone base), and a lot of the site needs some rehabilitation. One idea is to lease a portion of the site to a developer, who could put in a restaurant or other business.

Before you get your purist knickers in a twist about that idea, consider this: that is how the site was actually used for a major portion of its history. The house, interpretive center and both barns actually front on two of Monterey’s main streets, and a painted sign on the exterior of the house replicates the commercial uses that Cooper put that portion of the house to for most of its history. So, the concept has historic – and thus interpretive – validity.

Moreover, as a site operated by California Parks, it has been effectively closed for some time due to state budget cuts. To implement the plan will require a model process and a model lease, but in so doing it could prove a national model for how to craft lease provisions that hold tenants to interpretive and rehabilitation goals – while providing the capital needed to maintain the site. Of course, the devil will be in the details: do they need to break through the adobe wall? Will some of the gardens need to be curtailed? How will the commercial uses interface with school groups and others?

The age of the pure museum – if it ever existed – is over: Major museums have been doing overtly commercial projects and leasing to restaurants for decades. House museums have maintained the more purist anticommercial model longer. Some have the endowments or philanthropic “angels” needed to maintain this culture, but it is important to remember an economic fact I turned up in researching the history of historic preservation: The traditional house museum model NEVER EVER worked economically. Admissions have ALWAYS paid for about 20-25% of operating costs for any site. That was true in 1903 and 2003 and most times in between.

Now, on to the Gamble House. This is owned by the University of Southern California (Hi Trojans!) and is the biggest Arts and Crafts Bungalow ever, probably, with over 8,000 square feet of finely fitted and finished wood, buckets of built-ins and Stickley furniture, and a few ropes, although I think they are appropriately NOT velvet.

this is a postcard because you are not allowed to take pictures inside
The tours are very traditional, and like at Villa Finale and other places with lots of fancy stuff, they have both a tour guide AND a minder to make sure you don’t touch the walls. They let you trod upon the carpets but warn you to avoid the carpet edges as they could fray.

And they DO let you touch the beautiful staircase railing, which has always been one of my favorite details of the house. So I pretty much fondled the hell out of it. The aesthetic – natural woods, simple designs with Japanese influence, art glass and low, sprawling horizontality – is of course related very closely to its contemporary Prairie Style.

A worthy visit, and interestingly, they do utilize the house in another way: two USC students live there as caretakers. The neighborhood also has loads of other Greene & Greene bungalows of more modest dimension, and even La Miniatura, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block houses of the 1920s.

Tomorrow I am touring house museums in and around Chicago: the Dawes House in Evanston, Robie House, Glessner House and Hull House in Chicago, each with a rich architectural and social history, each with challenges economic and interpretive (and you know already that I think Hull House does some of the most exciting interpretive efforts in the country) but I have to say that the response to the tour has been overwhelming – they had to add a third date to keep up with demand. But that doesn’t mean you can pay for a house with tour admissions.


All Preservation Is Local

April 17, 2011

So what am I doing on statewide, national and international boards?

“All preservation is local” is a mantra in our field, one as true as its source analogue: “all politics is local”. This poses challenges for organizations like the Global Heritage Fund (where I serve on the Senior Advisory Board), National Trust for Historic Preservation (where I am a Trustee) and Landmarks Illinois (where I serve on the Board.) In each case, the larger organizations are often working with and supporting the efforts of local preservationists.

Consulting at Tustan, Ukraine, 2006

I worked as a preservationist for 13 years before becoming an academic, and I am still a preservationist because I have been involved in local issues at the local level. Local building conservation advocates do the “heavy lifting” in any given attempt to prevent an unwarranted demolition, alter a political decision, or pressure a combination of public and private entities to preserve a significant historic resource.

A blog that turned into an Op-Ed, Oak Park, 2008

What does an organization dealing with a state, a nation, or indeed the whole world, offer to the local preservationists? After all, if locals are doing most of the work, the bigger organization needs to justify its own existence and relevance by providing something the locals can’t on their own. I think the value that these organizations bring to bear on actual, local issues, falls into several categories:

Capacity Building

Local advocates are often amateurs who love a historic resource and work hard to save it, but they do not have a complete understanding of how that is done. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has developed a variety of programs over the years that help build local capacity, from providing case studies and information sheets on everything from dealing with chain drugstores to developing design guidelines for historic districts. The National Trust’s Preservation Press provides a host of useful capacity-building publications on a wide range of topics, and these tend to be in the arena of political, economic and organizational activity, although some also deal with technical issues (how DO you save a steel casement window?) but the technical issues are largely left to publications of the National Park Service or the Association for Preservation Technology, which is international (US and Canada).

Country Club Plaza, Kansas City – See National Trust blogs website

At Global Heritage Fund, the ongoing effort is to build local capacity to save important historic resources (World Heritage Sites) in the developing countries of the world. It is not enough to simply provide a grant now and then: give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime; hence the objective is to train and build local capacity. GHF recently enlisted the participation of professionals and advocates worldwide to develop an “early warning system” for World Heritage Sites in danger.

Heilongtan, Lijiang, Yunnan, China

Training is a vital aspect to building local capacity. The National Trust has developed a range of programs, from Main Street to Preservation Leadership Training, that help local advocates become more professional. Conferences held by statewide and national organizations are also extraordinarily useful, because they not only provide sessions that help local preservationists work more effectively, but they also build camaraderie and a sense that YOU ARE NOT ALONE, the unquantifiable but necessary component of effective activism. This also brings up the second way larger organizations help locals.

Credibility: Making Local Issues Significant in a Larger Context.

When I worked as Chicago Programs Director for Landmarks Illinois in the 1980s and 1990s, I went to various neighborhoods around the city and supported their efforts to save buildings. While I brought expertise in understanding laws and agencies and tools to BUILD CAPACITY, I also lent a CREDIBILITY that a local organization can never generate on its own. This is also extremely tricky to quantify, because like the support network generated by a preservation conference, the value of making a local issue significant in a larger context can be motivational. I was fighting to save something that is important in my neighborhood, and now I can say with confidence – thanks to my regional partner – that our efforts are significant citywide. Or statewide. Or nationwide.

North Kenwood, Chicago

That also helps in terms of political sway. If an issue is local, then the local city council or village board is the highest authority. But if a statewide or national partner says that the resource is valuable and worth preserving, the local authority no longer is the highest authority, EVEN if they retain the political control, as they usually do. Suddenly someone is looking down on them and their actions will be witnessed in a broader context.

Much as I helped local neighborhood groups by reassuring them of the value of their efforts on a citywide or even statewide scale, on those occasions when our Chicago or Illinois efforts grew challenging, the support of the National Trust for Historic Preservation carried more weight with local authorities. When the City of Chicago threatened to weaken its landmarks ordinance in 1996, the National Trust weighed in with op-ed pieces and national magazine coverage that raised the stakes on the game the local politicians were playing. And the local leadership responded by strengthening the law, leading the National Trust and others to laud the Mayor for his actions.

Gage Buildings, Michigan Avenue, Chicago

We were down in Keokuk in January meeting with a local group trying to save an absolutely gorgeous – and physically challenged – Burnham & Root train station. We had a representative from the National Trust’s Midwest Office with us, and the simple fact that she was there gave the local a courage to pursue their goal they might have otherwise, even though she was clear that she was not riding to the rescue. But she did have resources to offer, which brings us to point three.

1890 rail depot, Burnham & Root, Keokuk, Iowa

There is a “branding” effect here as well, to put it is business language. Whether Global Heritage Fund or National Trust for Historic Preservation or Landmarks Illinois, lending a name of that broad scope to a local effort has an effect. It can get it in the paper (physical or on-line) or boost it from the back of the paper (bottom of the page) to the top, because a known regional or national or international BRAND is now associated with it. The value of “letterhead” even in our internet age is significant. If a local zoning authority gets a letter from 9 residents saying they want to save a resource, that counts as 9 residents. It is hard to quantify, but getting 3 letters from statewide groups or professionals affiliated with respectable institutions probably adds a lot more than 9 to the weight of the issue.

When I was down in Palm Springs for Modernism Week in February, our Australian colleagues were incredibly impressed that the National Trust was playing a prominent role in the effort to save Modernism – something they said would never happen in Australia. Besides making my association with the Trust hip (and TrustModern sounds well as a brand), it also impressed an international audience. The current support from the National Trust for the Chicago effort to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is already having a similar effect when they are quoted in the media coverage along with Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago.

Alexander Steel house, Palm Springs


Often the larger organizations have greater resources. As a local advocate in the 1980s and 1990s, I often said I “needed” the National Trust for lawsuits more than anything else. Landmarks Illinois sued the City of Chicago on a couple of occasions in my tenure, for not following its landmarks ordinance or treating certain properties unfairly. In each case, the local and state judges might find Landmarks Illinois to lack “standing” in the issue, but they had to hear each case, because they were loathe to deny standing to the National Trust, which while a private organization, was chartered by Congress.

St. Mary of the Angels Church, Chicago

Similarly, each of these organizations offers grants in support of local efforts. These are not generally large grants, but they are often crucial – providing money to do an architectural study proving that a building can be restored, or to undertake a market study that identifies an economically viable use for a local landmark. The grants are not there to solve the problem – no organization has that kind of money – but they build the capacity of the locals to solve the problem in a way they could not on their own. Often they provide “seed money” to kick-start a fundraising campaign. The local advocate often wants to find “an angel” who will pay for the whole thing, and there are examples of that happening, so hope springs eternal. But that is NOT how most buildings, sites and structures are saved. Mostly they are saved the old-fashioned way, with steady, unremitting, hand-to-mouth effort over a long period of time. A small grant from the big brother organization often can make the difference between giving up and getting there.

Gardner Museum, Quincy, recipient of a Landmarks lllinois grant

Often, the bigger organization can leverage pro-bono professional support from attorneys or architects to help a cause. Our lawsuits always featured pro bono counsel, leveraged by the National Trust. Landmarks Illinois has found a niche getting pro bono architectural expertise to do re-use studies, in order to prove that places like Cook County Hospital, the Lathrop Homes or Prentice Women’s Hospital can be saved.

Lathrop Homes, Chicago


Even if local advocates do the heavy lifting in any given effort to save an historic resource, having staff or volunteers from city, state or national organizations adds crucial personpower to the effort. I recall seeing staff from Preservation Chicago, Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust sitting down in the Cultural Center to discuss the effort to save Prentice. Three heads, three voices, three letterheads and three membership lists are much better than one. In the case of Cook County Hospital, Preservation Chicago worked the streets and Landmarks Illinois worked the County Board, and together the building was saved.

Cook County Hospital

The heritage conservation field present huge challenges to those who want to repurpose historic resources for the future. There is a lot of convincing, a lot of fundraising, a lot of organizing and a lot of thinking that needs to be done. And at the end of the day you often have to share credit, not only with partners but also with politicians who may well have bided their time until the last minute. That’s okay. I have worked on saving lots of buildings and I can’t take credit for any of them. But I know I had a hand in it.

Prentice Women’s Hospital April 2011

April 11, 2011

The most significant preservation battle in Chicago for some time has been the effort to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a pioneering 1975 design by Bertrand Goldberg. It’s four-lobed curving concrete form is being imitated by the NEWEST hospital building in Chicago and I called it perhaps the first acknowledgement of the feminine in architecture. My colleague Anthea Hartig said “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.” The building’s seamless integration of art and science is manifest in concrete cantilevers that pushed the lobes 45 feet beyond their base, a feat that took one of the FIRST applications of computers to aid in an architectural design. And it’s gorgeous.

But rather than a seamless integration of art and science, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board today called it a conflict between art and science. This artificial dichotomy comes up a lot in our field of heritage conservation. I can recall a panel assembled by a chamber of commerce group in Oak Park to discuss the conflict between preservation and development, another artificial dichotomy. Preservation is development, and science is art. False dichotomies are the refuge of scoundrels who can only count the beans in one silo at a time and hacks who can’t fathom art or science but are somehow charged with making room for one or the other.

Let’s read between the lines of the Tribune editorial. First, we need to set up the artificial dichotomy: what will the building be replaced by? Here is what the editorial says:

“Northwestern says the new (research) facility will form a state-of-the-art research complex with the adjacent Lurie Medical Research Center and draw 700 jobs and more than $300 million in federal grant money for biomedical research.”

Oh, so the landmark is being replaced by a $300 million research facility employing 700 people? NO, THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY SAID. Here is what Northwestern officials said last week when they announced they wanted to demolish the landmark:

“The university has looked at various alternatives including reuse of the facility and actually taking it down, and at this point, the university’s plans are to take that building down and use that area for additional research facilities that would be constructed in the future,”

THE FUTURE. This is a land bank. It is not clear whether the 700 jobs and $300 million are what would be ON THE SITE or what will be ADDED to the $200 million Feinberg research building. The wordsmithing does not isolate the Prentice site. Plus, Northwestern said clearly a week ago it is land banking. They will need a nice eight-figure donor to get this thing going and they haven’t announced that. I’m betting parking lot at least until my kids graduate high school.

The Trib editorial also doubts that Landmarks Illinois’ re-use plan will be persuasive, because:

“Northwestern says the building, built in 1975, uses only about one-third of the square footage that could comfortably be built on the site. The ceilings are too low to allow for the venting, heating, and cooling infrastructure needed for a modern research facility.”

Hard to know where to start with this masterpiece of misdirection. First, it WASN’T built as a research facility, so of course it doesn’t have the venting, heating and cooling capabilities. Neither do Northwestern’s NEW hospitals, because they – like Prentice – were built as hospitals, not research facilities! The REAL reason (land bank) is the first sentence – the building doesn’t use up its zoning.

This is the age-old preservation battle in Chicago, whether it was real estate developers and urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s or hospitals and universities in the 90s and 00s, it is ALL ABOUT LAND VALUE. Northwestern is in Streeterville, land that wouldn’t even exist if not for a rum-running rustabout named Cap Streeter who ran aground there 130 years ago, and now it is in the shadow of the highest priced retail ground along the Great Lakes so they need to maximize every square inch of land and zoning and building they got and that equation does not leave room for aesthetics. This isn’t about jobs or medical research, it is about land value.

Finally, let’s let the Trib trip over its own logic in an economical three sentences near the end of the editorial.

“The old Prentice building, though, is not much more than a minor architectural gem. It doesn’t have city landmark protection. Marina City doesn’t have landmark status either, although it deserves it and (Alderman) Reilly is moving on that.”

Yow. Talk about givin’ poor old Socrates whiplash. It is a “minor” landmark (because of its age? A paragraph ago it was old???) without landmark status. Oh, so it doesn’t have status so it must not be worthy. But neither does Marina City (also by Goldberg), but it deserves it. I’m confused. If NOT having the status means it isn’t a landmark, but the alderman can “move” to landmark Marina City, why can’t he “move” on Prentice?

Alderman Reilly negotiated a 60-day delay, which is nothing if you don’t have a new building ready to go. But it does push the potential demolition closer to the opening of a major retrospective on the architecture of Bertrand Goldberg at the Art Institute of Chicago. Then we should get a more accurate idea of how “minor” this landmark is.

APRIL 22 UPDATE: Landmarks Illinois’ re-use plan actually develops three different scenarios for the building – including RESEARCH FACILITY for 800 researchers. Not too shabby. You can see the 16-page re-use study here. The amazing flexibility of Goldberg’s open floor plan (caused by those innovative AND BEAUTIFUL cantilevers) also makes the building easily adaptable to office or medical housing uses – there are no interior columns to worry about. Northwestern’s “lack of flexibility” argument is simply code for “maximize zoning envelope,” which would give something back to the city if the developer paid any real estate taxes. But they don’t. So, if and WHEN they at long last build that skyscraper, we get all of the congestion and shadows WITHOUT any economic benefit to the city – beyond the increment between 800 research jobs and however many more they can squeeze into their unplanned, undesigned and unfunded zoning envelope.

Sign the petition HERE.

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?