Archive for December, 2011

Chicago Blues: Intangible Heritage

December 30, 2011

Howard Reich had an interesting article in the Tribune the other day about the loss of three great Blues statesmen in 2011: Hubert Sumlin (age 80), David “Honeyboy” Edwards (age 96) and Pinetop Perkins (age 97). The article “Twilight of the Blues” laments the loss of a once-vibrant local cultural expression to an esoteric rarity along the lines of Gregorian chant; Appalachian folk and Bee Gees’ disco. I blog a lot about the important role that intangible heritage plays in modern heritage conservation, and how international charters over the last two decades have started to embrace this phenomenon and I recalled how in 1987 the French newspaper Le Monde celebrated Chicago’s two great contributions to world culture: the blues and architecture.

Some might argue that Chicago architecture is not as innovative and lively as it once was, but there is still architectural vitality here and it still makes the papers and television and internet, whereas the blues has become a sort of quaint commodity you have to seek out – we have a couple big blues clubs on North Halsted that cater to tourists, and heck, I even played there one night many years ago, but the classic south and west side clubs that the Rolling Stones and others sought out in the 1960s and 1970s are mostly gone. House and rap replaced the blues as a folk expression decades ago.

Maxwell Street, April 2001.
The challenge of preserving intangible heritage is being addressed by blues camps led by Fernando Jones, and I recalled meeting him 20 years ago when he came to my office at Landmarks Illinois with his book “I Was There When The Blues Were Red Hot” and his enthusiasm for preserving this incredible aspect of Chicago’s – and the world’s – cultural heritage. I am sure I disappointed him then for I was focused on architecture and buildings and had no inkling about saving intangible cultural heritage.

Palm Tavern in its heyday
This isn’t just about prophets without honor in their own country, although it was always that way. When the Rolling Stones visited – and recorded in – 2120 S. Michigan Avenue in the 1960s, they had more respect for bluesmen than Chicagoans did at the time, and it was Keith Richards and Mick Jagger that paid for Sumlin’s funeral this month. I suppose it was that way for some of our architectural heroes like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright – ostracized from the city or out of the mainstream for key parts of their professional careers.

Chess Records/Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation: tangible and intangible heritage at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue
What does it mean? In part it verifies the importance in heritage conservation of addressing both tangible and intangible heritage: both arise as phenomena with the 19th century rise of industrialization and urbanization and both reflect the loss that we experience when we cross the line from tradition and community to modernity and commodity. Culture is no longer a communal product but a consumer product. It is more than fashion, and yes, the blues lives on in rock and roll just as Wright’s Prairie Houses lived on in bungalows and foursquares, but it is that sense of loss that leads to the impulse to preserve. It is never preserved in the sense of being the same or even looking or feeling the same: tangible and intangible heritage are preserved as understandings of significance; elements of civic or communal identity and rootedness; and repurposed places of remembrance. Heritage conservation is more than memorialization and addressing the sense of loss; it is attempting to bridge the gulfs that can open in society.

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Heritage and the New Economy

December 23, 2011

“The success of preserving our global cultural patrimony is not merely a function of financial or economic investment, but requires implementation of a methodology encompassing several essential and inter-related factors that lays the foundation for long-term sustainability.”

“Over time, the challenge is not just the implementation of world-class conservation, but to invest in local conservation and economic capacity.”

The above quote from the Global Heritage Fund’s 2008 white paper “Sustainable World Heritage Preservation in Developing Economies” epitomizes the 21st century approach to heritage conservation (historic preservation) that combines earlier curatorial and architectural standards with an advanced understanding of political and social economy. This advanced understanding is one of the reasons I was pleased to accept the role as Chair of the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund this fall.

Yet there is a still a steep learning curve for many who see heritage conservation and economic development as separate or even oppositional realms. The stereotype of the preservationist standing in front of the bulldozer or trying to craft a museum out of the town’s oldest house dies hard for many. Preservationists are motivated by history and architecture and other ennobling attributes unrelated to how our economy works. They stand in the way of progress.

Of course, this has changed over the last fifty or sixty years. For 35 years we have had tax credits for preservation, which has won over much of the private development community. Indeed, the last 20 years those of us who want to save buildings have generally had more to fear from billion-dollar not-for-profit universities and hospitals. The big Chicago preservation issue – Prentice Hospital – for the last two years is a classic example: demolition is being pushed by one of the best capitalized entities in the state (a billion in cash!) on a site two blocks from the most expensive real estate between Manhattan and San Francisco that they DON’T PAY TAXES ON.

is that another vacant block in front? And another behind?
But see what I just did? I made an economic argument. I didn’t say a thing about architecture or history or beauty or character. I’m not an economist (although my 2008 blog on teardown economics was lauded by those in the know) but I study it and I consult with economists regularly on heritage conservation issues.

I don’t do this because I fell in love with old buildings and slowly but surely learned that I needed to make economic arguments. I did it from Day One, which I seem to recall was February 22, 1983 when I got my first job in “historic preservation” and that day the entire Illinois Congressional delegation introduced the first heritage area bill to the U.S. Congress, a bill which had NO REGULATION and defined its goals as a COMBINATION of preservation, economic development and natural area conservation. Saving buildings has been an economic enterprise and economic imperative ever since, so excuse me if I don’t “get” the people who don’t “get” that.

But it occurred to me recently in discussions with GHF economists and staff about metrics for our international heritage conservation projects, that the world has seen the evolution of a new mode of heritage and economy over the last thirty years. Donovan Rypkema has been one of the outstanding voices in this discussion for the same period of time.

With the advent of the National Trust’s Main Street program in the late 1970s and heritage areas in the early 1980s, a movement that HAD BEEN heavily inflected by curatorial ideas about history and architecture recognized the nature of the social economy and thus learned to balance – and enhance – their desire to save buildings with political and economic reality. Preservation was one-quarter of the Main Street formula, and a similar fraction of the heritage area formula.

For the purist, this seemed a retreat, but in fact it was a massive gain because it made heritage conservation a legitimate form of economic development. And so it has been for my ENTIRE CAREER. And it isn’t just tourism – heritage conservation brings real, local economic development: you can’t outsource construction and building maintenance jobs, for example. I’ve blogged endlessly about the incredible investment my community makes in rehabilitating historic buildings because it enhances property values and tax revenues. Sure we get tourism, but there is an economic rationale to preserving buildings that is not dependent on tourism – and it is a longer-lasting benefit than a strip mall or most corporate relocations.

But there is still cognitive dissonance out there, partly because it flouts traditional models studied by economists and business schools, not to mention architects and conservation professionals. The traditional not-for-profit model relies on philanthropy and membership. The traditional business model relies on capital and revenue streams, inventory, distribution and even research and development.

Of course, today many not-for-profits have massive revenue streams, whether they are museum gift shops, tuition, Medicare payments or sponsored events. But the fundamental model has never been adjusted despite the fact that for three decades, all over the world, we have a newly emergent model that is neither pure philanthropy nor pure business. It is heritage-focused and it is perhaps an inextricable aspect of the post-industrial consumer economy.

Heritage conservation preserves unique aspects of place and in the process can monetize those characteristics for a consumer economy both as an attraction for visitors and also – more importantly – as an impulse for ongoing, place-based investment of human energy and capital. Traditional metrics have become more sophisticated in terms of tourism, and we can quantify the spin-offs of significant investments in local infrastructure, including buildings. For over 15 years I have shown students the work that David Listokin did at Rutgers where he demonstrated how preservation kept DOLLARS local, especially in contrast to projects like highway construction. Main Street economists have been showing the same thing for decades: heritage conservation investment penetrates local jobs, income and tax revenues deeper and longer than franchise development that effectively “keeps” a bigger piece of each capital investment away from the local economy.

Despite political rhetoric, there is a governmental aspect as well, since government has always been inextricable from economics. There would be no University of Phoenix or other for-profit schools without government student loans. There would be no strip mall investment without government roads. Heritage conservation is similar, and part of it is regulatory.

Consumer economies are middle-class economies, driven by people who think they know what they want and deserve. Most obviously this social economy is manifest in simple acquisition: iPads, automobiles, deodorants and shoes. But the physical environment itself is a consumer product as well. Again, we have the obvious impacts, like big kitchens and stainless appliances and granite countertops. But we also have ones that require regulation, like clean air and tolerable amounts of mercury in our food. Middle class people expect to be able to choose those things as well. And they often choose historic buildings. I live in Oak Park, which doesn’t allow you to demolish historic buildings. The result of that regulation? One of the most popular neighborhoods to live in in the United States, as shown here. Despite February.

Any industry that can beat Chicago February is a viable industry. So the regulation works as an investment in the consumer economy. Most diatribes against regulation are actually diatribes against “new” regulation because the key to any successful capitalist endeavor is limiting uncertainty. Long ago industry got used to figuring out how to get coal out of mile-deep seams WITHOUT ten-year olds. It just requires an updated business model and sense of certainty about costs and revenues. Which is the same calculation the Oak Park homebuyer is making.

Heritage conservation offers a kind of 21st century consumer-based economy that is more certain and predictable than those dependent either on the revenue of novelty that so often drives the private sector or the revenue of charity that so often drives the philanthropic center. Here is how it works: a seed charitable grant starts up a conservation project, which injects a sense of certainty and purpose into the local economy and environment. The investment attracts other investment, and the character of the investment – long-term; identity-defining; culturally significant – works to limit the kind of short-term investments that can short-circuit long-term development goals by playing pop and fizzle.

Heritage conservation allows a community to identify key significant aspects of its character and invest in those aspects for the long term and it does so through a combination of governmental, for-profit and not-for-profit entities. Many not-for-profits today – and for the last thirty years – are effectively spurs to redevelopment. We are familiar with neighborhood development organizations (where I started my job search in 1983) and chambers of commerce and tourism boards that serve this function. In fact, heritage conservation organizations are increasingly occupying this essential economic and community development role, because their model for development is inherently more sustainable at both the micro (nothin’ greener than the building already there) and macro (development in line with local character last longer than development in contrast to local character) levels.

More importantly – and this takes us back the GHF quote at the beginning – heritage conservation effects a kind of local economic restructuring that is more sustainable. Analagous to the “economic restructuring” pillar of Main Street, investments in conservation develop local skills. We had a great example of this when I met with the community in Las Cruces four weeks ago: they proposed creating a center of local adobe expertise – they have one of the international experts – and training, meaning that the effort to preserve local heritage creates doesn’t just create jobs and investment. It creates capacity and knowledge – the true foundations of 21st century economy.

A New LEED for Preservation?

December 6, 2011

Four years ago the National Trust for Historic Preservation jumped firmly into the sustainability fray with then-President Dick Moe’s speech at the National Building Museum. (Here is my blog from that time.)

The Trust will continue its leadership in this arena next month under Stephanie Meeks when it reveals the Life Cycle Analysis of historic buildings undertaken by the Preservation Green Lab in Seattle. This provides a perfect complement to the Life Cycle Analysis of new buildings recently undertaken by the American Institute of Architects, and one of my own initiatives of late is to try to bring the AIA and National Trust together on these complementary initiatives.

Life cycle analysis takes us into REAL sustainability because it asks the straightforward question: how long does an investment in a building last? My classic replacement window conundrum is a good example. If a restored wood window costs 3 times as much as a cheap plastic replacement window but last 5 times as long, it is cheaper over the life cycle of the building.

The same is often true of other elements from historic buildings, like tight-grained old growth wood, high clay content bricks, real terra cotta, dimension stone, and wall construction with natural thermal properties.

On the face of it, sustainability in preservation is obvious: what could be more sustainable than keeping a building in place rather than dumping it in a landfill and hauling a new one in from the forest? The greenest building is the one already built, as we say.

Shedd Park fieldhouse, William Drummond

But there is a problem in that historic preservation (more properly called heritage conservation) has long been defined in a regulatory way. Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been outspoken in trying to move historic preservation out of the “those who say no” category and I have previously blogged about this issue here and here.

A new angle has emerged, however, courtesy of my longtime friend Mike Jackson, Chief Architect for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which is our State Historic Preservation Office. Mike has also been a leader in talking about sustainability in preservation.

old bank building, Savanna, Illinois

So I lectured to Mike’s class at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana a few weeks ago and afterwards we talked about Mike’s latest idea. He said I could blog about it, but it is his idea (I like to pretend that there are still viable protections regarding intellectual property or privacy or any of those things. I know! How quaint!)

Mike’s sustainability lectures go on at great length about LEED and the US Green Building Council. But this time he focused on an interesting aspect of LEED. It is not regulatory. USGBC is a private organization. Yet everyone but everyone HAS to be LEED certified and every new building has to get its LEED ratings. This thing has appeared and become dominant in less than 12 years, which is like iPods or iPads or zoning. And none of its is regulatory.


Mike suggested the Trust adopt a voluntary listing program for owners of historic buildings. As precedent, he cited the Texas Historical Commission plaque program, whereby owners voluntarily complete detailed nomination forms for their properties, get certified, and then purchase and display a THC plaque on their building. The cost of the plaque funds the program. There is little protection beyond a 90-day demolition delay, but it is popular and successful.



Hotel Cortez, El Paso, and its THC plaque

This is basically how LEED works: building owners and their architects complete a nomination form, get LEED certified, and then put a USGBC plaque on their buildings. It is a private organization (like the Trust) but everyone wants in on the action. It is a marketing challenge – to create a cachet that everyone wants to buy into – but so is every aspect of the preservation/conservation field.


Every year thousands pay $90 to stand in long lines at Wright Plus, so why not?

The smart thing about this idea is that it allows a non-profit preservation/conservation organization to do what it is supposed to do – save buildings – without mistakenly being seen as a regulator, as often happens with both the Trust and statewide groups like Landmarks Illinois (where I am also on the Board).


Altgelt, King William District, San Antonio. And its THC plaque.

Because we aren’t the ones who say no. We are the ones who offer creative solutions. We are the ones who offer more sustainability than is possible in a new buildings. We are the ones who help communities retain their identity and attractiveness, which leads to reinvestment and thus economic sustainability.