Archive for February, 2016

What Survives?

February 24, 2016

I recently saw the report of a “phylogenetic” study of fairytales that determined that some fairytales were 6,000 years old, reaching into the Bronze Age.  We have long known that certain tales – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, flood myths – are shared across hundreds of cultures and geographies.  I read the report (linked here) the same day I went to see the ancient Greek show at the Field Museum, where many tales are illustrated in the more durable forms of pottery and stone.

Greek vases Class.jpg

So fired clay survives, and of course metals, especially precious metals.  The most stunning items in the Agamemnon to Alexander show were gold diadems, wreaths worn on the head with the gold worked into intricately detailed simulacra of myrtle branches and leaves.  Unlike the rusted dagger and swords, the gold pieces looked brand new.

Greeks gold wreath and knivesIt reminded me of the incredible Scythian Gold show I saw at the Lavra (that’s a World Heritage Site and monastery in Kiev).  Yeah, gold survives.

Yet most of these artifacts are younger than “The Devil and the Smith” which is the tale researchers peg at 6,000 years ago.  Heck, it is even older that this ancient Egyptian dress.  In my professional career I have dealt with older artifacts and mostly with much younger ones, but the question kept coming back to me:  What Survives?

CP 39 terraces housesIn Ciudad Perdida in Colombia the rammed earth platforms and their myriad stone steps survive, but nothing else, because this is high jungle, ever humid.  Wood, reeds, thatch, cloth, leather, all resolves and dissolves in the dew.

CP i main iBest

You can see the blog post about it from 2013 here.

Part of the challenge is geographic – jungles tend to swallow and digest everything but stone, while deserts can even preserve someone’s 3000-year old scones.  It is not fair, but we get more knowledge from ancient societies that were in climates suitable to preservation, be they Scandinavian bogs or Iraqi deserts.

OI egyp breadSAnd I thought I kept stale bread too long.

Stone survives quite well, in both building form as well as sculptural form, although I can assure you that pretty much every Greek sculpture I have ever seen was a 2C AD Roman copy of a Greek original.  Perhaps we need a phylogeny of sculpture as well as folklore.

Greek bas reliefAnother challenge is that more permanent materials are more likely to be re-used.  The Collosseum’s marble coating was scavenged to build Renaissance Rome, and the 13th century Quwwat ul-Islam mosque in Delhi was composed of demolished Hindu and Jain temples.

quwwat islam2_1

Below is Fountains Hall, a lovely 18th century manor in Yorkshire, composed of marble stripped from the nearby Abbey, which had been “dissolved” in ecclesiastical terms and was then flayed in architectural terms for its skin.  A kind of Frankenstein building, if we can handle one more reference to the early 19th century forebears who gave us heritage conservation, museums and the modern discipline of history.

Fountains Hall

The heritage field has a bias against intangible heritage, evident in the Athens Charter of 1931.  We only really started integrating folklore, music, dance and other “intangible” cultural heritage in the last twenty years or so.    This is somewhat ironic because our very first efforts to save historic buildings and our efforts to preserve fairy tales dates from the same time, time of Frankenstein, the Brothers Grimm, the Elgin Marbles and the Louvre. The onset of the 19th century when an emergent modernity spawned a great fear of loss.

dark sat mills ltAhh, the dark Satanic mills of Coalbrookdale – no wonder the Devil and the Smith survived

In the Western tradition and especially in the United States, we favor tangible heritage like buildings over intangible heritage like folklore.  We especially like architecture.  I used to assign this to the peculiarities of American preservation practice from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the Progressive Era and  the Historic American Buildings Survey in the Great Depression, but I think it is actually broader than that.

UVA lawn west.jpg Architecture becomes a “real” profession in the 1890s.  So when something becomes official and important you want experts. Architectural history is of course even younger.

entrance bldgsThe fabulous stone architecture of the Ossola Valley, Italy.

We needed a proper social science to guide our conservation work, and architecture fit the bill.  Even where there is a professional practice based on archaeology (France, Western U.S.) that is more interested in the broad material culture than in architecture, there is still a bias against the intangible – witness all the conflicts between archaeologists and indigenous peoples.


It has become increasingly clear to me that we need to redouble our efforts to save intangible heritage, and this phylogenetic study is a great example – because some stories do survive as well as stone and at the end of the day culture in any form is transmitted by people.  As my late colleague Dr. Clem Price noted, there are stories and oral traditions that are essential to the conservation of African-American cultural heritage.  Intangible heritage.

afric ceme 2 sign

I just noticed this morning that the house where Medgar Evers lived – and was assassinated – is being considered for National Historic Landmark status.  I applaud the preservationists I have worked with over three decades who have sought to save Rosenwald Schools and Civil Rights sites and landscapes sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  This is a good step but we will not reach historic truth and contemporary reconciliation through tangible heritage alone.

caden rosenwaldRosenwald school, Kentucky

We have to redouble our efforts because the many of the most important missing landmarks of American history were erased – by conquest and racism.  In my years of working on the Diversity Deficit in heritage, I regularly encountered What Does Not Survive Because We Buried It.


Recently installed, thanks to Equal Justice Initiative

Slowly, people are working to uncover this once-tangible heritage.  We must remember that many sites were forcibly, deliberately removed.  These were acts of cultural oppression and until we make their truth known widely, we cannot move forward the process of reconciliation.  This is one of many reasons that intangible heritage remains important today as it was two centuries ago.








Lathrop Homes, 3 years after

February 20, 2016

Full disclosure:  Four years ago, I was the Historic Preservation consultant for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes in Chicago, a very important 1937 federal housing project.  This past Thursday the Chicago Plan Commission approved the current plan for the project, which I ceased to work on when I left Chicago in July 2012. I took the opportunity to compare the plan to my April 2011 Preliminary Report and to the project at the time I left.

B-9 townhsThe homes were designed by pretty much all of the famous architects in Chicago at the time, since it was the Depression and very little building was happening.  Robert DeGolyer led, with Hubert Burnham, Hugh Garden, Tallmadge and Watson and many others.  The floor plans were adapted from federal housing unit typologies and basically consisted of rowhouses, flats and apartments.  The two, three, and four-story buildings were concrete with brick facing and adopted a Georgian mode with quoined corners and decorative touches like medallions, urns, and trabeated entrances.

lathrop K6 5-11The structures were arranged into T- C- and U- shaped units grouped around a large open space north of Diversey Parkway along the North Branch of the Chicago River.  Similar units occupied a narrower chunk of land south of Diversey between the river and the embankment along Damen Avenue.  The landscape design team featured Jens Jensen, adding to the architectural significance.

central court from rfmain open court north of Diversey

central courtyardBuildings in northern section, organized around a Great Lawn.

The Lathrop Homes were one of six federally-built public housing projects in 1930s Chicago, before there was a local housing authority.  These are found across the U.S. and often functioned pretty well for decades thanks to their human scale and generous site planning.

lathrop 40sLathrop Homes kids, 1940s.

Most of the others from this period have been demolished, including the Ida B. Wells project on the south side and the Jane Addams Homes on the West Side.  Since Lathrop was on the fast-gentrifying North Side, the Chicago Housing Authority was predisposed to razing it and selling the land, but a combination of neighborhood activists, political leaders, preservation advocates and public housing advocates pushed for an approach that favored rehabilitation.

G-7 H-7 archSo the Chicago Housing Authority put together a dream team of contemporary Chicago designers, including Jeanne Gang and Doug Farr and Tom Kerwin and Pat Natke, to develop a plan that would 1.  Keep a large number of public housing units on site, 2. Preserve the historic significance of Lathrop Homes, 3. Provide an economically sustainable development to finance it all through market-rate housing.  I was on that team for two years as the historic preservation consultant.

D-8 hedges

The plan approved Thursday garnered lots of criticism. primarily from housing activists.  There were 900 public housing units there originally, although less than 200 are occupied.  The new plan will create 400 on site and the CHA is on the hook for the rest.

There is also criticism coming from preservationists, since 12 buildings will be demolished, and from neighbors and others concerned with issues like density and financing. I haven’t seen environmental objections, perhaps because there is a lot of neat stuff in terms of landscape restoration, 11 acres of new parkland and a riverwalk.

s hoyne w fr abvI’m going to focus on the preservation issue and take advantage of the fact that I was in California for more than three years so I can compare where we were THEN to where we are NOW in preserving Lathrop.  Briefly, the plan preserves more than I thought it would.

lathrop aerialBin 2009 Landmarks Illinois did a very rough concept conserving 29 of the original 31 buildings, but they, along with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and  Preservation Chicago, had come to the conclusion by 2011 that the prime goal was to preserve the larger, more significant north side of the complex.  The southern plan was constrained by a narrow site, a high road embankment, and the intrusion of a high-rise in the 1960s.  Landmarks Illinois and the IHPA argued to save the side of the buildings facing Diversey on the south side to maintain the feel of the project while adding density there.  Preservation Chicago pushed for even higher density in order to save more south side buildings.  Along with the rest of the preservationist community, I focused on the more capaciously realized north side.

K-6 cornirBuilding K-6 in southern section with 1960s highrise in rear.

As I sat in design meetings in 2010 and 2011 it was declared that a new entrance on the north side off of Clybourn Avenue would require demolition of at least one building there.  Two others in the northwest corner were written off, along with the little Administration Building at Diversey, never built to its original design.

lathrop cornerIt created a very underwhelming corner entrance to the project.

The south side plan was to save only the first portion of the buildings facing Diversey, and the power plant, which with its echoes of Battersea was everyone’s favorite building.

lathrop 2700 leavittSo this would have been sliced in half, although thankfully not in the current plan.

powerhouseeverything about this Power Plant say make me into a microbrewery

Now my report had identified the significance of the Lathrop Homes as the site  planning, layout, landscaping and exterior of the buildings, especially the largest portion north of Diversey around the courtyard.  Almost all of the building windows and most doors had been replaced and while I noted some interior stairs, the consensus among the preservation community was that the interiors were not significant.

lathrop D8 5-11

The plan approved Thursday actually preserves MORE buildings than when I left the project almost four years ago.  Instead of losing four buildings on the north side of Diversey Avenue, the project is saving all but the Administration Building.  In addition, they are saving the brick arcades that connect many of the buildings on Clybourn Avenue and add so much to the overall design of the project.  These were to have been largely removed.

leavitt townhousesOne of the buildings we wrote off in 2011 on the north side, now being saved.

B-9 corner archBrick arcade on north side of Lathrop Homes site

2016.01.15__From Bridge_reducedView of the new plan from Diversey Parkway bridge over the Chicago River, which has always been the best view.

On the south side, three full buildings in their depth are being saved, which is a testament I think to the fact that unlike many landmarks, these are four-sided buildings, and while one could create sympathetic additions, authenticity is best served by having buildings in the round.  This also preserves the vista as you cross the bridge over the river.

M-11So these get to remain in their entirety

Preservation Chicago is in favor of the plan, but just because they are saving 61% of the original buildings (19 of 31), the entirety of the north side site plan and landscape, and more of the southern half than was planned a few years back, doesn’t mean there isn’t controversy.   Take a look at the new, denser buildings being planned for the Diversey entrance to the site from the east.


You can argue all day about the design of the new structures (the intent is to capture the brick veneer of the original complex to the same height) but the important question for me is what are we losing? I already noted I will not miss the wee Administration Building, so let’s look at the building at Damen on the south side of Diversey, shown here.

A-9 main This is a fine building, but if this density saves the whole north half of the site and more of the southern half than even I hoped, it is an worthy tradeoff in my view.

Bottom line?

2012 we had 14 of 18 buildings on the north side and no arcades.

Now we have 17 of 18 and the arcades.

2012 we had 1 building and 3 facades on the south side.

Now we have 3 whole buildings.

I hate to say it, but this plan got better after I left town!

2016.02.01_S100_Historic Buildings_reduced

Main Street and Community Preservation

February 13, 2016

state st lkpt

This coming week I will be lecturing about Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation initiative that began in the 1970s as a way to help preserve historic downtowns throughout America in communities of every size.  This was in the era when suburban shopping malls had become the centerpiece of American life, drawing attention and dollars away from the smaller shops and services of the old downtowns.

strip mall aerialSnot quite a 30,000 foot view but you get the idea

The invention of Main Street by my dear friend Mary Means marks for me a major shift in historic preservation, the shift toward a pragmatic approach to economics.  The first shift took place in the 1960s when a half-century of community efforts to save historic residential neighborhoods became a vital part not only of municipal preservation ordinances, notably  New York City in 1965, but also the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

georg twnhssGeorgetown, arguably the first historic district not designed for tourism

Historic districts have a history that goes back to the early 20th century, and the first to be legislated – Charleston and New Orleans – did it to help control a tourist economy that was threatening to kill the golden goose.  A wave of other historic districts followed in the 1940s and 1950s but it wasn’t until Georgetown in 1950 and Beacon Hill in 1955 that historic districts actually became community planning tools dealing not with tourism but the basic economics of residential neighborhoods.

Royal and Toulouse CornerNew Orleans

Now, the immediate impulses that led to historic districts were the massive government programs of urban renewal and highway construction that were decimating cities and towns, but these threats were only countered in communities that had already organized around their built environment.  For me it marks an important departure from the curatorial model that previously held sway.

wgv parkGreenwich Village.  A really long long story.

Main Street took an even more radical step by reducing the traditional preservationist focus on architectural design to a mere 25% of the program, focusing equally on Organization, Events, and Economic Restructuring. Not only that, but the design piece was even less curatorial because the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties had not yet been codified.  The goal was to save buildings but Mary and the others knew that would only happen if they made economic sense.IMG_7640and that was before sidewalk cafes, so you had to be creative

Also in the 1970s, the first historic preservation tax credits appeared, helping to address an imbalance (mostly in finance) between old and new buildings in terms of commercial real estate development.  This trend toward economic pragmatism and community organization took a further step in the 1980s as large government subsidies for real estate development became extinct.  The early 1980s were the era of the public-private partnership.

gaylord708sthis is where I enter the story – 25 years before this picture

I began my career 33 years ago Monday working on the very first heritage area in the United States.  Like Main Street, traditional historic preservation was only 25% of the goal, along with Natural Area Conservation, Recreation, and Economic Development.  Now historic preservation was taking on the massive de-industrialization affecting the economy.  It was the brainchild of my first boss, Jerry Adelmann and it was bold.  We held a conference in Joliet in 1984 when the city had 23% unemployment.  We saw the future – accurately as it turns out – and saw the value of our historic built environment to that future.

squander Vm quoteI’m so old I have literally been a museum piece – albeit one that “isn’t about museums”

The heritage area thing took off big time – there were over 40 across the country in 20 years time.  The public-private partnership aspect worked very well in an era of diminishing government resources and of course still does.  Like historic districts and Main Streets, it also prioritized the community’s role in self-organization for its own improvement, on its own terms.  Then my mentor, Jerry Adelmann, took his heritage area idea to China, and I followed.

Weishan north gate 2014this is the Weishan North Gate (1390) that burned a year ago.  It is now rebuilt.  Yunnan.

See, it turns out that the pragmatic approach to the development of our built environment developed by “historic preservationists” over a half century was eminently transferable .  Why?  Not complicated.  You identify the resources and assets of a place, determine how they function in an evolving economy, create vibrant sustainable models, and then scale them.  The last part is the hardest, but time has proven the sustainability of our model.

view fr twr along highwaySchoose your poison

I’m not saying that there aren’t big massive developments that ignore these principles.  They are everywhere.  They are generally less sustainable, but the real difference is community.  See all that stuff above about historic districts and Main Streets and heritage areas has a component of community control.  Even more importantly, heritage development insures that MORE MONEY stays in the local community.  It doesn’t go flying off to some faraway corporate HQ.

downtown NR distSmaybe you can ‘splain this to the MI and WI legislators who either A) don’t understand economics, or B) are being paid to send your money out of your local economy.

I’m very fortunate I was able to participate in, contribute to, and chronicle much of this fascinating half-century and I look forward to sharing it in Indiana next week!





Everything You Know Is Wrong, Part II

February 6, 2016

Eight years ago I wrote a blog with this title, to remind us that we often think our way past reality.   Despite our ongoing technological revolution the human mind still has a series of fallback postures that fail to perceive reality but instead distort it – simplify it, really – to make it fit into categories more satisfying to our adolescent brains.

VM UC 1981Who doesn’t adore their own adolescent brain?

 As I have often said, categories are the problem. They are the boxes everyone wants to think outside of. They are the crutches that allow brains to grow from adolescence but if you are still using them later, maturity is forestalled.

This week I watched this video of a honking great 1950s American automobile – when they were still made out of metal – crashing into a moderately sized contemporary car in a controlled test. Take a look:  Of course, as my mother and every older adult I ever met explained, they needed a big car because it was safer. And your brain says: “Of course!”

wee vinceI never knew how much danger I was in.

 Except the big old car crumbles to bits and the modern plastic car with snoozefest design survives reasonably well, forcing your brain to process the fact that a big sturdy steel car is NOT better in a crash than its modern polymer descendant because EVIDENCE.

In my last blog I riffed on the folly of thinkers left and right trying to blame historic districts for various “ills” of real estate economics.  What was the evidence?  Historic districts will make the prices go higher.  Except when they don’t.  Historic districts will help maintain value, which will make affordable housing more difficult.  Except when it doesn’t.  Part of the problem is politics, a bottom-feeding critter with a reptilian brain that never got beyond categories.

148 conv sw2And yes, CityLab, they come in more flavors than single-family.

While their folly had several sources, one of the most important was the tendency to think of economics as a zero-sum game.

Remember Benchley’s hilarious column from mid-1930s where he explained economics? I do. Well, I can’t quote it verbatim, but it basically suggested that after you groped around in your pockets and under the couch cushions there was only about $10.87 in the world, along with several rubber bands and mint wrappers (probably Sen-sen – it was the 1930s after all) but then you get a piece of paper from another country saying we owe you ten billion dollars and you run home to mom and say “Lookee I got ten billion dollars!”

Bank AmericaImma so rich!  Get Victor Gruen to design my bank!!!

Which helps our adolescent brain begin to conceive of debt and finance.

But still we have that tween brain that worries about national debt because – why? Someone is going to come knocking on the door and ask for it? Are these the same imaginary people coming to get your guns? Don’t you realize that we borrowed millions (billions in present dollars) to gain our independence from Britain 230 years ago and NEVER PAID THE DEBT? That’s how it works.

Solomon morris washgS

Just ask Chaym Solomon – he’s the guy on the right – the one we never paid back.

Which brings us to the drop-dead-dumbest category dichotomy of all: government and the private sector. This is popular conceptual shorthand that might help us understand things, but given the political environment of the last 35 years[1], actively obscures how things work.

This is especially true when you look at the development of the United States, starting with canals, which were financed by the sale of government-granted land.

vw to lock 8s

 Illinois and Michigan Canal, Aux Sable, Illinois

This was followed by railroads (financed by government land grants) and colleges (financed by government land grants).  There is of course the original government role in economic development – which is security.  You wanna trade?  You need a safe place from bandits.  That is the starting point of all economic development and the rationale for the single government expenditure that is larger than all the others put together.

tuystan axesS These were used for those who refused to pay the tolls and the taxes.  Also, they were paid for by the tolls and taxes.  Neat, huh?  (Tustan, Ukraine, c. 1500)

Now in the 20th century we shifted to a consumer economy so the government rebuilt Europe and covered the U.S. with the most important subsidy the private “sector” has ever seen, a subsidy so massive it shifted how we shop, how we live, and how we move through space.  I’m talking highways.

view fr twr along highwayS

drvg into sf2Draw a grid on this photo and then count up the squares for “private sector” and “public sector”. 

These so-called “sectors” are especially vexing when you deal with the built environment because so much of the built environment is ostensibly “public” in the form of roads and canals and highways and railroad tracks and schools.  I know we have spent the last three decades privatizing things – like every parking place in the city of Chicago – but there are still parks and roads and even if we are paying private lawyers (like Richard M. Daley!) to use them, they are functioning as public space.

Our landscape is BOTH AND, not EITHER OR.  We call the University of Michigan a STATE school even though the state provides less than 3% of its budget, and we call real estate a PRIVATE enterprise even though ALL of its value comes from public roads, sewers, water, police and fire protection.  Not to mention land reclamation, drainage and harbor improvements.

bay aerial mid penDid you know that real estate provides twice as much of the U.S. GDP as Information?[2] In the Information Age! (Also three times as much as either Transportation or Construction.)

Oh, and zoning. I have written many times before about how zoning – a government regulation – gives property value.  That’s why we have teardowns.  And really wealthy zoning lawyers.

wabash to trump13

Indeed, most of the second generation big city zoning ordinance in the late 50s and early 60s were designed to impel development.  Chicago’s 1957 zoning ordinance basically doubled the land value in the city in the hope that people would build more.  New York’s (1961) planned for 16 million residents by the 21st century and similarly upzoned much of the city.

DSCF6451Except where the residents were organized to save their historic architecture.  And their investment.

Greenwich Village (pictured above) had been organized so early that they insured lower zoning in the original 1916 zoning ordinance, thus reducing the possibility of a new subsidy that would lead to teardowns.  They did it again in 1961, having just conserved a building that not only the city but even the architectural historians hated.

gv jeff mkt cthsSJefferson Market Courthouse.  Unloved by all except THOSE WHO LIVED THERE.

Now, you might criticize this as NIMBYism, but that is yet another misleading category, like gentrification.  Some places can become “owners’ clubs” and some other places can become development firestorms, but there tends not to be a pattern that reinforces the category but a highly specific playing out of forces in each unique place.

lemoyne spiteIn spite of everything.

I would always tell my students that there are two constant truths, which remain equally true despite their seeming contradiction:

  1. No one wants to be told what to do with their property.
  2. Everyone wants to tell their neighbor what to do with their property.

So, any attempt by a community to influence the disposition of the built environment will require actions that cross the artificial borders between public and private.

Madison_indiana_main_street_08_2007-1Madison, Indiana – one of the original Main Streets.

Main Street was a National Trust for Historic Preservation program that started in the 1970s to conserve historic commercial buildings.  The Four Points of Main Street, still used today, could be characterized as largely “private” sector initiatives involving Design, Organization, Events and Economic Restructuring.  In fact, these four points each cross the public/private category over and over.  Design might be seen as regulatory, and if Main Street was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there were (and are) tax incentives for sensitive rehabilitation.  But there was also a recognition that the original design had a value, and that if everyone on the block could harness that externality, every property would add value.  Organization meant working together, in a way that the big shopping malls did because they were under one owner, so that falls toward the private sector (if we ignore the public roads and automobile subsidies that made the malls possible).  Events helped promote the area, so you could call it advertising, although depending on the event it might be more like a gathering of the public commons.  Economic Restructuring recognized that the market had changed (largely due to subsidized private transportation) and pushed formerly individuated businesspersons to work together to create a healthy mix of businesses.

state st lkpt

Now, contrast this 40-year success story with the knuckle-dragging antics of the Michigan and Wisconsin state legislatures who are trying to ban historic districts because they are government overreach.  They are so focused on the “public” side of the equation that they will fail, because EVERY economic equation has both public and private in it.  Time for the mature minds to step in.



[1] Since 1981 incomes in the United States remain statistically flat while GDP grew 77%.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Gross Domestic Product by Industry, 2014.