Archive for the ‘Chicago Buildings’ Category

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


The Demolition of Malcolm X College

October 13, 2015

I am barely back in Chicago and another great Modernist masterpiece is going down.  I just reviewed the 372 page RFP for the demolition of Malcolm X College on the Near West Side, a 1971 Miesian design by Gene Summers, and generally considered his best building after his McCormick Place of the same year.  Summers had been Mies van der Rohe’s design assistant on the Neue National Gallery in Berlin.  Here is the beauty of the facade.  I was interviewed by the great Lee Bey on his podcast regarding this.

Malcolm X C entr poles obl

The college is a perfectly symmetrical composition that extends like a bridge.  Not unlike McCormick Place it is long and lean and low, planned on a 24 by 24 foot module (doubling the 24 by 12 module of the IIT campus) with three levels above grade, an inset glass ground level, a concourse below and two third-floor courtyards.

Malcolm X C facade nice

Summers treated the corners much like IIT with a double redentation, and followed Miesian precedent with attached beams in a black color that has not faded in 45 years.

Malcolm X C corner

In the 372 page RFP is a 1985 report regarding asbestos, since the building used spray-on asbestos fireproofing for its second and third floor structural elements.  This is interesting and again gives the lie to the idea that asbestos is a reason to demolish a building.  (see my old blog on this subject here.).

Malcolm X C facade det

The 1985 report recommended a $7.5 million asbestos abatement which would close the school for a year, to reopen in 1987.  The contract now for the full demolition is $10 million, which is LESS in 1985 dollars.  Amazing.  If you hear anyone using this lame excuse for demolition, remind them that the city had NO trouble allowing 30 years of students and faculty and staff to use the building since they knew of the problem.

Malcolm X C nice corner view

When I visited the building again yesterday I was struck by something we often forget about High Modernism – they actually really cared about landscape.  Four berms frame the ends of the college and partly hide the east and west parking lots.  The trees are mature and in their stunning October color.

Malcolm X C facade trees2

Malcolm X C south w berm

Feel the berm!

Now this Modernist attention to landscape sits, visibly, in stark contrast to the new Malcolm X College, which is nearing completion across the street.

Malcolm X C with newb

So, we got the usual contemporary design of contrasting shapes and volumes and colors and finishes, which is basically Victorian when you think about it.  But what really irks me is the streetscraping lack of green.  Summers gave us a wonderfully resolved sculpture set in a generous and well-designed garden.  The new college gives us ample access to its massive parking block and plenty of glass facades right up to the lot line.  Uck.

In preparing to be interviewed by Lee about this building, I also took a look at its two contemporaries about a half mile east, Whitney M. Young Magnet High School (also 1971, by Perkins and Will) and the Chicago Police Training and Education Center, which I visited when it was new in 1976 (done by Gerald Butler, the city architect (NOT the Iceman!)).  Whitney Young is a great composition, which some observers preferred to Malcolm X because it better expressed the structural frame.

Whitney Young with sign

Yeah, okay, but structural expression is always applied anyway (if ya wanna be fireproof!) and I would rate both buildings as excellent examples of High Modernism.  Both buildings achieve unity, continuity and elegance because they pay attention to details and scale – which the many BAD Miesian knockoffs do not.  It is harder to work well in Modernism because there is no room for error when you are limiting your palette of materials and shapes.  Much easier the contemporary Victorian, where a mistake in scale or detail can be reduced by a bravado flourish elsewhere.

Police Academy corner

The Police Academy is the weakest of the three, with circular columns and a lot less glass, which makes sense for 1976, especially since at the time they stuck the old Haymarket Statue in the courtyard to prevent it being blown up all the time.

Malcolm X C entr sou

I will miss the iconic Malcolm X College, which is the most visible of the three, located along the Eisenhower Expressway and insistent in its rectilinear resolution, rhythmic resonance and clear continuity.  It will be a loss, not occasioned by the new college, nor by asbestos, but probably by the new Blackhawks training facility being built on its eastern half.  As I recall the Blackhawks were not very good in the 1970s…..

24 HOUR UPDATE:  In the last day we have had a call to demolish Summers’ best building – McCormick Place – as well as Governor Rauner’s call to demolish the Thompson Center (Helmut Jahn 1985).  This is a heck of a way to celebrate the Chicago Architecture Biennale – sort of like when we burned down 3 Louis Sullivan buildings in honor of his 150th birthday.

JANUARY UPDATE:  Well, Lee Bey documented the structure and it turns out the interior is/was SPECTACULAR, like Johnson Publications spectacular.  Go to to see the images.



Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois.


Last week.  Maybe next week too.

I have been involved in this house for a long time due to my Board service at both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and for the last couple years I have also served on the Technical Advisory Panel looking at flooding mitigation options for the Farnsworth House.  I have been a cheerleader for the process the National Trust has undertaken, and I have listened especially closely to the National Park Service, since it is essential in my mind that any actions taken insure we preserve the National Historic Landmark status of this iconic masterpiece of architecture.


I came into the process as a skeptic, not wanting to move or alter the house.  Let it flood, I said, taking a purist position.  It’s a submarine, I said.  I did not like the idea of moving it because we bought it in 2003 so it wouldn’t be moved away.  As Dirk Lohan (Mies’ grandson and an important architect in his own right) says, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that does not flood,

FH 2013 terrace hosue

I became convinced that the hydraulic option – putting the house on hydraulic jacks that would lift it out of harm’s way in the case of a flood – was the best preservation option, and I still believe that.  Doing nothing, I realized, relegated the house to the status of archaeological ruin.  But of course doing anything with a house of this international significance will cause some people to get their knickers in a twist, pressing upwards as they express objections to actions which could harm this landmark.  As all actions can.  As inaction will.

FH 2013 frontal

Doing nothing will do great harm to the building, and it is clear from the National Park Service and others that doing nothing is NOT a preservation option.  That is the archaeological ruin option.  Yesterday in the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin reported on what has happened in the last year as some preservationists – John Vinci in particular – have objected to the hydraulic option and forced the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois to investigate a new option – moving it almost half a mile to a new site on Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s property where it will 1.  flood less, 2. allow a reinterpretation of the original landscape, which was ruined by the introduction of a highway bridge in 1970, reimagined as a manicured landscape in the 1970s and 80s,  and altered by the loss of a sugar maple tree that framed the house in 2012.

fh f riverS

This tree is no more

Doing anything dramatic – and dramatic options are all that remain – will upset or excite people.  Look how the Miesians got upset about the new window stops at IIT Crown Hall – a quarter-inch slope meant that a NON-RIGHT ANGLE had been inserted, thus wrecking (??) Mies’ vision.

the bite

Don’t tell me you can’t see that.  Come on! 

Landmarks Illinois has to approve whatever solution obtains thanks to their preservation easement, and they will make the decision as a Board.  Thanks to local opposition, the National Trust is now looking at this new relocation option.  (Note:  I have not been on the Landmarks Illinois Board for two years)

cornfield bus

Like here.

I still prefer the hydraulic solution because it keeps the building in place.  I also reject the irresponsible claims by some that this technology is somehow a big deal.

About Hydraulics

Let me take you back to to 1854, when Elishu Otis demonstrated the safety elevator.  Hydraulics – which preceded Otis by a decade – powered that elevator.  His innovation was a brake.  Within a few years, hydraulics allowed tall buildings to be practical.  By 1882, four years before Ludwig Mies was born –  you had a company in London running high-pressure mains 184 miles powering some 8,000 elevators.  So if this 175-year old technology worries you, avoid elevators.

333 elev doors

You’ll never get me up in one of those things.

Hydraulic jack technology is older than the zipper, the typewriter (what’s that?) and the automobile.   As the great Bob Silman, who investigated ALL of these options, noted, we put our lives on hydraulics whenever we get on an airplane.  All those noises you hear?  Hydraulics.  Think of all the times you have flown and the hydraulics on the landing gear failed.  Go ahead.


Sorry I’m Amish.

Back to the Decision – and Owning It.

Indications are that this relocation option – like the hydraulic solution – will still meet the National Historic Landmark status requirements.  This is really important and a key factor in the decision in my view.  The relocation option also appears to have the favor of John Vinci – who has no official role in the process.  Landmarks Illinois DOES have a role in the process.   As soon as we at the National Trust present our preferred option Landmarks Illinois will need to make a decision, especially in light of the fact that we have investigated this new relocation option based on their reaction to the hydraulic option.

farnsworth11 grtS

I get it – I have been in this field for over 32 years.  I LOVE being in the John Vinci position of sniping and throwing brickbats against the powers that be, safely outside the decision-making process.  That’s what I did in my 20s, and that saved some buildings from uncaring owners or inconsiderate government entities.  But Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust quite literally TOOK OWNERSHIP of this house a dozen years ago and are now responsible – there is no one but ourselves to snipe and throw brickbats at.

farns living east1109p

Or stones.  Maybe I should have said stones.  It’s a glass house after all.

So my role of late has been to praise the process the National Trust has undertaken over the last three years and to insist that every organization involved take ownership of the eventual solution.  Landmarks Illinois has made this a Board decision as opposed to a decision of the Fund and Easements Committee.  Fine.  But no decision – like taking no action – is NOT an option.  That decision will likely not be comfortable, but I for one will own it.

farns bedroom1109s

You make your bed you sleep in it.

UPDATE:  A European perspective.  A couple of weeks later I was in Europe with a local preservation group in the Ossola Valley and an Irish ICOMOS Committee Chair.  I mentioned the Farnsworth House flooding problem and without context or prompt they both said, nearly in unison:  “Jack it up.”  This would not be a fraught issue in Europe.

Do you know the Bessemer process which allowed the industrial production of steel, which made the materials of the Farnsworth House possible is ALSO younger than hydraulics?  Don’t worry – the old technology will not be visible – just the purity of the Modern.

Resiliency and Climate Change

February 16, 2015

Last week in Colorado I showed two slides of the Farnsworth House, which I have been blogging about for a dozen years.  The first image came in the section of my talk about the Threats to our Heritage, such as Climate Change.  I had also showed images of it earlier in the week, when I participated in a Climate Change and Cultural Heritage conference in Pocantico, New York, with a whole variety of players, from colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Park Service, Society for American Archaeology, World Monuments Fund, English Heritage and many other, collected together by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  So here is the first slide, which is Farnsworth House experiencing a “100-year” flood for the first of three times in the last eight years.


I then showed another slide of the Farnsworth House later in the keynote with the caption “The Process of Preservation is Adaptive and Resilient” because I was talking about the only universal in cultural heritage conservation – the process – and I was deliberately framing the discussion in the necessary terms, which you will note say nothing about mitigation.

farns viw08flS

This is how we began our discussion a year ago with the Trustees of the National Trust, and while I was a facilitator of that discussion, I must credit Anthony Veerkamp for doing the research.  I then moderated a panel at the National Preservation Conference in Savannah on Climate Change, that included the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Park Service.  The Park Service is dealing with this issue, as is the DOD and everyone else, because the sea levels will rise 3 to 6 feet by the end of the century.

Shark fin cove framed

John Englander, who began the discussion in Savannah, works with communities around the country to plan for the sea level rise, and even frames the discussion as an opportunity to plan for something you know will occur as opposed to being caught off-guard.  The discussion is not about mitigation – that’s what reanimates the troglodytes – it is about adaptation and resiliency.  How do we adapt historic resources to new climatic realities?  How do we make our historic buildings and sites more resilient in the face of rising sea levels and increased frequency of extreme weather events?

Slawsons view napaS

and where you gonna plant grapes when Napa gets too hot?  (actually that is the trick – look where the big producers are buying land in Monterey County and you can see where your wine will come from in 2040)

Skipping over the mitigation question is not an evasion of responsibility, but the fact remains you could shut down every car and building in the world tomorrow and the sea level will still rise 3 to 6 feet by 2100.  And it is not an even situation, because how water flows and rises and falls is affected by all kinds of things.  So Manhattan is sitting on schist and actually in a pretty good situation, but MIami is sitting on some of the most porous limestone known, so even a braintrust of Dutch polderbuilders can’t make a levee that will save that.



hey at least they kinda look like boats

If you know about that stuff you realize that some of our own NorCal polders like Foster City are NOT sitting pretty, but interestingly the first place in Cali to get wet turns out to be Sacramento, 80 miles inland.  Geology ain’t simple, and neither are watersheds – just look at the Chicago River – has run west, east, and west again all since the Pyramids were built, and only that last shift was anthro-engineered.

Chgo River 614S

Now, if you have read my posts about the Farnsworth House, you will recall that I first approached it as we will no doubt need to approach many cultural heritage resources:  let them become the future of underwater archaeology.  Make decisions based on significance and community needs, and perform the unpleasant but necessary triage that will save some things with precision while allowing others to collapse into that state of romantic ruin that so inspired John Ruskin.

Fountains abbey cloister

It was a dissolute place anyway

Now, I changed my mind about the Farnsworth House because it is an amazing work of art and architecture and its value needs to be kept above water – although also in a floodplain, since its design makes no sense outside of a floodplain.  But we can’t elevate every landmark in the way of the water and we can’t move every lighthouse.  Some of it will be lost.  But, as Englander notes, we have the opportunity to plan for it over the coming decades – so there is that.  Some things, like my favorite National Historic Landmark from the 1880s – will be moved.



Others will be lost, partially or completely.  But the majority of the activity we will undertake in the coming decades will not be about radical saves or radical losses of cultural heritage.  It will be about how we make our heritage more resilient.  Just as this Beaux Arts gem was retrofitted to withstand seismic events, so too we will work to make our historic buildings more adaptable and resilient in the face of weather events and rising sea levels.

city hall3 S

As always, 19th century buildings will have the upper hand, since they were built in a time when they were viewed as moveable assets and 19th century North Americans had no problem shifting buildings around.  The oldest house I ever owned was built in 1872-73 but MOVED in 1878.  It’s still there, about 500 feet above sea level outside of Chicago.

915 snowS

There are whole cultures threatened by rising sea levels, and not just the various Polynesian islands soon to be inundated.  At our conference we had Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gulla Geechee nation on the Sea Islands off of Georgia and Florida.  A physical artifact can be made resilient and even adaptable, but how do living cultures respond when they are put in new environments?  As is our efforts to save cultural landscapes across the world (Global Heritage Fund), the challenge of preserving intangible heritage may be even greater than finding new techniques and new uses for buildings, sites and structures.

Preservation as Social Practice: Theaster Gates

June 13, 2014

Thanks to my dear friend Lisa Yun Lee I had the opportunity to tour three of Theaster Gates’ urban building projects on the South Side of Chicago yesterday. Gates has degrees in urban planning and ceramics, and is described as a social practice installation artist. He preserves old buildings in a creative repurposing for the local community. His work is not standard preservation, but I think that is a good thing. The first project I saw was the Stony Island Arts Bank, a 1923 Classical bank I watched deteriorate for decades. He saved it.
SIAB acrossS
SIAB columnsS
The mixed-use plan includes an incubator for local black businesses, a performance space, and even a bar in the basement vault, which is too cool.
SIAB vault
SIAB vault doorS
Apparently there are firms that specialize in restoring old bank vaults!

His approach is to save what historic elements are there, but not necessarily to replace missing pieces, an approach that reveals the layers of history, rejoices in the patina of age but also celebrates the value markers of re-use and present purpose.
SIAB cofferS
For example, he will save the surviving plaster of the coffered bank ceiling but will not replicate the missing pieces, blending in plain plaster (by a real plasterer!) making past and present visible.
SIAB transom extS
Original iron griffin transom above entrance which had later been covered.
SIAB 3rd flr wallS
Surviving third floor wall finishes that will be preserved.
Gates has created a design build not-for-profit that executes his projects, which use the city and its artifacts as a palette for an art practice that strives to provide for the community through libraries of books and records, studios and gathering spaces. Gates follows a long tradition of saving buildings, but not in an architecturally pure manner. He also saves materials and recycles them in other buildings. We visited his Dorchester Projects, started five years, ago, which have grown from two buildings to incorporate much of a once forelorn block in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood.
TG Dorchester AsTG Dorchester BsTB Dorchester bokintS
Lotsa books
We then visited his own studio, in an historic Anheuser-Busch building on Kimbark Avenue. I was amazed by the re-use of various features like industrial doors, including a bunch that had been made into a built-in bar, the sensitivity to layering surviving elements while signifying replacement pieces in various ways.
TG Kimbark ctydS
Gates has a great sensitivity to the richness of materials, telling me about how he would plane certain wood planks for re-use while retaining the imperfections of others, based on his own sensitivities to the material. We talked about the value of craft, about the Asian approach to preservation that focuses on process and performance rather than materiality and the paper architectural design as the original.
TG Kimbark cornerS
TG Kimbark magsS
TG Kimbark mex doorsSTG Kimbark Johnson booksS
Gates has also preserved other things, such as the John Johnson (Ebony/Jet) Publications archive, which he acquired when the firm sold its building on Michigan Avenue to Columbia College. I shared my own connection – my grandfather was a printer who worked with Johnson when he was starting in the 1940s.
Too often preservation has gotten a bad rap because it is seen as too precious, too focused on rules and regulations. I told Theaster that one of my first blogs nearly nine years ago was called Heresy and Apostasy because I had a broad, inclusive view of preservation and was regarded by some as heretical. My view of preservation has always been that it is about a community determining what elements of the past it wants to bring into the future, and yes, there needs to be professional and creative guidance for that process, but why can’t an urban planner/artist achieve that vision as well as an architectural historian like myself? Theaster Gates has done this in a manner that promotes the ongoing creative recycling not simply of buildings, materials, and artifacts, but the city itself.

The most poignant recalling of that fact was when we drove from the bank building to Dorchester and passed St. Laurence Church, in the process of demolition. Gates is recycling the bricks.
St. Laurence demo2s

You can argue about various approaches to preservation but there is no argument that once a building is lost it is lost…

Farnsworth House 2014

May 14, 2014

I have been involved with Mies van der Rohe’s famous Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois for over a decade. I recall vividly the day (December 12, 2003) Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation successfully bid on the house at Sotheby’s in New York, saving it from the possibility of being dismantled and moved to another place. Like all great architecture, the Farnsworth House was designed for its specific location along the Fox River, and this context is part of its significance.
farnsworth11 grtS
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou are more lovely and more tempered…
distant viewS

Now, that context has been altered many times. Dr. Edith Farnsworth, who commissioned the house in 1946, moved in (weekends) in 1951 and used it for twenty years, basically kept the wild landscape. When the state condemned part of her land and built a noisy road and bridge near the house in the early 1970s, she sold it to Lord Peter Palumbo, who planted trees to screen the road, landscaped the whole grounds with Lanning Roper into more of the traditional lawn we see today. Then, to top it off, the tree that framed the house from the river side finally totally died and was removed.

with tree 2011
FH 2013 straight
without tree, 2013

But the biggest problem has been the flooding, which thanks to development upriver, has seen the houses inundated by three 100-year floods in the last 18 years. So, we at the National Trust assembled the best minds in the business in terms of architecture and engineering, to come up with a plan to help protect the house from flooding. My initial response, seen in my blog last November, was: it’s a submarine. Mies designed it for a floodplain. Let it flood and keep fixing it. As Mies’ grandson Dirk Lohan, who restored the house after the most disastrous flood in 1996, said, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that doesn’t flood.

fh angl f riv
It was Lohan who suggested what has now become the preferred alternative: To create a system of hydraulic jacks that would raise the house out of harm’s way with the onset of Fox River flooding. In short, to turn it into a lowrider.

FH 2013 frontal
where do I put the speakers? and how do I pop the clutch?

Another option was to move it to higher ground. The biggest problem with this option is that higher ground is pretty far away and thus you lose the context which caused you to save it in the first place. You get back to the Dirk Lohan problem: the building makes no sense if it is located in a place that doesn’t flood. That’s why it is sitting on stilts.
FH 2013 best
c’mere gorgeous

The other option, which some preservationists prefer, is to raise the ground it is sitting on, so it is closer to the river but 7 feet higher. This is actually just as expensive as the other options, if not more so, and arguably changes the context much more. Plus, you get the classic problem involved in all restoration decisions: what are the logistics of doing it? Preliminary investigations show that that much landfill isn’t even available, and the slope down to the river would alter the view from inside, which is kind of the whole point.
FH 2013 lvg room
i want a doctor to take your picture

All three options pretty much involve some disassembling and moving of the building. The submarine option is the only one that doesn’t, and given that floods will only get worse given all the factors causing them, constant restoration could easily cost more over the long run. So I was persuaded that Lohan’s plan, which has now been studied by Bob Silman, who is the best, is the preferred option. I gave up on the submarine.
farns lvg to deck1109s
but I will never give up on my love…

If we have to pull it apart and reassemble to some degree, it should be on the same spot and ideally in the same context. The hydraulic option offers this, although as always the devil will be in the details, such as do you leave the terrace under water or raise it too? If so, how do you deal with the point where the house joins the terrace?
FH 2013 travertn
how do I love thee? let me count the welds…

Another option discussed has been a bladder system that would use the power of the flooding water to raise the house, kind of like the giant styrofoam tubes that keep boat docks floating. Again, the excavation requires temporarily relocating the house, but there is another problem – a bladder system – like a temporary dike that would rise up and surround the house – would be subject to 600 psi of pressure from the floodwaters – not true for the hydraulic jack and truss system.

FH 2013 forest vw

I came into this project a skeptic (as did many others on the panel) and I am now convinced that the best preservation solution that conserves both the architecture and the site that the architecture was designed to feature is the hydraulic jack option. The others seem less secure (bladder/dam) or more damaging to the design (raising/relocating).

FH 1011 views

The decision has already gone through several fora and will go through several more before it is finalized. Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune summarized the options and the Trust approach in an excellent article a few weeks ago. Beyond the decision is of course the very big question of funding what will be a multi-million dollar project. Who knows, the result may prove useful for other architectural icons as the world’s oceans rise…

FH 2013 terrace hosue
i will raise you up. i will protect and cherish you….

The Architecture of Barry Byrne

June 30, 2013

Today marks my first full year in California, but it also marks a week since the publication of my book The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe with Photography by Felicity Rich (University of Illinois Press, 2013). This book was 15 years in the making, and indeed the stunning cover photo was taken by Felicity in 1998 in Cork, Ireland.

Christ the King altar, Cork by Felicity Rich

Christ the King altar, Cork by Felicity Rich

copyright 1998 Felicity Rich

In addition to Felicity and her family, there are many people thanked in the acknowledgements and I can remember endless hours at the Chicago History Museum poring through hundreds of Byrne’s files. Many of my own relatives and colleagues took photos of Byrne’s buildings on their travels, because they tend to be far flung. Without a grade school diploma he learned architecture in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio between 1902 and 1908. Byrne decided to be a diehard modernist and he ended up focusing on Catholic buildings, including churches. These two decision were somewhat mutually exclusive during the half-century he worked, especially the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Here are examples of how far-flung his great works are:

Cork, Ireland, (1931) 2007 photo by Eiliesh Tuffy

ctk int S
Tulsa, Oklahoma, (1928), 2008 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

fr holy redeemer72
Windsor, Ontario, (1957), 2003 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Albuquerque, New Mexico, (1916), 2002 photo copyright Katherine Shaughnessy

Park Ridge
Park Ridge, Illinois, (1923), 2007 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

SCSP side ent3
St. Paul, Minnesota, (1951), 2007 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Seattle, Washington, (1912), 2011 photo copyright Felicity Rich

Pierre, South Dakota, (1942), 2002 photograph copyright Katherine Shaughnessy

St. Thomas roofline75
Chicago, Illinois (1924), 2003 photo copyright Felicity Rich

Franke House
Mason City, Iowa, (1916), 2012 photo by me.

St. Pat's Racine copy
Racine, Wisconsin, (1925), 2003 photo copyright Felicity Rich

rich house garden side2
Keokuk,Iowa, (1919), 2011 photograph by me.

atchison sml
Atchison, Kansas, (1961), period photography by Barry Byrne Family

Glencoe, Illinois (1928), photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2002

Kansas City, Missouri, (1950), 2009 photo copyright Felicity Rich

st. pat's school racine75
Racine, Wisconsin, (1928), 2003 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

st. patrick's choir loft75
London, Ontario, (1952), 2003 photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Chicago, Illinois (1919), 2002 photograph copyright Felicity Rich.

This is the first book on Barry Byrne and it has a hell of a lot of footnotes and enough pictures that you can follow the interesting architectural arc of a modernist artist, commentator and thinker.

You can order the book here.

Modern and Ancient, my Whirled in Views

February 7, 2013

As the Executive Director of the Global Heritage Fund I deal with many ancient sites, including one of the most ancient, the religious complex being excavated by the Deutsche Archaeologische Institut at Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, where stone columns carved with animals form intriguing ringed structures that predate Stonehenge by 6,000 years. This is not only ancient, it is more ancient than almost any other site people are preserving. I am honored to be involved in this.
Klaus-Peter Simon_2012

But as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Board Member of Landmarks Illinois, I am dealing with lots of modern artifacts, including the justifiably famous Prentice Women’s Hospital, a 1975 landmark that marked the first deployment of computer-aided design and crafted concrete cantilevers known for their beauty as well as their ability to hold a 45-foot projection. Bertrand Goldberg – whom I met – designed the building in his famous ‘flower petal’ mode and I have blogged about it many times before. Here. And here. And here. And way back here over two years ago. Which just goes to show you that preservationists are not always slow on the draw. We had the drop on the bumbling owner (Northwestern University) by, like EIGHT YEARS. Their clout might well prevail, but they definitely showed up late and unprepared.

The denouement, a court-ordered second hearing on landmark status and denial, will be held today, February 7, 2013.
prentice 1009s

Okay, time for ancient again. One of our cool sites here at Global Heritage Fund (you can JOIN here.) is El Mirador, a 2,500 year old pre-Classic Mayan site in Guatemala. Led by Dr. Richard Hansen, the conservation of this site includes one of the world’s largest pyramids and a massive frieze uncovered by Hansen’s team. The project also preserves a unique and rich biosphere that surrounds the site, enveloping it in dense jungle.

And now back to modern. I was just reading about the people who bought the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Arizona and wanted to demolish it because it sits on two lots and they could make a lot of money developing the land. Their attitude was that the building is a lovely landmark, but they need their money. Which is in my view a dramatic misunderstanding of capitalism. Capitalism is not a system that guarantees a profit: it is a system that may reward risk with profit; may reward investment with return; and may reward hard work with leisure. But it doesn’t guarantee that. That would be socialism or something. I used to have a hard time explaining to my students that real estate values didn’t always go up – because they had lived in a time when real estate values always went up. This gave them a skewed vision of history, which 2007 quickly corrected. Also, the owners whined and whinged that landmarking affected their property value negatively, without noting the irony that zoning into two lots had artificially inflated their property value. Both are government actions that affect the marketplace.
waller 98 2844s
Here is a Frank Lloyd Wright Building I bought for $1 twenty years ago. I paid at least $40,000 too much. But I didn’t whine about it. Maybe I should have. The Arizona housenappers got paid.
CM allen hs 1863s
This house cost $10,000 to build in 1863. It sold for less than $4,000 40 years later. That’s how history and economy work.

The challenge for all of historic preservation/heritage conservation is the challenge of adaptive re-use: How do you make a cultural artifact viable for the present and future social economy of a place? Every use is an adaptive re-use: the most primitive is the museum (even though museums as a concept are less than 300 years old). We think that this is preserving a house or an archaeological site just as it was but in fact it is repurposing it: it is making it into a museum.
glessner viewS
Dear old Glessner House, Chicago
Dear old Hanyangling archaeological site, Shaanxi

Museums are not a great business model, so at GHF we are always looking for more economic variety and vitality in our projects. Ways to rekindle economic engines. Sitting in the heart of Silicon Valley, that approach to re-use seems to me more possible than ever. I live in an economy of ideas and technology, where fortunes are made not by the crude manipulation of matter into universal type-needs, but by the creative manipulation of concepts into new types of action and interaction that redefine not simply how we live but what we live and why we live.
virtuous real estateS
And unlike Arizona, our real estate is virtuous.

The internet (where you are right now) means people can live in many places, and while the value of face-to-face easily trumps online, we are finally living in the world that Morse promised over 150 years ago, where place becomes more of a choice for a significant portion of the population. And thus PLACE becomes not only the most valuable consumer item, but a key economic generator. And historic artifacts are a key – often the dominant one – to the iconography and desirability and thus the price – of PLACE.
from front doorS
Nice weather helps.

But isn’t ancient more important than modern? It is older, after all, right?
the view84s
N gate best
The top picture depicts a site that is newer and younger than the lower picture.

Bund E
robie sideS
Same here.

And here.

History is not arithmetic. 3000 years old is not three times as good as 1000 years old, and for that matter, 100 year old is not twice as good as 50 years old. Of course “age” figures into it, but so does “significance.” There are sites that have had massive impact on millions of people that are relatively modern, and there are corresponding ancient sites that have affected only a small number. More intriguingly for some of our GHF sites, we do NOT YET KNOW the impact of some of these places until we research them further. Marcahuamachuco in Peru is one example I mentioned last fall.
monjas B or C
this place, remember?

In addition to age value, we art value and historical value, which apply to some of the architectural landmarks pictured above. These values, handed down to us most notably by Alois Riegl (who wrote in 1903, making him twice as important as Hosmer who wrote 50 years later – JK!) have been at the center of heritage conservation discourse for a while. Riegl distinguished between a small number of historic monuments preserved essentially as museums, and the more common practice of adaptive re-use for the cultural landscape as a whole. He also recognized “newness value,” which is sort of the “next shiny thing” value because it describes our species obsession with novelty.
South St colorful3
old is new again

Each of these values can contribute – in different amounts – to the value of a PLACE, and I think ultimately that is the goal of our science, our mission. At Global Heritage Fund we recognize that conservation of heritage is about engaging and improving the lives of those who live around that heritage. We recognize that how heritage is preserved is part conservation science and part economic development. And we also know that when things are conserved in this way, they last.

California and Chicago: Beauty and the Beast

September 2, 2012

California is a fiction and a romance, indeed it takes its name from a novel of an exotic utopia, and since the earliest European encounter, it has been a place where dreams come real, from the dreams of missionaries and miners to the visions of moviemakers and microcomputer mavens that continue to radiate around the world.

traffic is a drag in both places, but here you get this to look at

Chicago is a fiction too, but it is less wish-fulfillment and more film noir, captured pretty persuasively in Call Northside 777 with the great Jimmy Stewart. Titans of industry fulfilled their dreams of filthy lucre there, as did the gangsters. Today it is an international destination as well known for art food and music as it once was for smokestacks and blind pigs, but it will never be confused with the sun-kissed valleys and tree-bedecked mountains of the Golden State.

35 years ago I rode the train, one of the last with the domed observation cars for my first visit to the Bay Area and I
passed through again a decade later following ten months of backpacking through Asia and I decided I wanted to live here.

It took another quarter century, but here I am still preserving landmarks and giving bus tours and reflecting on the connections between Chicago and California, which have special significance to one who has spent a career in history and the conservation of the built environment.

Frank Lloyd Wright in downtown San Francisco

That California architecture and city planning have a strong connection to Chicago is perhaps obvious, because almost every place has a connection to Chicago in this regard: it is a root source of modern architecture and city planning.

Daniel Burnham, who unlike many of the great 19th century Chicago architects was actually born in the city, is known here best for his pioneering city plan for San Francisco, delivered moments before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Willis Polk, who trained in Burnham’s office, is credited with rebuilding the City By The Bay. The Civic Center in San Francisco is perhaps the clearest evidence of Burnham’s influence, although one of the Golden State’s prized scientific landmarks also has a Burnham connection.

In 1890 Burnham designed this handsome Romanesque home for William Ellery Hale. Appended thereon was an observatory for the younger Hale to experiment with his interest in astronomy. He later went to California (I can see why – stars fill the clear skies above my mountain home) and Mount Palomar to build the much larger telescopes of the famed Hale Observatory.

Burnham’s contemporary “Chicago School” architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright also had a deep influence on California, training Myron Hunt, who helped build Pasadena with the Greene Brothers and designed the Rose Bowl as well as other notable structures statewide. Another Sullivan protégé, Irving Gill, went to California for his health in 1893 and developed perhaps the most prescient examples of austere Modernism in Southern California in the 1910s.

Myron Hunt’s house in Pasadena

Gill’s Christian Science church. 1909!

Gill’s buildings had a strong influence on Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentice Barry Byrne (my book is coming out next year by University of Illinois Press), during a sojourn in Los Angeles following four years in Seattle. While Byrne built no buildings there, he did meet his lifelong collaborator Alfonso Iannelli there while rooming with Wright’s two sons. Lloyd Wright went on to be one of Southern California’s most important architects. Austrian expatriate Richard Neutra helped revolutionize modern architecture in Southern California following a stint with Wright in Oak Park.

Byrne on left, Lloyd Wright second from right.

For almost two decades I did Literary tours of Chicago which featured the Frank Norris novel “The Pit: A Story of Chicago” with its descriptions of the pure venality of commodity trading. Born in Chicago, Norris moved to San Francisco as a teenager and was as wowed by the amber waves of the Central Valley as he was of the bare-knuckle trading in the Pit, and first wrote a book about that source of grain The Octopus, a Story of California. A planned trilogy that would have described the arrival of the brokered grain in famine-stricken Europe (to be called The Wolf) was halted by Norris’ death at age 32.

Another Literary Chicago stalwart was of course Upton Sinclair, whose famed 1906 novel The Jungle helped reform the meat packing industries in Chicago. A tireless reformer, Sinclair followed the trail to California in 1915 where he ran for governor three times, in 1926 and 1930 as a Socialist and made an epic run of it in 1934 as a Democrat, all while writing nearly 90 books.

I read a California history by Kevin Starr which claims that organized labor’s effort to legislate the 8-hour workday began in the Golden State in the 1860s but of course I always thought it was in Chicago during that same decade. More certain is the founding of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) in Chicago in 1905, the first group to attempt to unionize the migrant farm workers that remain a political issue today.

Even the starlet of California’s industrial and cultural production – Hollywood – had Chicago roots in the film studios of William Selig and Essanay (George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson). They had chosen Chicago to avoid the zealous attorneys of Thomas Edison, who was trying to corner the film market Pit-style, and soon decided California was even farther from the process servers. Plus you could film outside all of the time and it didn’t get cold, a fact that made Charlie Chaplin’s 1914 Chicago relocation chillingly brief.

All of this occurred to me as I strolled the lovely campus of Stanford University with Yi David Wang, who did his undergraduate work at my alma mater, the University of Chicago. I noted Stanford was designed by Henry Hobson Richardson’s successor firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in a Romanesque style inflected by the Mission vernacular of California. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed much of the Gothic University of Chicago, as well as the Classical Beaux Arts Art Institute and Cultural Center.

So here I am in Silicon Valley where dreams get engineered into reality, bouyed by money that bears no relationship to rational economics. We are trying to tap into this dream engine to help transform communities in the developing world by conserving their heritage, heritage that has outstanding universal value but also real tangible, social and economic value. It is the gritty practicality of Chicago and the visionary reality of California, broadcast for an overseas market just like pork bellies and motion pictures.

Save Prentice Movement Grows

July 27, 2012

“But just as a patient expects his doctor to pull out all stops in search of a cure, Northwestern must pursue every avenue before daring to raze one of Chicago’s architectural and engineering treasures.

We don’t think they’re trying hard enough. Surely, there’s a solution.”

That is from an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday, one of several actions that have ramped up the pressure on Northwestern University to explain why it needs to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s pathbreaking 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital, which I have been writing about here for over two years. The first building to use computers in aid of its design, Prentice is a song, a crescendo of 45-foot concrete cantilevers twirling into a quatrefoil of cylindrical skin delicately punched with ovals, a bold sculpture on a base that makes the regular buildings around it look dull-witted.

The architecture geeks have loved this building for a while, and of course I announced its ascension to the National Trust Eleven Most Endangered List a little over a year ago.

Then recently a posse of high profile architects, from Jeanne Gang to Frank Gehry joined the chorus. Then today Landmarks Illinois President Bonnie McDonald and Zurich Esposito of the AIA had an Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. As they say “In commissioning its new building for obstetrics, Northwestern Memorial Hospital sought to incorporate new ideas about women and childbirth. Goldberg’s design took these ideas and ran with them. The building’s floor plan made a family-oriented childbirth experience possible; fathers could be present for labor and delivery. In addition, the floor plan allowed nurses to be closer to patient rooms and have better lines of sight, improving women’s care.”

This social history is embedded in the building quite literally. And, as I pointed out two years ago, it is still cutting-edge: Bus kiosks in Chicago advertise the same cloverleaf plan used by the latest 2012 hospital building on the west side. What is old is new again.

Yes, but the building can’t be re-used, they say. Then how come Landmarks Illinois put together THREE DIFFERENT re-use scenarios for the building? Re-use requires more thinking and design skill, but why is that bad?

Heck, even if you don’t give a fig about architecture, why would anyone want ANOTHER VACANT LOT in what is rapidly becoming a Gobi Desert off North Michigan Avenue? Plus, there is NOTHING green about kicking up tons of dust dismantling a perfectly serviceable building, burning acres of gas trucking it 100 miles to a landfill, and then kicking up more dust and trees and gravel and sand and gasoline and uranium to make a new one.

I even spent the year scouting other locations for Northwestern, like this one that provides the same property tax revenue to the City of Chicago.

The problem for Northwestern is that they took a position that they could take as an 800-pound gorilla with huge economic and political clout. But they have been faced with intelligent arguments about the significance of the building, re-use and sustainable urbanism and they have not responded intelligently. Time to stop being a gorilla, guys.


The other shoe has finally fallen. Almost 20 years ago I noticed that the “bad guys” in preservation battles had stopped being real estate developers, in part because so many of them recognized the marketing and branding value of old buildings, and some of them had figured out how to make the various tax benefits work. The bad guys, by the early 90s, were increasingly not-for-profit institutions, especially those that needed land to maintain their fundraising – like universities and hospitals. So, while we might laud the Sun-Times (while slamming the Trib – goodbye subscription!) and the architects who joined Frank Gehry, and the great Paul Goldberger, let’s raise a toast to developer Paul Beitler, who just came out in favor of saving Prentice.

Northwestern is holding tight and pushing out its magical jobs and investment numbers. And claiming the building is obsolete. Get it straight: this is not about obsolescence. It isn’t even about jobs and investment (this is not the only vacant block in the immediate vicinity, much less the neighborhood or city). It is about more profits to a not-for-profit that is worth $7 billion dollars.

No wonder they think they always get their way.

August 26 Update: Great article from Cheryl Kent today.
August 27 Update: Crain’s Chicago Business Editorial says NO to Northwestern’s demolition plan, calls them out for phoning it in….
August 28 Update: Deanna Isaacs in the Reader also calls out Northwestern for their addled response/justification. Why does someone with $7 billion play dimestore PR?

September 18 UPDATE: Now, like four years later, Northwestern decides to announce a design competition for its unfunded, unplanned, supposed research center, as reported in the Tribune today. Meanwhile, the last two famous architects who hadn;t yet joined the Save Prentice Movement signed up – Renzo Piano and Kevin Roche. At the risk of repeating myself a month later, how does one of the richest (non-profit) corporations in the state excuse such a lame, unprepared, unreasoned and transparently facetious public relations strategy?

It really isn’t fair. On the one side you have architects, urbanists, and re-use studies, and on the other side you have a schoolyard bully whose best attempt to verbalize his rage comes out as a whining “Unh-Unh!!”


Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sided with Northwestern and demolition. So that does it. I will give the Mayor $5 for every job created on that site prior to his next election, not including demolition and landscaping.

You should see the landscaping they are planning for the site!!! It. is. SO. GREAT!