Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Upcoming Lectures

May 3, 2009

This Thursday night I will be the after-dinner speaker for Quincy’s 20th Annual Preservation Dinner, doing a reprise of a talk on “50 years of Chicago historic districts” I did for the Traditional Building Show at Navy Pier last fall. It will be a great opportunity for me to see the incredible preservation story that is Quincy, a town with a wealth of downtown and residential landmarks.
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The following weekend I will be at the National Trust Board meetings in Kansas City, and speaking on “Barry Byrne: His Architecture and the Design for St. Francis Xavier” at St. Francis Xavier Church, 1001 East 52nd Street in Kansas City. The lecture is Saturday May 16 at 7:30 PM preceded by organ music starting at 7:00 PM.

Mumford House Saved!

March 11, 2009

Wow! Somehow, the letters to the Trustees and the continued support of Landmarks Illinois, The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and tireless local preservationists Alice Novak and Karen Kummer, the Mumford House on the U of I campus – its oldest and most original building from 1869 – was saved by the Trustees in Board meeting this morning. I was most pleasantly shocked by this news and kudos go to Alice and Karen and Jim Peters at Landmarks Illinois and Jan Grimes at IHPA and Chairman Shah and Trustees Vickrey and Schmidt and Carroll. Thanks also to Susan Appel for reading my letter (blog below on January 14 2009) into the record back in January. This is a great victory for common sense, historic context. Thanks to the University of Illinois Trustees!
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A New Birth of Freedom

January 20, 2009

You have to really, really cling to an anti-historical ideology not to be excited today. I am currently in the ballroom of the 112 S, Michigan Avenue building, the 1908 Illinois Athletic Club by Barnett Haynes & Barnett of St. Louis (with a major remodeling in the 1910s?) where I am watching, along with a couple hundred other SAIC faculty, staff and students, the Inauguration.

Indescribable emotions. The only Chicagoan ever elected President. Perhaps the first preservationist – he was known for his support of preservation in the Illinois General Assembly and Michelle Obama was on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The first President of my generation after years of being the shadow of those Baby Boomers. Not to mention the whole African ancestry thing. So nice to finally put the lie to race, that artificial construct. Do you know that in the famous Supreme Court case upholding segregation – 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson – they couldn’t even tell Plessy was black by sight? I remember the excitement of electing Harold Washington Mayor of Chicago 25 years ago. I felt proud then and I feel proud now. Pride is a human emotion based on association, not biology. This Spring I am doing a series of community tour designs in various Chicago neighborhoods and one thing I have always noticed about people in communities is how they feel personal ownership and pride in their community history – even if that history had no direct connection to personal “heritage.” I remember being in Miami at my first National Trust conference 17 years ago, being auctioned off at the Preservation Action auction as a guide for a tour of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, complete with brunch at Gladys’, now sadly gone. This is my history too, and I know I will find that ecumenical outlook among the community activists we will be working with this Spring. I get excited about all sorts of Chicago history, about all the layers of history in these streets.

Do you think it’s just me? I get proud of places I have adopted, from Leeds to Weishan, and I boast about them. Maybe it is an American thing, a nation born as an idea more than a place, because the place was contingent and fugitive, even perhaps for the first Americans who came 14,000 years ago, and then for the denizens of Europe and Africa who followed more than 13,000 years later, framing a nation without a heritage, without a land or a race really, without all those artificial constructs the Enlightenment was promoting in order to grease the skids for capitalism and industrialization. A paradox, really, a nation founded on Enlightenment ideals that had no roots and struggled to make the sort of artificial roots the Enlightenment was promoting. Heck, Plessy v. Ferguson was a twisted attempt at those roots. How exciting to be here in a time and place to witness the historicity of an idea; the culmination of a promise.

I am fond of saying that all ideology is wrong, because it is static and history is dynamic. But there are ideas that motivate and inspire and have agency in history. They exist on both sides, those pushing us toward peace and unity and those pushing us toward division and hate. It is so very wonderful to see the good ideas arriving on the stage of history and the humanity that made this possible. Here he comes.

Context

January 14, 2009

Context is everything. It is the reason we bought the Farnsworth House five years ago – because it was going to be ripped out of its historic context – the site it was designed for, the place where its history happened. There are some monuments and buildings that are incredible works of art and some have been moved AWAY from their context in order to save that art. My first memory of a National Geographic cover was the moving of Abu Simbel for the Aswan dam. But something is lost, even when a great work of art is subjected to this sort of move in order to save SOME of it.
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The Mumford House is not a great work of art, but it is a fantastic piece of history. It is a remnant of the experimental south farms of the campus, and they even preserve some crop fields nearby as well, or they did a couple of years ago. The oldest structure on the U of I campus in Champaign, the house is the remnant of the campus’ earliest history. It can only effectively represent that history WHERE IT IS. This significance saved the building in the past but now the bosses want to move it to a site miles away where it can be forgotten. And where it will lose much of its value. There is a hearing next week – January 22 – where you can try to explain to the powers that be that this is a bad idea. Or check out the Landmarks Illinois link to make your views known.
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Most people don’t get it. I have seen many houses moved to save them, but in every case something was lost, and that something was historic context. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, various historical societies and industrialists like Henry Ford began collecting historic buildings into petting zoos of history and architecture. There was some value in that, but A LOT LESS VALUE than saving something where it happened.

The shocking thing about the Mumford House is that the preservation planner for the U of I endorsed the move as quickly as the FDA approved Viagra (It does what? No, we don’t need tests – that is SO approved!). God knows why. This has led a lot of otherwise thoughtful people to assume that this is a preservation decision and that moving the building – AND giving it to a department that doesn’t want it for a use that doesn’t exist – is saving it. In fact, it is hiding it in a corner where it can be subject to further abuse. In this case, context is everything. You move it, you lose it.

A New Day Dawns

November 5, 2008

grt-park11408-50As I have gotten older, I have been less concerned about being part of historic moments, but thanks to alums Mira Patel and Ben Roberts, both daughters Felicity and Alexandra were able to come to Grant Park with Mom and Dad last night and be part of an amazing moment in American history.
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Alex as cheerleader for Obama

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the girls were media hounds for local and foreign press

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Felicity and Felicity dance in Grant Park while the whole world was watching. There was no fear, no panic, no chaos but hope incarnate and an American dream not deferred but realized.

When I was young I read comic books, and there was a Catholic comic, Treasure Chest, that ran a serial about the election of the first African-American president. I can still remember that comic book and last night I watched it come true.

10 most 2008

April 2, 2008



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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Today Landmarks Illinois released its 10 Most Endangered Landmarks list for the state, which includes two iconic sports stadia from two eras: Wrigley Field from 1914 and the U of I’s flying-saucer-like Assembly Hall from 1963. Wrigley has been in the news because of the endless string of trial balloons being floated by Tribune owner and 1980s real estate baron Sam Zell, who wants to sell the park and thus floated a balloon saying “Relax landmark status” which got a cold shudder from Mayor Daley and today’s listing.

The idea that you need to relax landmark status must be born of ignorance: WITH landmark status Wrigley just expanded its bleachers onto the sidewalk and it could easily dig out the dugouts, which are comically small. They could probably even wedge more skyboxes in. Has Zell seen all the Chicago Landmarks façade projects underweay? Did they think this one through or do any homework?

I don’t go to sporting events much anymore, partly because I’m old but partly because they used to be about the sweaty reality of sport and the stadiums reflected that: cold, dingy forests of I-beams rank with bodily excretions and excitement. Now they are high-style, quiet penthouse suites with dessert carts, wall-to-wall carpeting and anime athletes on Jumbotrons, adopting comic book superhero poses until the ACLs pop. In contrast, I think of Lou Gehrig’s hands, a jumble of dozens of untreated fractures and a paycheck that couldn’t keep him from summer barnstorming.

There. I got romantic and nostalgic. But I know that world is long gone. So, switch to hard-nosed economics: Modern sports are segregated by class. The rich watch from suites in the park while the punters watch on TV. Stadium revenue consists of these two streams: skyboxes and TV rights. The grandstands and bleachers that defined historic sports stadiums are basically obsolete, unnecessary and perhaps uneconomic features that require monetization through devices like Soldier Field’s seat licenses.

Assembly Hall is another story all together, what with its Jetsonian modernity. Yet it is also obsolete. Yesterday we heard about Lake Meadows from the Draper and Kramer group, and those 1950s buildings are obsolete as well. This should not surprise us, since obsolescence was in fact a GOAL of all industrial production in the 1950s and 1960s, as it is today.

Preservation, the sweet science of sustainability, rejects that goal. It is our challenge to find new uses for old buildings because they give us knowledge, identity, and free materials. That old 1914 fossil is essentially the same challenge as that 1963 fossil: to beat back built-in obsolescence and craft communities with continuity.

I’m still moving

March 27, 2008

Well, first they moved my office, then I moved my home, and now they are moving my blog. I have to write this to initiate the process and hopefully 200 old posts will follow.

Thought for Thursday March 27 2008. My beer club sent a half-sized newsletter claiming it was using less paper and is therefore greener. They then sent an email suggesting that future newsletters be pdfs which is even more environmentally friendly.

My response? Is it really more sustainable to rely on computers, which run on non-renewable coal, rather than paper, which is renewable and made from trees?

India

January 18, 2008



IIM lib helical stair4s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Ashok Damani and his son Kirat gave me a Sri Ganesh, which I figure will be helpful in trying to sell the old house and survive the acquisition of the new one- maybe better than St. Joseph. It was only four days in India, with a day of arduous travel each way but it was worth it. I shared the keynote address task for the Heritage Conservation: Indo-American Perspective conference with Balkrishna Doshi, a most famous Indian architect and a trusted assistant to both Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. I toured ancient monuments with the incomparable Yatin Pandya, a creative architect in his own right who has built entire buildings of recycled materials yet can describe the haptic and kinesthetic experience of a 15th century stepwell or 16th century mosque like no one else. The gift of observation cycling into the gift of creative appropriation of space, and he took us at dusk to Sharkez Roza, which Le Corbusier described as more magnificent than the Acropolis, a series of buildings regular and irregular around an artificial lake and we rowed through still moonlit waters. I toured the IIM with Prof. Vasavada who assisted Kahn on the construction of that masterpiece and I listened in great detail as Vasavada described the difficulty of bending the stair rail for the helical descent through the library. I was given the task of summarizing the entire conference for Dr. Kapila Vastyayan at the end of two days and I talked about the cyclicity of time which is truly a helicity and how the challenges of conservation/preservation in terms of economics and building a mass movement and public support are the same in India and the US. I was impressed by stories of community building through preservation in Ahmedabad and more impressed by how India has a craft tradition to build on so that when Nimish Patel and Parul Zaveri – sustainability architects of the first order – could employ 300 craftsmen for 3 years to construct a new building using only traditional methods, something we could never do in a nation of 300 million where I challenge you to find 300 traditional craftsmen. Mostly it was about recycling, about how time and life moves, truly in an Indian sense, in circular motions, and how our economy has been falsely and non-sustainably based on linear notions, and how preservation/conservation is the essence of recycling and essential to building a future economy that makes sense. But it is more than living and bread alone – as Debashish Nayak said, heritage conservation is not only the key to sustainable human development – it is the key to our identity. Without it you are no one.

right now

January 13, 2008

the wheel is in spin but I am sitting in the axle, a whirling shopping mall revolving around the Starbucks at the center of the transit lounge in Heathrow, stuck for six and a half hours on my way to Ahmedabad, sampling the Scapa (even smaller distillery in Orkney than the Erdadour, which is Lowland I think), watching the world’s most amazing parade of humanity and hoping to a pantheon that I can get an aisle seat for the next eight hours. The spinning wheel is something called STUFF, and the great Chicago preservation architect Gunny Harboe sent a link to the STUFF site http://www.storyofstuff.com, which really makes you think about a materials economy based on consumption. You should see it – fun for the kids too. We can’t just change the nonsustainability of our society by consuming green stuff, since it is stuff too and most stuff – including buildings built since 1950 – is made to be thrown out. Historic preservation is not the only part of sustainability, but it is essential because building construction and destruction is one of the most harmful parts of the waste chain. I will say this in India at our conference when I discuss the Issues and where the movement is going today. Things are changing in this world, and you may soon see a whole generation rejecting not just carism and bigboxism but consumerism, which has been a literal article of faith (STUFF explains the designed religiosity of postwar consumerism) for two generations. I sense it is ending, and I think it will be dramatic. Preservation is not so dramatic as big social movements, but at least we are on the right side of this one.

I think I will buy the SCAPA. I like to buy things that I consume and recycle myself.

Anarchists and Zealots

December 6, 2007



Barat Interior 1 003

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

We are sort of getting used to the torching of cars in the banlieu de Paris, those partly impoverished suburbs that have become the barricades of the 21st century now that the center of the city has been fully gentrified. But we are not yet used to such property destruction in the suburbs of Chicago, especially tony North Shore Lake Forest. But take a gander at the picture here – this is the interior of the Barat College Chapel in Lake Forest. Can you distinguish between this and the anarchy of Paris’ outer rings?

The interior of Barat College Chapel was a landmark, according to most preservationists and according to the Lake Forest preservation commission, but the City Council overturned their denial of a demolition permit and so the issue is now in court. While it sits awaiting judgement, the owner, Charles Shaw, apparently, allegedly and purportedly ordered this destruction.

Of course I have seen this before. In 1987 in Boston Jesuits took to their own church interior with chainsaws and sledgehammers to prevent a landmark designation. A couple of years later the same thing happened to St. Martin de Porres in Chicago, and in the late 90’s the same thing happened to St. Vibiana’s in downtown Los Angeles. These were all Catholic churches but there are any number of religious sects whose zealots happily incite mayhem in the name of defending their faith.

And zealotry would seem to be the appropriate word given its emtymology – better to destroy oneself than submit to the enemy, their actions seem to say. But Charlie Shaw is no zealot, no ideologue, simply a developer with little patience for preservation. More than 20 years ago he decided not to pursue tax credits for a major downtown rehab EVEN THOUGH HE QUALIFIED for them. Apparently he mistook the opening negotiation from the SHPO as definitive. But hey, that is old school development – no dealings above the neck here – it is won or lost below the waist. Behind the missing stations of the cross, medallions and altars and wainscot and icons you can hear those steel globes clanking….


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