Posts Tagged ‘Blair Kamin’

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.

farnsworth615c

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.

farnsworth615b

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.

airplane

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.

Mayor Emanuel fumbles first landmarks test

July 8, 2011

Okay, so a couple years ago a career gadfly and scold sued the City of Chicago claiming the Landmarks Ordinance was vague and arbitrary, the sort of legal challenge first-year law students learn about before they move on to the real stuff. But this is Chicago, and this is Illinois, and three judges at the Appellate level agreed with the charge, mostly based on the fact that the criteria in the ordinance were “vague” because they used words like “significant” and “values” and “importance” which of course caused me to opine and label the whole thing “Appellate Nuttiness” at the time.

The case is still out there and now we have Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is already facing the question of whether we should have three vacant city blocks in a row just east of Michigan Avenue in Streeterville (the Prentice Women’s Hospital issue) and he also gets to appoint people to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, who are by ordinance “professionals in the disciplines of history, architecture, historic architecture, planning, archaeology, real estate, historic preservation, or related fields, or shall be persons who have demonstrated special interest, knowledge, or experience in architecture, history, neighborhood preservation, or related disciplines.”

Now, if you are concerned about a case that challenges your ordinance, you might follow the ordinance in selecting those professionals. But the Mayor fumbled. He named an obstetrician (who delivered the President’s daughters) and a chef to the panel and removed the last architect and architectural historian. This is a fumble in dry conditions without an excuse, and the Tribune’s Blair Kamin has done an excellent job reporting it today here.

Architects Ben Weese and Ed Torrez are off the Commission, as is National Park Service veteran Phyllis Ellin and longtime community preservationist Yvette LeGrand. Eleanor Gorski has succeeded Brian Goeken as the Deputy Commissioner and leader of the Commission staff, and she is an architect and Rome Prize winner so that is good. But how will this look to the courts questioning whether the ordinance is “arbitrary” in its application? A chef? How will the new commissioners deal with Prentice, a triumph of architecture united with engineering, if they are seeing it from the obstetrician’s point of view?

Oh, wait…

JULY 13 UPDATE: Ben Weese – one of the architects sacked from the Commission – sent a REALLY nice letter to the Mayor saying you know, you might want to have an architect on the Commission to like look at building permits and, like, architecture? See Blair Kamin today.

Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago

September 30, 2010


The next great new building in Chicago is Perkins and Will’s new hospital building for the Rush-Prebyterian St. Luke’s Hospital complex on the Near West Side. The new building features a multi-lobed design rising above a square base, looming over the Eisenhower Expressway and expressing with its insistent curving form a humanism central to the successful medical relationship. It is new and exciting.

And it is very similar to a 35-year old building, now threatened, by the architect who first brought this undulating form to the world of medicine when he crafted a maternity hospital that seems, in retrospect, like the first acknowledgement of the feminine in hospital architecture. In fact the new building touts the virtue of its plan in the same terms Goldberg used for his building in 1975:

“The tower’s butterfly-like shape allows for clear sight lines to every room from one of the nurse’s stations on each floor, allowing caregivers to see and respond to patient needs more quickly.”

Demolishers love to tell you how older buildings are functionally obsolete. I love to tell them I told you so. The Garrick Theatre was demolished in 1961 for a parking garage. The parking garage was demolished 35 years later for a theater. What goes around comes around and obsolescence rarely lasts a long time.

A major new effort to save Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital has been mounted by our friends at Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, and promoted by no less than Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who linked to this Facebook advocacy page.


This is a fantastic building. Unfortunately we live in a world where hospitals and universities present the greatest threats to our landmarks. Because they need to do the latest and greatest thing in their new buildings.

Even when the latest and greatest thing is 35 years old.

NOVEMBER UPDATE: The National Trust Midwest Office and Landmarks Illinois (I am on both boards) are working hard on to save “the cloverleaf” Prentice. I would also note that my first Prentice photo above has gone all over the interwebs – Blair Kamin credited it a few weeks back on his blog, and then Metropolis POV ran it again today sans credit.

DECEMBER UPDATE: I left the following description – from colleague Anthea Hartig – on the Save Prentice Facebook page:

“The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.”

And the question: Can you think of another building that achieves this as well as Prentice?

The responses were: Mies’ Crown Hall, Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Saarinen’s TWA flight center, The Monadnock Building, and Ronchamp. Here was my response:

These are great examples of the architecture-engineering discourse, although I think Saarinen’s comes closest to Goldberg in seeking an aesthetic structural efficiency, and TWA has a lot of formalism in there. I think Pei and Corbu are even more formalist (nothing efficient – but everything beautiful – about Ronchamp). The Monadnock is perhaps the first iteration in the discourse, more elegant than efficient, while Crown Hall gains and suffers from Mies’ perfectionism and bravado: Prentice is a well-turned ankle while Crown Hall is a bulging bicep.

See the Facebook page and the new video here.

APRIL 2011 UPDATE:

Last week Northwestern Hospital announced they will demolish the building after the tenant moves out in September. They have no plans for the site – it is pure Neanderthal land banking. Odds are it will sit vacant a long time.

Alderman Reilly has asked Northwestern to hold off on applying for the demolition permit until the Landmarks Illinois Re-Use study comes out in a few weeks, which they are doing because – why not? They are using the building until September, and since it is just a dumb land bank, it doesn’t exactly matter when they demolish, because they won’t be rebuilding for a long time.

SIGN THE PETITION AGAINST YEARS OF VACANT LOT HERE

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

2012 UPDATES: See my July 2012 blog updated through late August

Wrigley Building and other non-landmarks

August 26, 2010

In a week a new school year will start and this blog will celebrate its fifth birthday. It is August 2010, and in the old days August was a time when people were vacationing and out of the office and out of touch with the media so it used to be a good time to tear down buildings or approve plans that might not otherwise have public support. I don’t see that this summer in Chicago, but there are landmarks in the news.

First, a moment to honor the passing of Phil Krone, political insider and dedicated preservationist, who led the first urban pioneers (according to the obituary Wednesday, he coined the term “urban pioneer”) to restore the 1500 block of West Jackson Boulevard, the sole west side historic district in the early days. This is one of the city’s smaller historic districts, but it is significant – a rare remnant of a thriving exclusive 19th century neighborhood. Krone didn’t stop there – I remember him telephoning me in 1989 with some idea about how to save some landmarks we were striving to preserve at Landmarks Illinois, and he telephoned me again last year with ideas about how to save the Gropius buildings at Michael Reese Hospital. In the late 90s it seemed he was at all the meetings of the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, listing buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. He was a true friend of preservation and will be missed.

The other day Blair Kamin had a really excellent article on additions to historic buildings, decrying the refrigerator-like banality of the remodeling of the Wrigley Building’s courtyard. He pointed out that the default architectural option – do it in a bland modernist way – did not serve the richly ornamented historic building. This brought cheers from Steve Semes, who I have mentioned in the past, an advocate for additions that follow more traditional design idioms, and the Wrigley is an excellent example of a situation where Steve is right and the choice was wrong. At the same time, Kamin showed the criticality of his thought by including a second article illustrating an example of a modernist addition – the new project for Fourth Presbyterian Church – that makes sense. This isn’t an either-or proposition or an ideological battle: sometimes the traditional style is the right choice (Wrigley Building, but they flubbed it) and sometimes a glass modernist addition makes sense (Fourth Presbyterian). I am so very glad that Blair gets it and can explain it to those who think you need to take sides.


Nope, not a landmark

Of course, the kicker to all this is that the Wrigley Building is NOT an official Chicago Landmark. It has no protection, and the dumb refrigerator facade they put inside the courtyard could legally be put on the other side of the building. It was proposed for Chicago Landmark status in 1987 and John Baird made a valiant effort to convince the Wrigley family to go along but failed. The building has not been owned by the Wrigleys since 2000. Blair added another article a day later detailing many other iconic Chicago buildings that do not have local landmark protection, despite their appearance as “landmarks” in popular perception.

Blair included the Esquire Theater, Old St. Patrick’s Church (which, like the Wrigley, got close to landmark status but then balked), Marina City (likewise – due to a split between the commercial and residential owners I believe), the Murphy Memorial, and Merchandise Mart.

I argued against landmarking the Esquire 20 years ago because it had already lost its integrity thanks to windows punched into the facade and the destruction of the interior.


Now of course the Merchandise Mart and Marina City are located, like the Wrigley, on the Chicago River, which means they are more easily viewed and more likely to become iconic because they are so visible. That also means they were well designed, because the architects knew those sites would be visible and they lavished extra attention on them. And many of the other “vista” landmarks ARE designated Chicago Landmarks – the Board of Trade, Tribune Tower, and the lesser known but urbanistically exquisite buildings at the south side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, the London Guarantee Building (1923) and 333 North Michigan Avenue (1928).

As Blair explained, the reason some iconic buildings are landmarks and some are not is clout. Actually, even some of the landmarks, like Tribune and Board of Trade, are subject to very specific landmark agreements that were approved by the city because the owners had clout – plus enough civic sense to realize that their buildings were landmarks.

LABOR DAY UPDATE: Blair’s non-landmarks article appeared in the Tribune print edition today – a full page that is well worth a look.

Bradley House, Inland Steel, Wrigley Field

March 20, 2010

The big news this week was an effort to preserve Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bradley House in Kankakee, one of the epochal early Wright Prairie Houses. Blair Kamin did a bangup job of covering the issue in the Tribune here. A local Wright in Kankakee group is trying to raise money to buy the house and make it a house museum and education center. The bottom line is the $1.9 million price and the more immediate concern of an additional $100,000 for the down payment beyond the $70,000 already raised. I can recall when the house was law offices and Kamin’s article notes that the owners for the last 5 years, the Halls, have been ideal, keeping it together and restoring it. With 100 art-glass windows, the house could be worth almost as much in pieces as it is put together. The real challenge is not simply the purchase price, but the ongoing operations, since house museums rarely generate more than a quarter of operating costs from admissions. The Bradley House either needs an angel to subsidize the purchase and an endowment, or it needs more angels like the Halls who will care for it as the treasure it is.


My other news clippings this week included a plan to restore the iconic 1957 Inland Steel Building using the Cook County Class L landmark tax incentive, which basically halves a commercial building’s tax liability for a decade. What’s the catch? It has to be a locally designated landmark and you have to spend half the value of the building on the rehab. The announcement came just days after the death of Bruce Graham, the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill architect who designed the building, or rather, completed the design that Walter Netsch had started, making the building a rare collaboration between the two SOM protagonists.

Inland Steel has a fascinating landmarks history. On a flower planter near the Monroe entrance you can find a 1960 plaque from the first, toothless 1957 Chicago Architectural Landmarks law, an add-on to the famous zoning ordinance that doubled the city’s density. Inland Steel was included in “Chicago’s Famous Buildings” and considered a Chicago Landmark WHEN IT WAS BRAND NEW! It epitomized the structural bravado that seemed the salient characteristic of Chicago School architecture, carrying its steel frame on the OUTSIDE and creating completely open floor plans serviced by a separate, windowless tower than contained all of the functional necessities. It is such an icon modern starchitect Frank Gehry is a partner in the building and has designed a new desk for the lobby.

Finally, Wrigley Field announced it wanted to put up a giant illuminated Toyota billboard above the left-field bleachers. What can I say – Toyota and the Cubs: what a co-branding opportunity!

Two teams you can trust – until September comes!

Don’t put the brakes on the Cubs season!

As if Toyota wasn’t enough of a target for regulators and Congress, now it is going to be a target for MLB sluggers?

All joking aside, Wrigley Field is a landmark and the signage would presumably have to be approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. It is a big sign, and it is structural. There are plenty of other signs in and around Wrigley Field, so the question is not whether a sign would be allowed but what kind of sign and how big.

Also, Wrigley has had a fair amount of changes approved by the Commission, including an addition in the bleachers that reached out over the public sidewalk at Waveland and Sheffield Avenues and the new club building that appeared last year on Addison.

Time will tell.

County Hospital

March 3, 2010


In Chicago today the news is the unanimous decision of the Cook County Board to rehabilitate the historic Cook County Hospital Building (1914, Paul C. Gephardt) as medical offices. Seven years ago the building was to be demolished after the new John Stroger Hospital replaced it, but Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago and others were able to find enough County Board allies to prevent demolition, and the unanimous action yesterday illustrates the shift. The project also ably illustrates several intriguing aspects of rehabilitating historic buildings.

First, there is the associational aspect. While the hospital had several historic firsts: blood bank; indigent care, certain emergency room procedures. Yet many people of course had very negative memories of the hospital since it was the medical last resort for so many of the most indigent for so many years. I remember going there in 1983 to see a friend who had gotten his head cracked for supporting Harold Washington’s mayoral candidacy. It was not an environment to elicit enthusiasm, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected, having grown up with horror stories of the public hospital. What is intriguing here is how the negative associations are translated into a push for demolition. We got similar reactions in the effort to save one of the Jane Addams Homes, replete with the negative association we formed of public housing in the 1960s and 1970s.

But of course we toured the homes with people who had lived there in the early, glory days of public housing, who had nothing but positive memories of the place in the late 1940s. The problem with negative historical associations is that they can be employed to demolish an otherwise beloved place. I always recall the example of Stop N Shop on Washington Street in the Loop. Until the early 1980s, it was a rare and wonderful downtown grocery with all of the finest delicacies – I remember gigantic chocolate-dipped strawberries in an era before strawberries all became gigantic (steroids?). Stop N Shop was a real treat and a beloved place. It also occupied a stunning 1930 Art Deco building, but the entire block was slated for redevelopment.

Now, you would have a problem demolishing a lovely store with positive associations, so Stop N Shop was closed, and a discount men’s clothing store (two pairs of fuschia trousers for $10!) was put in its place for a few years. By the time demolition came around, no one was bothered by losing the cheap pants – but they would have been upset about the chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Back to Cook County Hospital. We also have the aesthetic issue, and here the hospital’s grand Beaux-Arts facade with paired fluted columns, elaborate terra cotta ornament featuring garlands, cartouches, human and animal sculptures and grand arched entrances proves worthy. Not only that, but compared to the refrigerator box that is the new Stroger Hospital, the Classical detailing and refined proportions began to look better and better. I suspect that if the new hospital had a more felicitous design, the rapture people developed with the old hospital might not have been as intense.

Photo by Antunovich Associates courtesy Landmarks Illinois.

Then, of course, you have the issue of construction then and construction now. Building built before 1930 tend to be REALLY WELL BUILT, and Cook County Hospital is a good example. Despite the bands being used to stabilize the terra cotta details, the steel and concrete structure has been investigated and found to be sound. Antunovich Associates did a re-use plan via Landmarks Illinois that helped forestall demolition last decade because it proved the building was still a viable structure. Blair Kamin’s excellent piece in the Tribune notes also that rehabbing the structure saves about 900 truckloads of landfill debris, not a small number. This is of course WHY PRESERVATION IS SUSTAINABLE. And green. (BTW check out the new GREEN issue of Preservation Magazine – or go to the National Trust link at right!)

Now, the other intriguing aspect of rehabilitating historic buildings is of course the economic aspect. The County Board did dither about the cost – apparently $23 million more (about 20 percent) to rehab rather than to demolish and build new. Ignoring the social and environmental costs of those 900 trucks of debris, this aspect of course triggers a familiar response – preservation costs more.

Does it? Demolition and a new office building would cost $85 million instead of $108 million, which is more IF both buildings do the same job for the same period of time. Which I doubt.

Old buildings, like old windows, are generally built with stronger materials than modern ones. Beyond structure, this is a gut job, and the big cost is that decorative facade, accounting for 80 percent of the cost differential. They are talking about TIF financing, an overused tool, but if they were to make it a private building it would immediately be eligible for tax incentives which would make up the entirety of the difference. Just like preservation tax incentives are intended to do.

But comparing a lovely old Beaux Arts landmark with a new refrigerator box is like comparing apples and Tupperware. There is a functional comparison, but the new building would NOT have a decorative facade. Would it need one? No, but you never NEED beauty or grace in life, do you?

The fact is we ALREADY have a decorative facade and we know it looks good – much better where it is than in a landfill. This building got a lot of public support in the eight years it took demolition to turn into rehabilitation.

And it is prominent – this building has a giant plaza in front of it and then an expressway – it is a face of the city and deserves to be preserved as much as other faces of the city like Michigan Avenue or Lake Shore Drive.