Posts Tagged ‘Chess Records’

Chicago Blues: Intangible Heritage

December 30, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Age Value and the 50-year rule

August 13, 2010

The latest issue of Forum Journal (from the National Trust for Historic Preservation – you can join here.) has an article questioning the 50-year rule. The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 and shortly thereafter the Park Service promulgated policies for listing properties on the National Register. Eight categories of properties have to jump some more hurdles to become landmarks: birthplaces, gravesites, cemeteries, memorials, relocated buildings, reconstructed buildings, houses of worship, and buildings less than 50 years old.

Now, first it should be noted that I can name properties in each of those categories that ARE on the National Register of Historic Places, but they had to prove extra significance.

Field memorial, Daniel Chester French, Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

The article, by Elaine Stiles, notes that the 50-year rule actually dates from the Historic Sites Act of 1935 as a guideline for the Park Service and its publicly owned sites. They originally rejected all sites before 1870, and then revised it in 1952 to “50 years”. Stiles notes there is no evidence as to why 50 years was chosen, but it is a problem, since most buildings are threatened with demolition or remodeling within 25 or 30 years of their initial construction. Heck, the Rookery by Burnham & Root (1886) was totally remodeled on the inside only 19 years later, in 1905.

by Frank Lloyd Wright

it was remodeled again 25 years later by Wright’s student William Drummond, with elevator doors by Annette Cremin Byrne. The point is, the cycle of building remodeling is a lot quicker than 50 years. EVEN some of the most famous battles in preservation history happened to buildings about my age. Penn Station, the epochal demolition in the early 1960s that helped spur New York City’s Landmarks Ordinance, was only 52 when the wrecking ball hit.

Chicago’s Robie House was only 47 years old when the Chicago Theological Seminary proposed demolishing it for a dormitory.

Now, the idea of letting some time pass before you decide whether something is worth preserving has merit. A century ago Alois Reigl defined several reasons for saving historic sites, including “age value,” “historical value,” “art value,” and “use-value”. For Reigl, “age-value” and “historical value” were about the past, while “art value” and “use-value” were about the present and future.

Personally I think our preservation/conservation field today is all about “use-value,” but our criteria still put a lot of weight on the artistic and historical merits of properties we want to conserve. Reigl defined “age-value” with reference to evidence of decay or aging, which would inspire nostalgia. Like historical value, it resided in the past. This is arguably a Western value, deriving from the aesthetics of decay so prevalent in writers like John Ruskin, and I agree that there is something to the sense of age that certain historic sites can evoke.


Society Hill, Philadelphia


Joliet Prison

I used to always relate a story I heard about Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1894 Winslow House in River Forest. I heard that a woman lived across the street from the house for decades and she told an interviewer that she had looked at that house every day for 50 years and never got tired of looking at it.

I don’t know the validity of the story, but it seemed an excellent definition of a landmark. Although, in reality she was referring not to age value but art value, one of Riegl’s present values. If it looks good for a half century, odds are its “beauty” is not a passing fashion.

One of the examples in Stiles’ article was Chicago’s Inland Steel building, built in 1957, landmarked by the city in 1998 and listed on the National Register in 2009. Actually, the story is even more amazing than that.

Inland Steel was considered a landmark before it was even completed. It was included in the first lists of Chicago landmarks, and there is actually a city landmark plaque from 1960 (the paint probably wasn’t even dry yet) still visible on its exterior.

Inland Steel was considered landmarkable in 1960 and it still is today – Frank Gehry even became a part owner he thought it was so cool.

But back to Stiles’ argument against the 50-year rule, which notes several places, including Chicago, that have no age limit on their landmarks. Indeed, in Chicago we have a National Historic Landmark that made the grade at the youthful age of 25. Then again, it was the site of the first self-sustained nuclear reaction, which is a scientific achievement we all agree was more than a little significant for subsequent earth history.

We also designated numerous Mies van der Rohe buildings before they hit 50 years old, because, well, we knew he would remain one of the most significant architects of the 20th century.

It isn’t simply the date of construction that is important, either. in 1990 the City of Chicago landmarked – to great public acclaim – the Chess Records Studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, the only Chicago Landmark to have a Rolling Stones song named after it. The building dates from 1911, but it achieved its significance – as Chess Records – from 1957 to 1967.

But the real problem is not exceptional sites but typical sites. Stiles notes that only 3 percent or less of sites on the National Register are less than 50 years old, and that most places that matter to people today will be less than 50 years old and will NOT meet the standard of “exceptionally important.”

When we were landmarking properties in the 1970s and 1980s, we were coming up against 1930, which represented the beginning of a generation-long hiatus in the construction industry – very little was built between 1930 and 1946. But once we hit the 1990s, postwar buildings started to become eligible even under the 50-year rule, and today a building from 1960 is eligible. But that also means many 1960s and 70s resources are being threatened, if they have not already been lost.

Mid-North area, Chicago


Galewood, Chicago


Leon’s Custard, Milwaukee


twinned ranch houses, River Forest, Illinois


1960s office building, Oak Park, Illinois

At SAIC’s Historic Preservation Program, we have been dealing with this issue for years. Anne Sullivan started a course in Preserving the Recent Past in the 1990s, and for the last four years together with Landmarks Illinois, (and thanks to Jim Peters) our students in the Preservation Planning Studio class have been surveying the postwar buildings of suburban Cook County, and finding a host of swinging 60s gems, almost none of which have any form of protection.

Age value is important, but it is only one of the criteria used to determining what to conserve and retool for the future.

I suppose I am sensitive to the 50-year rule since I became eligible myself this summer. My half century birthday occurred in two buildings, this one I woke up in in Germany, a Jugendstil treasure from 1907

And this postwar Buitenveldert townhouse in Amsterdam that I went to sleep in. Heck, it was probably younger than me.

I found them both to have art value, age value, and historical value. And they both obviously had “use-value” because families live in them. And now I am commemorating them.