Posts Tagged ‘Chicago Architecture Foundation’

Planning for Preservation?

August 8, 2011

This fall for the 17th time I will teach a course called Preservation Planning. This course deals with the intersection of a host of urban planning issues: surveys, politics, law, economics, public relations, etc.; and the preservation of historic buildings. It is not about planning a preservation project, and there is also a contradiction in the title, because in a very real sense, you CAN’T plan preservation.

Demolition of 600 block of North Michigan Avenue, 1995

In my 28-plus years in the field I have been through many organizational spasms that attempt to inject regularity and predictability into the task of saving buildings and then repurposing them for the future. Invariably we say “we have to stop spending all of our time putting out brush fires,” which means that we are always REACTING to crises. We get tired of being reactive. This is a normal impulse – we want to be able to work proactively and we want to be able to plan and allocate our work more efficiently.

AIA banquet in Palace of Fine Arts, 1925

These are laudable goals and often the efforts are productive. But at some level they are designed to fail, because at some level the preservationist/heritage conservationist is a firefighter. A firefighter can plan ahead by having the best equipment, a comprehensive survey of the surroundings, and extensive training. But a firefighter cannot predict when and how a fire will break out.

planning destruction of Maxwell Street, Chicago, c. 2000

Some organizations are formed to save a specific building, and thus their mission over time moves from firefighter to custodian, a position that can be planned and organized to a large extent. This is how, for example, historic sites operate. There are of course unexpected occurrences with sites as there are with any buildings, but you can budget your time and personnel pretty well.

Robie House, Chicago, c. 1970s

I have been on the staff or Board of Landmarks Illinois for major chunks of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, and we have ALWAYS tried to get away from “putting out brush fires” but at some fundamental level, that is our job, and we can’t. Of course we are selective, and focus our efforts on certain battles based on factors like the value of the resource, the extent of local support, money and strategy. A classic example is the River Forest Women’s Club, which went from being one of Illinois’ Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2005 to the Illinois Preservation Project of the Year in 2008.

River Forest Women’s Club, 2005

River Forest Women’s Club, 2007

Focusing efforts doesn’t mean you stop firefighting: it means you select among the brush fires those that are most likely to threaten the larger community, or most likely to result in a significant or irretrievable loss. Since this often occurs in an emergency situation, it is likened to field medic triage, but let’s stick with the firefighting metaphor for now if you don’t mind.

You can stop firefighting and do something else: The Chicago Architecture Foundation was established back in 1966 to save Glessner House, which they did, and then evolved over 30 years into an educational and tourism organization. They don’t fight fires, which is fine, because there is someone else who does. Arguably Landmarks Illinois, as it became more established, did less public firefighting, often preferring to work behind-the-scenes. Into the gap stepped Preservation Chicago, ready to protest out loud in cases when Landmarks Illinois was holding its tongue.

rally to save 1100 N. Dearborn, 2000

The real question for any group is how do you measure success? Number of buildings saved? Quality of buildings, sites or structures saved? Landmarks Illinois just released its 40 by 40 list – a collection of the most significant preservation successes in each of the 40 years LI has existed. It is a good list and you should check it out here.

But I teach Preservation Planning and I think success is more than simply buildings or sites or districts or structures. When I was on staff in ’86-’94, we often spoke of the goal of creating a “preservation ethic.” The goal was to get enough planners, developers, politicians and people in general – communities – who shared our belief that old buildings are worth ushering into the future. Then, and only then, would we be able to PLAN for preservation. Because then, and only then, would we have an effective volunteer firefighting force.

smashing

May 6, 2008

They demolished the Berwyn Spindle but they might re-erect it because they saved the two top cars, which makes me wonder which cars they will choose – this was a spindle of 1970s cars, after all, which still had elegant lines, unlike the box-cars of the 1980s, and I can’t imagine the Beetle and the T-Bird topping out a short stack of c. 1999 Escorts and Corollas or even nasty Buicks. I suppose it is like a totem pole, in which case it should span time, but I think the original effect of this spike of cars in a parking lot was to suggest that your car could belong there as well and if all of the spindled vehicles are out of date the piece means something else entirely….

This is the last week for the “Squandered” show at CAF and I am in it but it is still worth seeing and there have been a great series of events along with it, the most recent being Daniel Bluestone’s lecture last Wednesday, which summarized all of his interesting research into the history of preservation in Chicago and the idea of an “aesthetics of eclipse” provided by layers of history in the landscape. I guess that is why I wonder so hard what kind of cars they will put on the new Spindle, since its original criticality depending on the abnegation of such an aesthetics of eclipse but with a Beetle on top how can you do that?

Our students presented their final thesis topics last Friday and they did a great job and Walker Johnson FAIA was there to re-present the Peterson Prize to the Class of 2008 and Professor Charlie Pipal.
pipal, johnson, rainka, little, patel, blasius, shymanski
Also we opened our end-of-year show on the 12th floor of Carson’s in the AIADO space which includes the resurrected volute from the 1926 Granada Theater by Eichenbaum – this was the piece that was infamously smashed to bits by a moving company this January when they surprise moved our studios and resource center.

Too bad, but Craig Deller’s class did a great job with it.

Irit Rogoff gave a keynote for the Master’s presentations that was really pretty cool and helped organize some thoughts I had in a month-old rambling blog draft that has yet to see the light of day. That evening the wonderful Mira Patel – who gets the prize for the first finished thesis turned in! – hosted us for an end-of-year gathering in her highrise. Saturday I was back at school to talk about First Year Program and Sunday I saw Rebecca Keller’s class’ intervention/installation at Pleasant Home, a series of intriguing pieces inspired by the history of the place, including a pantryload of cinnamon plates, roller skating John Farson stickers, an etched egg chandelier, hurdy gurdy types and ceramics cormers. Rebecca’s piece took the honeysuckle – one of the architectural themes of the house – and presented it “preserved” – dried and colorless in a closed box – and “living” green and lustrous in a vase, which pretty much summarizes my ideas about house museums and the goal of preservation.
Rebecca Keller\'s preserved and living honeysuckles at Pleasant Home

I made beer for the first time in almost six months last week so life is returning after the longest winter and the biggest move and Wednesday I am in Elgin talking about windows and Thursday thesis class and Roger Brown Study Collection Steering Committee and Friday the neighbors come over to warm the house and Saturday I get a hood and give a commencement speech and of course Sunday is Mother’s Day and the following weekend is Denver and then the following weekend China….

Do We Dare Squander?

February 12, 2008

Our alumna Kate Keleman deserves congratulations for her curation of the excellent new exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage? That seemingly unwieldy title was hand-written on a protest sign carried by Richard Nickel during the 1961 attempt to save Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater. Kate worked under Greg Dreicer at CAF who has made quite a splash in Chicago, and the graphic/physical design of the exhibit is really quite good.

Now, I am biased because I am in the show – one of many individuals quoted and pictured in conjunction with key preservation efforts, ranging from the 1920s effort to save the Palace of Fine Arts (Museum of Science and Industry), to more recent projects such as the Monadnock Building and Hilliard Center. Community efforts in places like the Gap and Old Town, as well as the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor (that’s how come I’m there) stress the important role of grass roots organizing efforts in preservation – which is the subject of a discussion I will moderate in conjunction with the exhibit on April 17 in the evening. The great Richard Nickel is included, as is Preservation Chicago and the recent effort to landmark Roberts Temple, Emmett Till’s church on the South Side.

I like the title too – it is very much of the period. The “Do We Dare” construction has completely gone out of fashion since the 1970s – somehow it speaks to the unbridled optimism and desire for change that characterized the 1960s. Even “Squander” has gone out of fashion, despite our unbridled squandering of natural and built resources. Some complain of its length, but I like that old Sun-Times photo and I like the “Dare” because it challenges us to rekindle that expansive sensibility of that period.

The show runs through May 9 in the lobby of the 1904 Railway Exchange Building at Jackson and Michigan Avenue. Go see for yourself = Don’t take my word for it – I am a museum piece after all….


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