Posts Tagged ‘facadectomy’

Happy New Year

January 3, 2007

Farwell Building_PetersS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Well, it’s a good day for global warming in Chicago – our 25th consecutive day of above-normal temperature. I went downtown with only a blazer on January 3 – amazing. Haven’t used the long underwear in five years. Sure, I miss skiing, but this is a good spot to be on the globe during an emission-enhanced climate shift.

So, how does 2007 look for landmarks? Not that it is hard to top 2006 – if less than three Louis Sullivan buildings burn down this year, we are ahead. Hell, there are only 20 left out of the 135 he designed in Chicago. Still, 2007 may start off on the wrong foot tomorrow if the Commission on Chicago Landmarks approves another skin job on North Michigan Avenue.

The Farwell Building is one of a small handful of Art Deco landmarks left on North Michigan Avenue, part of the old Terra Museum. A clodlike developer, noting the building’s landmark status, is proposing to do to the Farwell what John Buck (not Joe Buck, although there is a physical resemblance) did to the McGraw-Hill Building ten years ago.

It goes like this – you take the whole thing down, numbering the bits like Abu Simbel, put up a new building, and then reclad it with the old skin. The McGraw-Hill, at 16 stories, was the largest example of this sort of preservation travesty, and we hate to admit it, but it looks pretty good. The Farwell can’t look as good – a good chunk of its footprint will be taken up by a new residential highrise that will loom over and well into the Farwell Frankenstein. Moreover, the Farwell is already a landmark – McGraw-Hill wasn’t.

Landmarks Illinois (I’m on the Board) sat down with the architect a year ago and heard about the desperate condition of the roof and roof facades. This was a gambit to get preservationists to go along with the skin job. It failed, and the actual plan makes it look even sillier – the problem for the developer’s dreadnought is not the skin but the bones – the structure is in the way of the parking garage, of the construction staging – of everything. Sure, the façade needed repair and/or replacement – not the structure.

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks should have made the developer go through the economic hardship process before approving taxidermy on this scale. I would have paid to see that hearing – the pathos and poverty of a project that’s already a third sold without city approval.

Lynn Becker rants off the rails on this one at

Damn, my blog is tame….



September 19, 2005

On The Face of It: The Facadism Problem

The struggle for historic preservation is complicated when it comes to facades; what everyone sees; the public face of buildings, where the public interest lies. In historic districts, the goal is to preserve the context of a place, defined by facades. Preservation commissions rarely regulate interior spaces in districts. This leads many to assume that preservation is only about the visual exterior façade of a building, which is wrong.

I first attacked “facadism” almost 20 years ago when developers proposed relocating the façade of the 1872 McCarthy Building on Chicago’s Block 37, since only the façade had been designated a landmark. At the time, several Chicago Landmarks were “façade designations” and this encouraged developers to propose picking them up and moving them about like furniture. It is eaiser to save a thing than a place. But it reached a point of absurdity when the city proposed designating the façade of the Ludington Building, an 1891 work of William LeBaron Jenney. Jenney is famous for pioneering the steel frame skyscraper – shouldn’t the designation include the structure? The façade trend hit its peak with the Chicago Tribune Tower façade designation in 1989, and then came back with a vengeance with the 1996 deal to skin and rebuild the Art Deco McGraw Hill Building on Michigan Avenue, the most outrageous (and scarily successful) example of a period that also saw the demolition of all but 5 feet of the Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio of 1917 for the new Park Hyatt tower.

The problem with facades is that they aren’t always a problem. The Old Heidelberg restaurant (now Noble Fool theater), was very much a façade confection in its original iteration, so saving it to a depth of 15 feet preserved its significance. The current debate in Oak Park centers on a district of Tudor facades on Westgate, many of which were added to earlier buildings in the 1920s and 30s to create a sense of place. The demolition-mongers are crowing about the fact that they are just facades. Yes, they are – and they successfully created a sense of place, something developers in Oak Park have been unable to do since.

But if you say facades are okay it pushes the real estate developers, planners and institutional managers – who operate from an MBA/Art of War perspective – to suggest that it can be replicated. This came up with the Westgate facades in Oak Park. Someone suggested you just replicate the style. The knowledgeable eye looks at a 2-story casement window in one of those facades and knows that no steel mill on earth in 2005 can make or fake that window that was rolled 8 times to achieve a narrow profile you cannot have today for love or money. It is only a façade but we are too poor to make that façade today.

The annoying and beautiful thing about preservation is that every case must be decided on its own merits. This makes developers and attorneys insane because they operate from replicable models of consistency and precedent, neither of which is really valid when you are talking about properties with different significance contained in different design elements. The recent restoration of three unlandmarked facades on Wabash and Randolph in front of the Heritage highrise presents a fairly felicitous context for the narrow, elevated-impeded street. The problem arises when the developers take this and run with it into a landmark district, as they have with Jeweler’s Row, where they are building a similar treatment for two landmark buildings with an even taller highrise rising to an astonishing 800 feet. This means that every planner and developer in town will claim precedent for all manner of awful additions.

Preservation is a process. Like history, preservation is about the singularity of each case, its temporal and physical context. It is like New Orleans, this irreplaceable unparalleled indescribable thing. One case is never a perfect parallel for another.

The next façade issue coming up will be the Jenney buildings at LaSalle and Monroe – including a fantastic Victorian lobby at 39 S. LaSalle that gives the lie to any idea that preservation is about facades. In fact, even where we try to preserve facades – in the North Loop Theater district, on Westgate in Oak Park, throughout many historic districts – we are in fact preserving giant outdoor rooms, haptic environments that envelop the visitor just like an interior.