Posts Tagged ‘Frank Lloyd Wright’

The new urban commandments

January 4, 2015

Prince Charles of England, who famously got involved in the world of architecture and urbanism nearly 30 years ago with a notorious speech to architects deriding modernism, has released last month in Architectural Review a list of ten principles for urban planning and design.  Those of us in the heritage preservation world have generally been fond of Albion’s heir and his advocacy of the virtues of tradition in architecture, although most of us become uncomfortable pitting tradition against modernism, fearing both the superficiality of style and a reduction of our cause into a formalist debate.

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Amherst

In contrast to the 1985 speech, architects have received HRH’s 10 principles positively.  Leaving aside the virtues of the modernist design that characterized most of the 20th century, let’s take a look at the 10 points.

garden B

Filoli

“Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.”

This is indeed a good principle and one hardly limited to traditional design – having grown up on Frank Lloyd Wright, it is arguably at the center of each of his schemes.  I also wonder how it fits into the classical landscape architecture we find in sites like the one pictured above, which I guess would please most traditionalists.

geometry

Taliesin West

“2: Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.”

Architecture absolutely is a language, and like English it is a language enriched by evolution and adaptation, not a language that tries to erect barriers around its purity like French.  Like Picasso, a good modernist should first master the traditional rules.  The last sentence is odd:  In the States building codes are largely a public safety phenomenon, having evolved from fire codes, so there influence on the formal design is minimal.

grk temp brit mus

British Museum

“3: Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.”

Barring the rhetorical oddity of the first sentence, this is one of the best principles.  There are certain examples of modernism that destroy human scale as well as their surroundings and these are usually disasters.  Again, the principle works beyond style:  Speer’s totalitarian Classicism also destroyed human and contextual scale.  I would also argue that scale is the connecting link between individual works of architecture and their context.  Note the “civic meaning” exception that allows for focus buildings, which for many urbanists of the 19th and 20th century, were supposed to be public buildings, not physical advertisements for their rent.

wabash to trump13s

Chicago

“4: Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.”

Again, I totally agree with this, a basic principle of all design.  Harmony by definition is the integration of diverse notes to create a whole richer than the sum of the parts.  I would argue rhythm, scale, materials and massing are much more important than architectural details.  But details are important – I tend to rank the ultrahigh buildings of East Asia by their ability to hold detail at close range and not only from the distance of the skyline view.

rue royal31

New Orleans

“5: The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.”

This is again quite true.  A sense of enclosure is a brilliant planning device that speaks to basic human connections.  Not sure about jarring angles – I think good architects can employ a variety of geometries to achieve pedestrian-friendly satisfaction.

fire lane central ct

Lathrop Homes, Chicago (1937)

“6: Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.”

This is interesting.  Using local materials is of course much more sustainable, and we have plenty of egregious counterexamples, like the Chicago skyscraper clad with Carrerra marble that failed or even our dear Getty, its stone shipped halfway across the world.  Having said that, concrete, glass and steel can indeed be local materials and I have seen them done humanely and done awfully.  My friend who restored the River Forest Women’s Club, a 1912 Prairie design by William Drummond, noted that the brilliance of the design was that very simple materials were used in a luxurious way – again a central tenet of Frank Lloyd Wright, who raised the level of several generations of “standardized” materials through design.

gale hs ceiling

Quarter-sawn oak.  Standard 1893.

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Humanized concrete, 1920s.

johns tubes

Pyrex glass tubes, standard 1938.

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Standard glass, local limestone and wood, 1947.

“7: Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.”

This is sound urban design, and I have witnessed it as far away as Weishan, Yunnan, China, where they buried the utilities over a dozen years ago in the historic Southern Silk Road city.  We are also reminded here that HRH has put his money where his mouth is and built a model suburb according to his principles.  Historically, of course, our cities here in the States were overrun by wires and signs from the earliest times.  Their absence is solely a 21st century phenomenon.

nice view to N gate

Sadly, the landmark North Gate from 1390 just burned

“8: The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.”

Points for brevity and clarity here.  Car landscapes do not encourage commerce.  This has been a key to urban design for the last generation.

sitting and walkingS copy

You do a nice enough pedestrian space, they will move a major museum from the Upper East Side.

“9: Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.”

Density is another challenge – you CAN have great density without great height, although the two neighborhoods described derive their density from value, and the density of the wealthy may not be a prescription for the average urban place.  I personally like a nice tower here and there to set things off, foster diversity, create focus and reference points, and, of course, to encourage a pedestrian environment around transportation nodes.

main street corner

Another model town, nearing its 60th birthday.

“10: Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.”

This is also good sense and reminds me of the old preservation joke from about 15 years ago:

“What’s the difference between a highway engineer and a terrorist?”

“You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

highway lkft abvS

I don’t think that is true anymore, and what Prince Charles has enunciated here is not a defense of traditionalist style as much as some good advice for ways to look beyond style to the principles that make urban spaces human spaces, which is to say they accommodate people, their economies and societies, their cultures and their activities.  They are principles that emphasize diversity and flexibility.  The movement to preserve historic places created some of the first places where these principles could be negotiated and fulfilled by existing buildings – whatever their style.

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Oak Park best neighborhood

October 13, 2010

Historic Preservation (Heritage Conservation) has done it again. Oak Park became one of the United States’ top ten neighborhoods, according to the American Planning Association, and it did it the old fashioned way: it saved its historic buildings.

The Frank Lloyd Wright and Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and made subject to local landmark controls in 1994 (notice the distinction, Kenilworth???) is the best place to live in Illinois, according to the planners. As the article notes, Wright and the other Prairie architects wowed them a hundred years ago and they still are. Must be some good architecture, no?

My only quibble with the report is that it lauds Oak Park for being a rare combination of historic preservation and urban development. This is a false dichotomy, as I have reported before. PRESERVATION IS DEVELOPMENT. Clearly, preserving Oak Park’s historic buildings have been the centerpiece of its development strategy. And it works: only two other Midwestern neighborhoods made the top 10 list.

This is a social contract, people. You want to live in the best neighborhood? Then you KEEP what is best about it.

Unity Temple lettering stolen

October 4, 2010

This is sad. More than 50 of the letters that adorned the entrance of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Unity Temple were stolen amidst an Oak-Park frenzy of copper and bronze theft, apparently by salvage thieves seeking the resale value of the metal. Here is a link to a local article on the theft.

Theft of building pieces has been a thriving business around here for over 40 years and probably longer. The famed “brick thieves” in Chicago tried to take one of the exterior urns from Robie House a few years back.

A thief was caught on camera not many years ago stealing a newel post from the Monadnock Building (although ironically, he was stealing one of the few non-original replacement newel posts) and the brick thieves did a number on the beautiful Art Deco panels of the Chicago Bee Building in the Black Metropolis Historic District before one was caught and the building restored.

But the Unity Temple theft is especially galling because the site is already suffering from major structural issues caused by water infiltration – and another piece of vandalism in the last year, when someone threw a bucket through the sanctuary skylight.


It is always personally painful when an element of such a public landmark – a place of such international significance in the expression of art, design, culture and the human spirit; a place that is shared and treasured by so much of society – is trashed for the short term pleasure of a few antisocial individuals.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: Cucina Paradiso, the fabulous restaurant around the corner from Unity Temple, is donating all proceeds from the dinner on Thursday, October 21, to the restoration of the letters at Unity Temple. Cucina Paradiso is located at 814 North Boulevard in Oak Park (right off the Green Line stop at Oak Park Avenue) and their telephone number is 708-848-3434. THANKS!

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.

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.

Chicagoland Watch

September 17, 2009

Landmarks Illinois has made another splash with its annual Chicagoland Watch List thanks to the high profile Rose House and pavilion in Highland Park, a modernist treat by James Speyer that EVERYONE knows as Cam’s house from the 1980s film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I knew that when I toured the house about 15 years ago. Modernist steel and glass boxes set into one of the suburb’s trademark wooded ravines, the gem is threatened by possible subdivision despite landmark status and a $2.3 million price tag.
rose_5
You should go to Landmarks Illinois’ website (www.landmarks.org) to see the whole list, which includes a two-lane rural road in McHenry County, the South Side Masonic Temple, and an entire neighborhood’s worth of urbane and sustainable terra cotta and brick treasures at the intersection of Halsted Fullerton and Lincoln:
lincoln_6
One of the threatened sites has personal resonance for me, the “Colony” in Wheaton at the Chicago Golf Club. I remember the circular fan you could sit on and white wicker furniture you could pick at until grandma yelled at you and a screened porch adjacent to the golf course. Her unit burned some time ago, but the remaining homes by Jarvis Hunt cannot be replicated today. They are unprotected, as is the fabulous Ed Dart Church of the Resurrection in West Chicago. Ed Dart is turning into the Louis Sullivan of the 20th century, the incredibly talented architect whose buildings are vanishing one by one, obliterating a history of grace, light and humanistic resonance.
church_6
It is worth noting one category of buildings that appear several times, including the Rose House above, the Cornelius Field House (also in Highland Park) and two of the three Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, like the Walser House on Chicago’s west side. They are landmarks. Landmarks in danger. Not because they don’t have legal protection – but because THEY MIGHT BE DEMOLISHED ANYWAY.
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In the popular imagination, landmark status means a building will stay there forever and can’t be torn down. This is not true. Landmark status – and only local landmark status can potentially forestall a private demolition – does not mean buildings get saved forever or preserved in some pristine state.

Landmark status means there is a review process when a building permit is requested. A landmarks commission can choose to approve a permit that would demolish or irrevocably alter a landmark. When I was on the Oak Park Preservation Commission in the 1990s we approved at least four demolitions in the historic district in three years, and I can give you Chicago examples. Landmark status means REVIEW, not PRESERVATION. In Oak Park and other suburbs, the local districts and local commission don’t even have binding review over insensitive alterations, only demolition.
gap prairie 3200
Plus, landmark status does not mean you have to maintain a property. It is not only a PROCESS, it is a reactive process. You pull a building permit, and the landmarks commission reviews it. What if you don’t pull a building permit? Ever? For anything?
Answer: nothing. Yes, the building department can go after you, if your building starts to look like a hazard. But not the landmarks commission – they only get to speak when they are spoken to.
dtop 2007 vwS
Ah, the persistence of ignorance. There is an Op-Ed in the Wednesday Journal (Oak Park) titled “Historic District bad for downtown Oak Park” by Frank Pellegrini. I guess I had my Op-Ed a year ago, and it is worth repeating my pull quote here, since this guy remains unaware:

“The National Register cannot prevent anyone from demolishing anything.”

The Op-Ed goes on about restricting property rights, discouraging investment, regulations and bureaucracies. These keywords are listed rather than logically linked. Unlike most commentators who employ labeling rather than argument, Pellegrini hints that he might actually be aware of the nuances when he says that the National Register designation is honorary but “could be a prelude to a more restrictive local registry” which is true. But all of his arguments depend on that local registry, and his vision of how that process would play out – which is opposite of how it has played out, as seen below.

The National Register doesn’t bring in any bureaucracies unless you go begging to the feds for money. The most galling fact about the situation in Oak Park is that FACTS are staring everybody in the face to counter this opinion. Pellegrini asserts that landmarking will discourage investment, add costs due to regulation and bureacracy, etc. So how about an example? Is there a historic commercial district nearby that has these regulations? Can we see this disinvestment at work?

Yes, there is one IN Oak Park and it is four blocks away. And it has maybe one vacant storefront in the historic buildings. Hmmm. Why isn’t investment being discouraged in that district? If Pellegrini was correct, all the business would run away from the Avenue to Downtown Oak Park to escape the fearsome regulations strangling their rights. That is definitely not happening. He must not be correct.

The opinion is accompanied with an illustration of the demolition of the Colt Building, which you can read about in old posts here from 2005 and 2006. Now I get it. He is upset about the Colt Building. The Colt Building was saved by the Oak Park Village Board AGAINST THE ADVICE of the local landmarks commission and the statewide preservation organization. It costs the Village oodles of money and then was finally demolished years later – just as Landmarks Illinois and the Oak Park Preservation Commission had recommended years earlier.

Listen to the preservationists: they’ll save you money.

Oak Park settles down a bit

February 9, 2007



fields op

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Well, from the tenor of the panel discussion in Oak Park this morning, the Fox News-style polarization of preservation has died down a bit. This is a good thing. A developer, a village president/architect, a local architect and two preservationists made up a panel that was distinguished more by how much they agreed than by the false “Preservation or Development” dichotomy that was set up.

The biggest laughs came to Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago who said the title “Historic Preservation: Too Much of a Good Thing?” reminded him of “Women’s Suffrage: Too Much of a Good Thing?” or “Child Labor Laws: Too Much of a Good Thing?”. He is right that preservation has to keep justifying itself.

He also noted that there is no “development” in a place like Oak Park or Chicago – only “redevelopment”. Several people commented (this is a timeless classic you hear over and over again) that Frank Lloyd Wright would not have been able to build what he did if preservation laws were in place.

So, I naturally pointed out that Frank Lloyd Wright came to an Oak Park of 5000 people, left for good when it was 20,000. It was 60,000 when they saved his Home and Studio. He was building on vacant land, not redeveloping.

Royce Yeater spoke of preservation as managing the cultural environment, which is an elegant and apt phrase and underscored the notion of process – it is never over and done with once and for all. I would add that preservation is entirely future-oriented. That sounds strange on the face of it (aren’t they trying to preserve the past) but in fact preservation is a present action aimed solely at what a place looks and feels like in the future.

Of course there was one voice that ranted about property rights. I didn’t have the opportunity to point out the legal lessons given us by the Supreme Court in 1926, 1954, and 1978 or the many by lower courts that also upheld zoning and preservation regulations. You should read them. They are all about property rights and they found that these regulations preserve property rights rather than abrogating them. The 1926 decision by Sutherland in Ambler v. Euclid is especially illuminating because Sutherland was so pro-property rights.

Finally, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the regulations of a historic district in downtown Oak Park and dire predictions of how it would impede development, harm owners, etc. These arguments have surfaced since at least 1926, and the funny thing is…they only surface BEFORE a designation, not AFTER. Fine noted how the designated commercial districts in Chicago are thriving.

The elephant in the room this morning was the Avenue District in Oak Park. It is landmarked. Why weren’t the owners there complaining? Why haven’t they written to describe all the horrors they have had to endure over the last decade or more that they have been subject to landmarks review? Reality check, anyone?

Fallingwater and the Case of the House Museum

November 14, 2006



flgwtr planesS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Fallingwater – the iconic, death-and-decay-defying leap of Frank Lloyd Wright from one end of the 20th century to the other. A building that cannot be left out of architectural history. A building that almost too nakedly tries to say everything about the role of nature and artifice that everyone from Vitruvius and Alberti to Perrault and LeCorbusier tried to say.
Maybe I want to focus on Fallingwater because it has a built-in fire suppression system and Chicago is beset by idiots with blowtorches.
Beyond its iconic status, Fallingwater is also a house museum, which is a challenging thing to be.
Preservationists are impelled to save things for many reasons, including a desire to educate the public about histories and designs. The most elemental expression of this impulse is the house museum, an historic landmark open for tours. These have existed for at least a century, and many think that preservation is ONLY about house museums. The National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered by Congress in 1949 largely to accept house museum donations.
If the house museum is a perfect expression of the preservationist impulse, it is at the same time a really lousy economic model. I am involved in lots of house museums – I gave a talk at the Hegeler-Carus mansion in LaSalle on Sunday, which is one of the most exciting buildings I know in the state. I serve on a Restoration Committee at Pleasant Home in Oak Park, I Chair the Site Council for the Gaylord Building, a National Trust site and I sit on the Steering Committee of the Farnsworth House in Plano, Mies van der Rohe’s temple in and of the wilderness.
With all this experience I can tell you that house museums are a bad idea economically. The average house museum in this country takes in about $8 per visitor and spends $38 for that same visitor. A survey of the early house museums in Charleston and New England in the 1920s produces roughly the same economic formula. House museums have never made economic sense.
Which is why the National Trust only accepts house museums with endowments (now), and which is why our priority at the Farnsworth House is to raise an endowment to maintain and operate the house in perpetuity. Rolf Achilles proposed a worldwide call to architects to donate $100 each and I think it is a great idea.

Which brings us back to Fallingwater, which like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, is one of the more successful house museums in the country. To be successful, you need the iconic status, you need to be a destination and you really need a good bookstore/gift shop. Movie theaters make money on popcorn, not ticket sales, and the same is true of house museums, except substitute coffee mugs, books, earrings and scarves for popcorn.
Fallingwater is quite an operation – they move so many people across those recently reinforced cantilevers that I imagine they will need another big restoration again in the near future. They have a restaurant and a big shop and at the end of the tour they herd you into a room for a membership sales pitch.
I wanna do the same thing at Farnsworth House, and it is very similar – iconic, located about an hour from a major city. As architecture, it is simpler and subtler, perhaps more resonant if not as loud as the house on the waterfall. It has the potential to be one of the very, very few house museums that pays its own way.