Posts Tagged ‘Greenwich Village’

Oak Park Commercial

May 5, 2010

My graduate student seminar this Spring at the Master of Science in Historic Preservation program is focused on historic districts: their history as an expression of community planning and their evolution as an aspect of the historic preservation movement. It builds on my dissertation, which argued that the historic district impulse is about community control in a much broader sense than the more refined motivation of architectural and historical building conservation. Mostly I focus on the residential neighborhoods where the movement has been prevalent over the last eight decades, places like Greenwich Village in New York and Old Town in Chicago.

This semester we had the opportunity to survey two commercial areas in Oak Park, the South Town district on Oak Park Avenue near the Eisenhower Expressway and Harrison Street, the arts district Oak Park has been promoting just north of said expressway along its eastern edge.
Besides fulfilling the “real world” project standards we prefer at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the survey project has also been an interesting investigation into the nature of non-residential historic districts, which have their own history. In the 1970s, numerous courthouse squares and historic Main Streets and downtowns were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby examples include Lockport, an 1930s canal town just 35 miles from Chicago.

Some of these commercial historic districts have also achieved some form of local landmark status. In Oak Park itself, the Avenue district at Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue is part of the Ridgeland district on the National Register and now reviewed by the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission.

The Avenue district has been quite a commercial success over the last two decades it has been a landmark, in contrast to Downtown Oak Park, which has resisted BOTH historic district status and consistent economic vitality.

I’m not saying those two are correlated: you can certainly have economic vitality without historic district status, and you can have historic district status without economic vitality. Historic districts tend to stabilize and increase values, a pattern more evident in residential neighborhoods, although the Avenue is a good example of how it works in commercial areas. Recently Chicago has designated more commercial districts, beginning with Armitage-Halsted in 2003 and continuing this year with Milwaukee Avenue, part of the Wicker Park National Register district that was originally excluded from the Chicago Landmark district in 1990.

Now all of this is prelude to what my graduate students are doing, which is following the preservation process: survey, evaluate, register. Tomorrow night they will present their findings to the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission. They may find sufficient buildings of merit to recommend a potential historic district: they may not. They may identify some buildings that merit designation (South Town already has one local landmark) or they may not. Their findings will be presented tomorrow night. The process is what is important.


Chicago’s Old Town

February 27, 2010

Chicago’s Old Town was one of the city’s first historic districts, designated in the 1970s along with its neighbors Mid-North and Astor Street and Kenwood on the south side. Unlike its landmarked contemporaries, Old Town’s history and architecture were more modest. The landmark plaques on the streets describe a working-class German neighborhood and even today the enduring image of Old Town is a simple worker’s cottage, 1-2 stories high in frame or brick, perhaps with some decorative window hoods and brackets at the eave.

Architecturally, then, Old Town remains among the most modest of historic districts, and in a town that celebrated the modernist architectural narrative of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Old Town offered little beyond a five-house row of early Adler & Sullivan townhouses. Daniel Bluestone reports the famous quote by Chicago’s first preservationist, Earl Reed, and Old Town resident who lamented that his neighborhood “exhibited not even a hint of the International Style in Architecture.” It was like Greenwich Village in New York, a bit of an architectural mongrel, but still a place with a strong “sense of place.”

Old Town also shared with Greenwich Village a passion for community activism that more than made up for what it lacked in architectural elitism. Community groups arose immediately after World War II in an effort to create a stable, family-friendly community a short distance from downtown and only steps from the Lincoln Park lakefront. Old Town also shared a community narrative about artists and freethinkers. The Old Town Art Fair – the first in Chicago – began in 1949 and cultivated the artistic image of the community Greenwich Village had pursued even earlier in the century. Both Greenwich Village and Old Town traded on their bohemian nature but became uncomfortable with that status during the countercultural upheavals of the 1960s.

Old Town actually supported urban renewal in an effort to improve their neighborhood, although public sentiment turned sharply against it once the bulldozers started rolling. In the 1970s they turned to Chicago Landmark status – and downzoning – in an effort to limit the highrises that were walling off Chicago’s lakefront. Their success in stopping highrises was limited, another parallel to Greenwich Village, where those godawful white brick behemoths soared in the 1960s during the four years it took for the neighborhood to become a designated New York Landmark.

Community activisim took the shape of an historic district and Old Town has always been one of the most active communities, participating in permit review meetings at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. The uninitiated think of landmarks review as some form of “architectural police” but in reality it is quite simply a forum for the community to make their feelings known – an attempted democracy of the built environment. The historic district gives the community a place to voice their opinions – and they have done so in Old Town – markedly – for over 30 years.

When I take my students to Old Town today – as I did last week – I ask them to look not just at the architecture, but also at the sense of place. There is a scale to Old Town, a closeness of building to street and street to cross street and curb to curb that you simply don’t find anywhere else in the city. It is not so much about the rope mouldings above the windows or the paired brackets and dentils at the eave or even those Furnessian ornaments on Adler & Sullivan’s Halstead Houses. It is about a premodern relationship of buildings and streets and narrow alleyways – something not unusual in Rome or the old part of Edinburgh but exceedingly rare in Chicago.

And when I walk through the streets of Old Town I also see the narrative of community activism – an activism that continues more than three decades later as Chicago Landmark status becomes a forum for community groups to provide input into the disposition of their built environment. How will buildings look after they are rehabilitated? What kinds of new construction or additions are acceptable to the community?

I researched Greenwich Village and Old Town for my dissertation and one of the things that struck me was how both communities lacked traditional architectural distinction but planned to use district designation in order to make the community more architecturally coherent over time. And it has happened. Old Town has seen more of its cottages and brick flat buildings brought back to their original design. Areas around Old Town have also “improved” but with new construction at a new scale and style that diminishes the sense of place.

Thirty years ago you would see the same kind of neighborhood north and west of Old Town and today you don’t. The historic district retains layers of history, a rootedness, a sense of unique, distinct and coherent place. Those areas outside are nice enough, but they are like a lot of other places. Their sense of place is every place. Old Town may not have the fanciest architecture, but at least you know where you are when you are there.

Dolkart’s Row House Reborn

January 13, 2010

I just finished reading Andrew Dolkart’s new book “The Row-House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908-1929” (Johns Hopkins 2009) and I loved it. Dolkart tells a story that is fascinating from several perspectives in the history of building conservation, and he tells it very well. The book springs from a simple fact: people started rehabbing rowhouses in New York (and elsewhere) in the early 20th century. Sometimes these rehabs respected the original exterior of the buildings, essentially following current preservation practice for locally designated historic districts. Sometimes they heavily altered the exterior, following emergent fashions for “Colonial” or Mediterranean renaissance stylings. This involved chopping off no-longer fashionable stoops and window surrounds and other extraneous Victorianisms.

Near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village. Photo copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

You see these rowhouses everywhere, and Dolkart has unearthed tons of period commentary and reportage on the conversions: they usually involved complete interior remodeling of partitions, kitchens, and the like. They also often involved exterior remodeling that typically eliminated the stoops for new groundfloor entrances; shaved off many of the window and door mouldings; rendered the facades with stucco; often added multipane, casement or studio windows; developed rear gardens in an early and successful attempt at gentrification.

93 Perry Street facade. The archway at left leads to the garden and rear building in this 1928 rehab by local architect Floyd McCathern. Dolkart includes a 1932 photo in his book. This photo is copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

Dolkart’s investigation therefore explores one of the philosophical issues that constantly recurs throughout the history of conserving the built environment: when does something become historic and WHEN are we trying to restore things too? Clearly changes to rowhouses that happened in 1912 or 1922 are now “historic,” yet Dolkart notes that many such changes are eliminated with the full approval of landmarks agencies when owners propose restoring a rowhouse to its original condition of the 1840s or 1880s.

Dolkart’s contribution is significant in his detailing of how these remodelings were considered in terms of architecture and real estate development. He first details the many projects of Frederick Sterner, who redesigned many houses for himself and other high-end patrons, transforming the East 60s from an immigrant area to an island of elite pied-a-terre. Dolkart crafts a compelling architectural context for these conversions as representing a distinct social and aesthetic history that is implicitly worthy of some preservation.

The Parge House on East 65th, Frederick Sterner’s final house. The use of ornamental relief in the exterior stucco (pargetry) was a feature of Sterner’s work. Photograph copyright 2006 by Felicity Rich.

Dolkart devotes a significant section to Greenwich Village, which I studied as part of my dissertation. The Village is fascinating for two reasons, both of which are central to Dolkart’s story of early 20th century creative rehabilitation. First, the Village had a strong artistic identity, an identity I explored in my dissertation, relying on many of the same sources Dolkart cites (and critiques). This artistic identity was turned into both heritage tourism and real estate speculation, as the artistic identity of the community became a rationale for rehabilitating buildings by adding artist’s garrets, large studio windows and the like, even as the buildings were being rehabilitated beyond the means of most artists to rent or own.

Greenwich Village – another photo copyright 2006 by Felicity Rich. I guess she was noticing these buildings a few years back…

In my dissertation I dealt with Greenwich Village because it was central to the adoption of local landmarking and preservation in general but it lacked traditional architectural integrity, and these 1910s and 1920s row-house rehabs are part of the reason it was originally proposed to be 18 separate historic districts. Thanks to a centuries-old artistic identity and the concept that landmarks designation would help make the district more architecturally cohesive over time, it became a single district in 1969. I used it as an example of the community-planning impulse in landmark designation, which has at least two aspects: first, the motive to preserve not simply architecture and history but community in the largest sense, and secondly a future-orientation focused on community improvement and employing landmark designation as the motor and model for that improvement. Certainly many of the 1910s and 20s rehabs have been “fixed” since the designation of Greenwich Village, which is why Dolkart began looking at this issue in the first place.

My only critique of the book is its perhaps natural limitation – an Epilogue of less than 10 pages called “Beyond New York City” with brief mentions of Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston. In my work I compared the ongoing conservation development of Greenwich Village – “Zoning Bohemia” – to its Chicago counterpart of Old Town, certainly smaller and about 10-15 years behind its Big Apple cousin. But as soon as I started reading the book it immediately brought to mind the same type of 1910s and 1920s rehabs in Chicago’s Old Town, like this:

Now this is of course one of the now-famous and independently landmarked homes that Sol Kogen and Edgar Miller fabricated out of existing building stock in the 1920s. But Old Town also has stuccoed, Mediterranean-Revival-roofed houses on Lincoln Park West and altered Italianates with casements and studio rooftops – all added during the transformation of the district into an artistic enclave in the 1920s. There was even a wave of 1960s rehab that inspired the district itself in the 1970s, and much of that did not follow traditional architectural preservation standards.

I am grateful that Andrew has written such a nicely researched and crafted book and I hope it inspires us to look at the early waves of rehabilitation and how they thought about buildings and communities. It was a welcome, enjoyable and inspiring read.

JANUARY 19 update:

Here are the buildings on Lincoln Park west I was thinking of. I haven’t researched these so I don’t know when they were altered, but the first (actually on Menomonee at the foot of Lincoln Park West) has extra-long windows, a rendered upper facade, and diamond panes in the lower windows:

Next, a few houses north on Lincoln Park West, are these two old Italianates made into Spanish Colonial houses with render, a pent tile roof, and adobe-like walls. Again, I haven’t done the research but I am guessing 1920s.

And of course the Crilly Court gardens remind one of the many rear garden schemes Dolkart found in Manhattan. This is where the Old Town Art Fair started in the 1940s, 15 years after Greenwich Village started its art fair.

There are quite a lot of 1960s-70s rehabs in Old Town, when the area become popular and started lobbying for landmark protection.


I found another near Michigan Avenue -as I knew I might, since the area around the Water Tower – Towertown – was the artsy area before the creation of North Michigan Avenue in 1920. I also noticed several over on La Salle near Burton Place, the ultimate arthouse block done by Kogen and Miller in the 1920s. Here is the one off Michigan Avenue:

Owning in an historic district

December 3, 2009

I own a house in a historic district and last year I blogged about how thankful I was for that fact. Real estate is an asset whose value is largely external – it comes from its location, which is to say, its surrounding buildings and environment. Because my house is in a historic district, its value is assured. Economic studies for over 40 years have confirmed this fact in communities across the United States.

If you look at the history of historic districts – which I did in my dissertation – you find that the first modern historic districts emerged in the 1950s in communities that were concerned about drastic changes to their environment and thus the value of their homes. Urban renewal was one threat, which proposed outright demolition. The other threat was posed by postwar zoning ordinances, which dramatically increased density and thus owners of brownstones or single-family homes faced the prospect of massive highrises next door.

So homeowners in places like Beacon Hill in Boston and Brooklyn Heights in New York did what their forefathers did a generation earlier with zoning: they crafted legislation to protect their environment and thus their home value. Often they also secured downzoning – this happened in Greenwich Village in 1961, and in Chicago’s trio of lakefront landmarks in the 1970s – Astor Street, Old Town, and Mid-North.

Now, some people, motivated by greed or some sort of Ayn Rand ideology, argue that they don’t want historic districts because it will limit their value. How can this be true? Well, we have the examples of teardowns, where people are able to cash in on windfall profits because they can tear down a house and build a bigger one.

The libertarian ideology goes right out the window as soon as you realize that what allows the teardown is zoning: it’s just another government handout. In fact, the zoning that makes teardowns possible and profitable ALSO protects the value of some of those teardowns by insuring that I can’t build an abbatoir next door. Indeed, that it why a Supreme Court Justice (Sutherlan – who was as conservative then as Scalia is today) upheld zoning in 1926. So people who bought houses wouldn’t have knackering houses next door.

Historic districts were born at the same time as zoning and for the same reasons and they are in fact simply a more precise and surgical tool compared to zoning, which can sometimes be a blunt instrument. They also secure value, and I will not be surprised when some teardown neighborhoods hit the skids when McMansions start falling apart in 2020 during the height of the baby bust. After all, I have seen how they were built.

There is a vital economic principle at work in historic districts: uncertainty. The reason people get all NIMBY about things and fear change is simple: they fear uncertainty. This has economic agency because uncertainty discourages investment and consumer confidence and other things that are seen as positive for a growing economy. This is another stick in the eye of free market ideologies, because in reality, markets only operate well under conditions of security and certainty. Bandits and plagues and earthquakes are generally BAD for markets. Historic districts, like other zoning devices, create a sense of certainty that insures value over the long term, even if it might discourage short-term windfall profits.

Historic districts create another alchemy which led me to question one of the basic assumptions I have been talking about here. Ownership. We want the certainty of a stable environment to preserve our home value, an argument Dartmouth economist William Fischel has made excellently. But I also studied historic districts in Manhattan, and found a strange condition. People wanted historic districts and the certainty of an attractive, healthy and wealthy environment, but they didn’t own. A majority of the residents of places like Greenwich Village and Hamilton Heights were renters, not owners when they sought historic status. Moreover, I found that renters were investing tons of sweat equity in Greenwich Village rentals from the 1910s onward. This counters the ownership and equity theory.

Why? I think it comes back to the certainty principle. You might have equity, but that is an abstract concept. And in the 2009 world of upside-down mortgages, it has proved often illusory. But where you sleep and eat and the buildings and streets you travel to work and shop and recreate – those are real. They are certain, and you derive value from your environment whether or not you accumulate value in it. You can’t take it with you. But you can have it with you all the time you are here.

As long as I live in a historic district, I will have this value and this certainty.


December 15, 2005

First a quick note about New Orleans, where many preservationists are hard at work trying to save the homes of this historic city. Last week, Associated Press reported on a survey of 114,127 damaged buildings in New Orleans. Of these, 31,662 had no structural damage, 79,325 had partial damage and 3,140 were tagged red, which meant they should be razed.

Two comments: 1. That is less than 3 percent. 2. The AP report notes that the majority of the red-tagged buildings were brick ranch houses built since 1940.

Score one for the old buildings!

Now, on to New York

I was in New York late last week interviewing preservationists and I was struck by how similar preservation issues are in different places: the politics, the factions, the economics and aesthetics. I was also struck by how parochial New Yorkers can be – as I interviewed them they often counterinterviewed me to find out what was going on in Chicago. That’s New York – a world unto itself and hence a bit fishbowlic despite its mass. I don’t begrudge that – New York is a whole world every few blocks – if I were there it would be hard to see beyond the Hudson.

And New York looms large in preservation history. They gave us zoning in 1916, and their 1965 local landmarks law – while not the first – had a big influence on the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act and famously held up in court in the 1978 Grand Central Station case. On Saturday I had the good fortune of meeting with Dorothy Miner, a key attorney on that case, and her insights were revelatory. She was also the least parochial, keenly aware of landmarks litigation in Chicago over the years. Unlike some advocates she also was willing to count the successes over time, particularly the large historic districts on the Upper West and Upper East Sides. She was genuinely amazed that New Yorkers had chosen to regulate so much valuable real estate.

A lot of my investigation centered on Greenwich Village, still the largest district in Manhattan. This is valuable real estate. Rows of Federal and Greek Revival rowhouses were being frantically leveled for giant white brick air conditioner piles right up until the 1969 designation. “Pile” is a derisive term in architecture with a long history and the clunky step-box stacks of New York embody it perfectly. But they stopped them in the Village. The neighborhood even has its own staffed preservation organization that is adding more landmarks as well as downzoning to maintain Village character.

New York is less coherent than Chicago to my eye, and less architecturally notable, but it has great buildings and it has a lot of what most people understand a architecture: swooping stoops and swelling swags and all of that ornamental decoration that even politicians understand as architecture – the opposite of Mies, if you will.

I did visit our Chicago heroes – Mies’ Seagram Building and Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict with its restored storefronts. They fit right into the universe that is New York. Everything fits in there because it is a universe, a world unto itself, lacking nothing and keeping a heck of a lot of it.