Posts Tagged ‘Landmarks Illinois’

Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois.

farnsworth615c

Last week.  Maybe next week too.

I have been involved in this house for a long time due to my Board service at both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and for the last couple years I have also served on the Technical Advisory Panel looking at flooding mitigation options for the Farnsworth House.  I have been a cheerleader for the process the National Trust has undertaken, and I have listened especially closely to the National Park Service, since it is essential in my mind that any actions taken insure we preserve the National Historic Landmark status of this iconic masterpiece of architecture.

farnsworth615b

I came into the process as a skeptic, not wanting to move or alter the house.  Let it flood, I said, taking a purist position.  It’s a submarine, I said.  I did not like the idea of moving it because we bought it in 2003 so it wouldn’t be moved away.  As Dirk Lohan (Mies’ grandson and an important architect in his own right) says, the house makes no sense if it is in a location that does not flood,

FH 2013 terrace hosue

I became convinced that the hydraulic option – putting the house on hydraulic jacks that would lift it out of harm’s way in the case of a flood – was the best preservation option, and I still believe that.  Doing nothing, I realized, relegated the house to the status of archaeological ruin.  But of course doing anything with a house of this international significance will cause some people to get their knickers in a twist, pressing upwards as they express objections to actions which could harm this landmark.  As all actions can.  As inaction will.

FH 2013 frontal

Doing nothing will do great harm to the building, and it is clear from the National Park Service and others that doing nothing is NOT a preservation option.  That is the archaeological ruin option.  Yesterday in the Chicago Tribune Blair Kamin reported on what has happened in the last year as some preservationists – John Vinci in particular – have objected to the hydraulic option and forced the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois to investigate a new option – moving it almost half a mile to a new site on Dr. Edith Farnsworth’s property where it will 1.  flood less, 2. allow a reinterpretation of the original landscape, which was ruined by the introduction of a highway bridge in 1970, reimagined as a manicured landscape in the 1970s and 80s,  and altered by the loss of a sugar maple tree that framed the house in 2012.

fh f riverS

This tree is no more

Doing anything dramatic – and dramatic options are all that remain – will upset or excite people.  Look how the Miesians got upset about the new window stops at IIT Crown Hall – a quarter-inch slope meant that a NON-RIGHT ANGLE had been inserted, thus wrecking (??) Mies’ vision.

the bite

Don’t tell me you can’t see that.  Come on! 

Landmarks Illinois has to approve whatever solution obtains thanks to their preservation easement, and they will make the decision as a Board.  Thanks to local opposition, the National Trust is now looking at this new relocation option.  (Note:  I have not been on the Landmarks Illinois Board for two years)

cornfield bus

Like here.

I still prefer the hydraulic solution because it keeps the building in place.  I also reject the irresponsible claims by some that this technology is somehow a big deal.

About Hydraulics

Let me take you back to to 1854, when Elishu Otis demonstrated the safety elevator.  Hydraulics – which preceded Otis by a decade – powered that elevator.  His innovation was a brake.  Within a few years, hydraulics allowed tall buildings to be practical.  By 1882, four years before Ludwig Mies was born –  you had a company in London running high-pressure mains 184 miles powering some 8,000 elevators.  So if this 175-year old technology worries you, avoid elevators.

333 elev doors

You’ll never get me up in one of those things.

Hydraulic jack technology is older than the zipper, the typewriter (what’s that?) and the automobile.   As the great Bob Silman, who investigated ALL of these options, noted, we put our lives on hydraulics whenever we get on an airplane.  All those noises you hear?  Hydraulics.  Think of all the times you have flown and the hydraulics on the landing gear failed.  Go ahead.

airplane

Sorry I’m Amish.

Back to the Decision – and Owning It.

Indications are that this relocation option – like the hydraulic solution – will still meet the National Historic Landmark status requirements.  This is really important and a key factor in the decision in my view.  The relocation option also appears to have the favor of John Vinci – who has no official role in the process.  Landmarks Illinois DOES have a role in the process.   As soon as we at the National Trust present our preferred option Landmarks Illinois will need to make a decision, especially in light of the fact that we have investigated this new relocation option based on their reaction to the hydraulic option.

farnsworth11 grtS

I get it – I have been in this field for over 32 years.  I LOVE being in the John Vinci position of sniping and throwing brickbats against the powers that be, safely outside the decision-making process.  That’s what I did in my 20s, and that saved some buildings from uncaring owners or inconsiderate government entities.  But Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust quite literally TOOK OWNERSHIP of this house a dozen years ago and are now responsible – there is no one but ourselves to snipe and throw brickbats at.

farns living east1109p

Or stones.  Maybe I should have said stones.  It’s a glass house after all.

So my role of late has been to praise the process the National Trust has undertaken over the last three years and to insist that every organization involved take ownership of the eventual solution.  Landmarks Illinois has made this a Board decision as opposed to a decision of the Fund and Easements Committee.  Fine.  But no decision – like taking no action – is NOT an option.  That decision will likely not be comfortable, but I for one will own it.

farns bedroom1109s

You make your bed you sleep in it.

UPDATE:  A European perspective.  A couple of weeks later I was in Europe with a local preservation group in the Ossola Valley and an Irish ICOMOS Committee Chair.  I mentioned the Farnsworth House flooding problem and without context or prompt they both said, nearly in unison:  “Jack it up.”  This would not be a fraught issue in Europe.

Do you know the Bessemer process which allowed the industrial production of steel, which made the materials of the Farnsworth House possible is ALSO younger than hydraulics?  Don’t worry – the old technology will not be visible – just the purity of the Modern.

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Save Prentice Movement Grows

July 27, 2012

“But just as a patient expects his doctor to pull out all stops in search of a cure, Northwestern must pursue every avenue before daring to raze one of Chicago’s architectural and engineering treasures.

We don’t think they’re trying hard enough. Surely, there’s a solution.”

That is from an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday, one of several actions that have ramped up the pressure on Northwestern University to explain why it needs to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s pathbreaking 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital, which I have been writing about here for over two years. The first building to use computers in aid of its design, Prentice is a song, a crescendo of 45-foot concrete cantilevers twirling into a quatrefoil of cylindrical skin delicately punched with ovals, a bold sculpture on a base that makes the regular buildings around it look dull-witted.

The architecture geeks have loved this building for a while, and of course I announced its ascension to the National Trust Eleven Most Endangered List a little over a year ago.

Then recently a posse of high profile architects, from Jeanne Gang to Frank Gehry joined the chorus. Then today Landmarks Illinois President Bonnie McDonald and Zurich Esposito of the AIA had an Op-Ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. As they say “In commissioning its new building for obstetrics, Northwestern Memorial Hospital sought to incorporate new ideas about women and childbirth. Goldberg’s design took these ideas and ran with them. The building’s floor plan made a family-oriented childbirth experience possible; fathers could be present for labor and delivery. In addition, the floor plan allowed nurses to be closer to patient rooms and have better lines of sight, improving women’s care.”

This social history is embedded in the building quite literally. And, as I pointed out two years ago, it is still cutting-edge: Bus kiosks in Chicago advertise the same cloverleaf plan used by the latest 2012 hospital building on the west side. What is old is new again.


Yes, but the building can’t be re-used, they say. Then how come Landmarks Illinois put together THREE DIFFERENT re-use scenarios for the building? Re-use requires more thinking and design skill, but why is that bad?

Heck, even if you don’t give a fig about architecture, why would anyone want ANOTHER VACANT LOT in what is rapidly becoming a Gobi Desert off North Michigan Avenue? Plus, there is NOTHING green about kicking up tons of dust dismantling a perfectly serviceable building, burning acres of gas trucking it 100 miles to a landfill, and then kicking up more dust and trees and gravel and sand and gasoline and uranium to make a new one.

I even spent the year scouting other locations for Northwestern, like this one that provides the same property tax revenue to the City of Chicago.

The problem for Northwestern is that they took a position that they could take as an 800-pound gorilla with huge economic and political clout. But they have been faced with intelligent arguments about the significance of the building, re-use and sustainable urbanism and they have not responded intelligently. Time to stop being a gorilla, guys.

AUGUST 15 UPDATE

The other shoe has finally fallen. Almost 20 years ago I noticed that the “bad guys” in preservation battles had stopped being real estate developers, in part because so many of them recognized the marketing and branding value of old buildings, and some of them had figured out how to make the various tax benefits work. The bad guys, by the early 90s, were increasingly not-for-profit institutions, especially those that needed land to maintain their fundraising – like universities and hospitals. So, while we might laud the Sun-Times (while slamming the Trib – goodbye subscription!) and the architects who joined Frank Gehry, and the great Paul Goldberger, let’s raise a toast to developer Paul Beitler, who just came out in favor of saving Prentice.

Northwestern is holding tight and pushing out its magical jobs and investment numbers. And claiming the building is obsolete. Get it straight: this is not about obsolescence. It isn’t even about jobs and investment (this is not the only vacant block in the immediate vicinity, much less the neighborhood or city). It is about more profits to a not-for-profit that is worth $7 billion dollars.

No wonder they think they always get their way.

August 26 Update: Great article from Cheryl Kent today.
August 27 Update: Crain’s Chicago Business Editorial says NO to Northwestern’s demolition plan, calls them out for phoning it in….
August 28 Update: Deanna Isaacs in the Reader also calls out Northwestern for their addled response/justification. Why does someone with $7 billion play dimestore PR?

September 18 UPDATE: Now, like four years later, Northwestern decides to announce a design competition for its unfunded, unplanned, supposed research center, as reported in the Tribune today. Meanwhile, the last two famous architects who hadn;t yet joined the Save Prentice Movement signed up – Renzo Piano and Kevin Roche. At the risk of repeating myself a month later, how does one of the richest (non-profit) corporations in the state excuse such a lame, unprepared, unreasoned and transparently facetious public relations strategy?

It really isn’t fair. On the one side you have architects, urbanists, and re-use studies, and on the other side you have a schoolyard bully whose best attempt to verbalize his rage comes out as a whining “Unh-Unh!!”

HALLOWEEN 2012: AND THE BULLY WINS!

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sided with Northwestern and demolition. So that does it. I will give the Mayor $5 for every job created on that site prior to his next election, not including demolition and landscaping.

You should see the landscaping they are planning for the site!!! It. is. SO. GREAT!

Farnsworth House 2011

September 24, 2011


There it is. My perfect Greek temple, the ultimate expression of art in nature, of architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Great art and great architecture work like this: you can visit it a hundred times and you see something new, learn something new, feel something new every single time. I discover it every time at Unity Temple and every time at the Farnsworth House. In the video we show visitors, John Bryan says there is no building more important in modern architecture. Dirk Lohan calls it a poem. It is a beautiful and perfect chord, a wonderful harmony of steel and glass and white and light wood and it floats above its site, resting loosely on the world, ready to rise like sound.

It is the autumnal equinox, which means the tourist season at Farnsworth House has 60 more days, and the attendance has already surpassed last YEAR, which was the highest attendance EVER, and all this despite the challenges of rebuilding from a 2008 flood, the shift of operations from Landmarks Illinois to the National Trust, and the challenge of trying to complete several repair projects, some of which were funded years ago.

The house is about its setting, and the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois, under the leadership of John Bryan, secured the house at auction in December 2003, saving it from being dismantled and moved away from its Fox River location. That location means floods, six of which have reached into the house over its 60 years, each officially a “100-year flood”. Many would like to move it to save it from future flooding, but it was built for flooding. It is steel and glass, designed and molded with the perfection that only Ludwig Mies van der Rohe could muster, his unerring precision modulating every element from the smallest window profile to the placement of I-beams that seemed magnetically attached to the deck and house, a floating and dynamic glass house that is about nature but also, so clearly and musically, about floating above nature.

I brought tours groups there Thursday and Friday and they loved it. Part of what is bringing the attendance numbers up is the creative programming that Site Director Whitney French has done, including the installation this summer of Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus, an energy-positive portable house that not only produces more electricity than it consumes, but also recycles all of its grey water by means of ponds and plants that line the deck surrounding its sunshades and solar panels.




Lumenhaus was inspired by the Farnsworth House, as was the National Trust’s Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, designed by longtime Mies associate Philip Johnson and completed before (but designed after) the Farnsworth House.

If you read this blog much, you know I am pretty down on house museums. I am Chair of the Historic Sites Fund subcommittee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I have studied historic sites all over the country over time and I know how hard it is for a site to make sense economically based on tourism and ticket sales alone. Ticket sales historically rarely exceed 20% of operating costs, so you need a vigorous and successful combination of bookstore/shop sales, special events, rentals, and installations like Lumenhaus that make the site NEW again every year or season so people keep coming back.

I think Farnsworth House is one of those rare sites, like Robie House or Fallingwater or Monticello, that can make sense as a house museum. No matter how beautiful, how rich and resonant a piece of architecture is, it still takes the creativity and 24/7 dedication of people like Whitney French to make it a success. The Farnsworth House is getting there.

2014 UPDATE on Farnsworth House

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.

Crunch Time on Prentice

June 1, 2011

Tomorrow, June 2, 2011, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks will consider preliminary designation of Prentice Women’s Hospital as a Chicago Landmark. This is the result of a joint efforts by Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (which used a photo of Prentice on its new Financial Assistance publication!) to give the building its day in court, or in the words of Landmarks Illinois Advocacy Director Lisa DiChiera “This building is just too high-profile to let it slip away without a thorough, transparent review of its landmark eligibility.”

It does not look good. Northwestern Hospital has so much clout that the new Mayor (see last post for what he could have done) and even the Alderman – who asked for a 60-day delay on demolition, and even two of the three architects who developed a comprehensive re-use study for the old (1975 is old?) hospital kept their names off of it. This is a lot of clout. The ability to keep this much of the most valuable acreage between Manhattan and San Francisco off of the tax rolls and have the city thank you for it is A LOT of clout.

Not only that, but despite the architectural importance of the building – by Chicago icon Bertrand Goldberg, a singular modernist, a veteran of Mies’ Bauhaus who nonetheless charted a different path both formally and theoretically. This building is one of the first to use computers in the design, to get that stunning 15m-concrete cantilever without breaking the beautiful curving lines. It is like a flower. Like a flower.

There is a generation that does not “get” this architecture, that is concerned that it is only 36 years old, even though that is EXACTLY the age of 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive (Mies van der Rohe) when the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted preliminary determination of eligibility.

The generation that does not “get” it is unfortunately represented in large numbers in the immediate neighborhood, and I am not talking about inpatients but the local neighborhood group, which did NOT ask for its preservation. They are called SOAR (Streeterville Organization of Active Residents) and I am a little surprised because they STOOD WITH US 22 years ago to save the John Hancock Building, which was only 21 years old at the time.


One of the awful ironies of this situation is that NOTHING is going to be put there if Northwestern gets it way and demolishes the building. I don’t know that it will sit vacant for 19 YEARS like Block 37 did, but I can pretty much guarantee a half dozen. They are planning a green, fenced space. No access, no parking. I suppose that turns down the volume on the lost tax revenue issue. Huge net loss for the neighborhood, though.

Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has been great on this issue, as have all three preservation organizations involved. We have gotten support from all around the country, and many are saying that this will be a watershed for the preservation of mid-century Modernism. Maybe now everyone will “get” it, the same way they “got” the Prairie School when the Robie House was saved in 1957, the same was they “got” Victorian architecture when the Jefferson Market Courthouse was preserved in 1967, the same way they “got” vernacular historic districts when Old Town was landmarked in 1977, the same way they “got” the church preservation issue when Holy Family and St. Mary of the Angels were threatened in 1987, the same way they “got” the need for local landmark protection when City Council designated 26 landmarks in 1997, the same way they “got” sustainability as the ultimate preservation modality in 2007.

Some may not “get” the beauty, historical value and urbanistic appeal of this building today. but pretty much everyone will within a decade. I have seen it happen many, many times before, as the above litany illustrates. I am watching the same thing unfold here.

And if it is lost, it will be important to put down the names of those who demolished it and save those names for posterity.

The Moving Finger writes.

WHAT HAPPENED JUNE 2: Northwestern went into talks with the City and promised not to apply for a demolition permit in exchange for the talks, and no preliminary determination from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

HALLOWEEN 2012: AND THE BULLY WINS!

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has sided with Northwestern and demolition. So that does it. I will give the Mayor $5 for every job created on that site prior to his next election, not including demolition and landscaping.

The Changing Future of Preservation

May 17, 2011

Within the last week I have been involved in strategic planning exercises as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Board of the Landmarks Illinois, and besides being reminded of the facilitation and SWOT analysis I first experienced 26 years ago in a Joliet hotel (yes, that sounds odd, but trust me, it isn’t) I was also struck by some of the challenges facing both non-profit membership organizations and the heritage conservation/historic preservation field as a whole.

One of those challenges is in the realm of membership. Membership has dropped at both organizations, and it has aged. It seems the 19th and 20th century pattern of the membership organization is being either eclipsed or remodeled. There was a lot of talk in both board retreats about reaching out to younger generations and wondering whether younger generations will join as members or simply be affiliated and affinitized (not a word) via social media and social networks, depriving the old membership organizations of a fundamental pillar of their existence.

As usual in the shifts and spasms of changes to our social economy, the fears are probably disproportionate. Membership was always important in preservation because it had a political policy implication as well as a revenue source, but in fact the revenue source was never primary. Arguably membership numbers had more impact on policy than income. The National Trust plan for the 21st century (from a few years back) called for “engaging” a million people, and while we aren’t there yet, as I reported in the last blog entry, the Trust has been relatively adept at engaging social media and the interwebs.

This doesn’t translate into traditional membership and thus there is a drain on income, but at the same time it could translate into MORE engaged people, which would have a positive impact on the public policy side of the equation. Plus, you can click and donate pretty easily on the Trust website, either in general or in specific advocacy cases. So too with Landmarks Illinois, although I pushed for a more fluid site. I also suggested PRESERVATION FLASH MOBS! (run with it).

The real issue for 2011 and the real shift is this: the most significant aspect of our technological progress over the last two decades has been the shift to user control, to individual control. I resisted (go back five years in this blog and you can witness some of that resistance) a lot of technological changes like cell phones and MP-3s and digital photography because I saw a diminution in quality. Of course, quality has improved, but the pattern of technological progress actually follows an initial shift to lower quality. Why?

I remember talking to a printer about a decade ago about people choosing to do their own printing via digital technology rather than going to a traditional offset press. He responded simply: People are happy to exchange quality for control. I can hold 10,000 MP-3 songs in the palm of my hand and choose when and how I hear them, so who cares if the treble is tinny and the bass is thunky and the mid-range has vanished? I can design my invitations all by myself and control the process, so I don’t mind the thin paper and bleeding lines. The hard drive on my desk the size of my hand holds more photos than a 6-foot tall shelving unit behind me, so I don’t mind the fact that I lose a few bits of information each time I open that jpg.

The answer of course, is that you need to have a web presence that allows user INPUT and control. The internet is NOT a new method of disseminating information, it is a new method of social interaction, and websites that act like information newsletters or annual reports are used once and disposed. The brilliance of the Partners in Preservation program the National Trust does with American Express is that it is all about interaction. Landmarks Illinois saw similar interaction when its 11 Most Endangered list was put up for public voting via internet (which landmarks did people really want to save?). And there is no dearth of models for monetizing websites, although the challenge for not-for-profits with comparatively low numbers of engaged public is daunting.

The point I pushed to both organizations was this: it is not a matter of figuring out how to engage the next generation: every older generation makes the same mistake of trying to identify what it is about the next generation that is significant, relevant and then tries to build a bridge based on those parameters. Don’t. It won’t work. The whole point of any generation is that it is a network, and that it MUST DEFINE ITSELF and you must accept that part of how it defines itself will be in CONTRAST to your generation. You can’t change that equation for love or money or even genius.

What you have to do is allow each generation ACCESS to cultural heritage conservation, historic preservation, or whatever they want to call it. Don’t fret that they don’t value it – if you found intrinsic social and human value in it, they will too, but they won’t find it the same way you did. Its patterns and modalities will change. Its definition may change. Our job as the older generation is to give the next generation INPUT into the field and be patient and agile as they change it, grow it, and make it relevant for themselves.

The second challenge to our field lies in a point National Trust President Stephanie Meeks made in Austin in October: We need to stop being perceived as the people who saw “no.” This stems from the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s national and local preservation laws were passed all over the country, and often these laws seemed too architectural and arcane for the average person to understand. And even though both the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois are private organizations that have NEVER (ever) had any regulatory power or role, the perception remains.

When I did my dissertation under Bob Bruegmann, he challenged me to write a history of preservation without reference to any laws, and suggested that people were probably preserving buildings and neighborhoods long before there were any preservation laws. He was right. You can find that phenomenon in Greenwich Village in 1910 and in 1935 and in 1955 long before laws went into effect there in 1969. You can find it in Old Town in Chicago in 1925 and 1949 and 1968 long before laws went into effect a decade later. I was in Seattle for the National Trust meetings and I sought out buildings Barry Byrne had designed with Andrew Willatzen between 1908 and 1912 and with the exception of one teardown for a weed-filled lot, each of the houses and buildings I found were remarkably well preserved and well cared for even though they were a hundred years old. They had no infelicitous additions or alterations I could see, despite the fact that Seattle has succumbed to anti-regulatory paranoia, people were preserving century-old Prairie style houses.

At Landmarks Illinois we talked about trying to link to Sustainability, which was another part of our Seattle meeting – seeing the Trust’s Preservation Green Lab there, which is run by a real estate developer, and here is a sign from another real estate developer (and good friend) who is building a new glass highrise downtown.

Sustainability, like natural area conservation, has become an embedded ethic in society that no amount of Koch Brothers funding can unseat. How can preservation achieve this? Part of the answer lies in those Byrne and Willatzen houses, and understanding that the houses on my block – which are gloriously preserved – are preserved MOSTLY because people want to and only secondarily because there are regulations. Regulations can’t preserve the buildings on my block – or those Seattle Prairie houses. They can keep them from being torn down. But there is a widespread ethic that values their design and their age value and their history and backs up that value with the investment of money and time and energy.

I first spoke at a National Trust conference in 1993 and the topic was how do we get preservation to happen in inner-city neighborhoods. I did a 15-year history of how historic preservation was happening in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago. My conclusion? The question was wrong. The preservation was happening: our job was to support and assist community groups that chose preservation and rehabilitation as means to community revitalization. You don’t have to create them, you just have to find them.

(Amazing side note: I just pulled out the outline of that speech from a folder. In less than a minute. Damn I’m organized!)

So the answer to this second preservation challenge is remarkably similar to the first: you have to be willing to cede some control. You have to believe that the aesthetic, historical, cultural and place-based values you hold, are also held by others. You have to be willing to tack to the wind and trust that changes in how the field operates will not undercut those values.

You have to be willing not simply to CHANGE your organization,
but to let it BE CHANGED. And that takes a bit more courage.

Prentice Women’s Hospital April 2011

April 11, 2011

The most significant preservation battle in Chicago for some time has been the effort to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a pioneering 1975 design by Bertrand Goldberg. It’s four-lobed curving concrete form is being imitated by the NEWEST hospital building in Chicago and I called it perhaps the first acknowledgement of the feminine in architecture. My colleague Anthea Hartig said “The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.” The building’s seamless integration of art and science is manifest in concrete cantilevers that pushed the lobes 45 feet beyond their base, a feat that took one of the FIRST applications of computers to aid in an architectural design. And it’s gorgeous.

But rather than a seamless integration of art and science, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board today called it a conflict between art and science. This artificial dichotomy comes up a lot in our field of heritage conservation. I can recall a panel assembled by a chamber of commerce group in Oak Park to discuss the conflict between preservation and development, another artificial dichotomy. Preservation is development, and science is art. False dichotomies are the refuge of scoundrels who can only count the beans in one silo at a time and hacks who can’t fathom art or science but are somehow charged with making room for one or the other.

Let’s read between the lines of the Tribune editorial. First, we need to set up the artificial dichotomy: what will the building be replaced by? Here is what the editorial says:

“Northwestern says the new (research) facility will form a state-of-the-art research complex with the adjacent Lurie Medical Research Center and draw 700 jobs and more than $300 million in federal grant money for biomedical research.”

Oh, so the landmark is being replaced by a $300 million research facility employing 700 people? NO, THAT’S NOT WHAT THEY SAID. Here is what Northwestern officials said last week when they announced they wanted to demolish the landmark:

“The university has looked at various alternatives including reuse of the facility and actually taking it down, and at this point, the university’s plans are to take that building down and use that area for additional research facilities that would be constructed in the future,”

THE FUTURE. This is a land bank. It is not clear whether the 700 jobs and $300 million are what would be ON THE SITE or what will be ADDED to the $200 million Feinberg research building. The wordsmithing does not isolate the Prentice site. Plus, Northwestern said clearly a week ago it is land banking. They will need a nice eight-figure donor to get this thing going and they haven’t announced that. I’m betting parking lot at least until my kids graduate high school.

The Trib editorial also doubts that Landmarks Illinois’ re-use plan will be persuasive, because:

“Northwestern says the building, built in 1975, uses only about one-third of the square footage that could comfortably be built on the site. The ceilings are too low to allow for the venting, heating, and cooling infrastructure needed for a modern research facility.”

Hard to know where to start with this masterpiece of misdirection. First, it WASN’T built as a research facility, so of course it doesn’t have the venting, heating and cooling capabilities. Neither do Northwestern’s NEW hospitals, because they – like Prentice – were built as hospitals, not research facilities! The REAL reason (land bank) is the first sentence – the building doesn’t use up its zoning.

This is the age-old preservation battle in Chicago, whether it was real estate developers and urban planners in the 1960s and 1970s or hospitals and universities in the 90s and 00s, it is ALL ABOUT LAND VALUE. Northwestern is in Streeterville, land that wouldn’t even exist if not for a rum-running rustabout named Cap Streeter who ran aground there 130 years ago, and now it is in the shadow of the highest priced retail ground along the Great Lakes so they need to maximize every square inch of land and zoning and building they got and that equation does not leave room for aesthetics. This isn’t about jobs or medical research, it is about land value.

Finally, let’s let the Trib trip over its own logic in an economical three sentences near the end of the editorial.

“The old Prentice building, though, is not much more than a minor architectural gem. It doesn’t have city landmark protection. Marina City doesn’t have landmark status either, although it deserves it and (Alderman) Reilly is moving on that.”

Yow. Talk about givin’ poor old Socrates whiplash. It is a “minor” landmark (because of its age? A paragraph ago it was old???) without landmark status. Oh, so it doesn’t have status so it must not be worthy. But neither does Marina City (also by Goldberg), but it deserves it. I’m confused. If NOT having the status means it isn’t a landmark, but the alderman can “move” to landmark Marina City, why can’t he “move” on Prentice?

Alderman Reilly negotiated a 60-day delay, which is nothing if you don’t have a new building ready to go. But it does push the potential demolition closer to the opening of a major retrospective on the architecture of Bertrand Goldberg at the Art Institute of Chicago. Then we should get a more accurate idea of how “minor” this landmark is.

APRIL 22 UPDATE: Landmarks Illinois’ re-use plan actually develops three different scenarios for the building – including RESEARCH FACILITY for 800 researchers. Not too shabby. You can see the 16-page re-use study here. The amazing flexibility of Goldberg’s open floor plan (caused by those innovative AND BEAUTIFUL cantilevers) also makes the building easily adaptable to office or medical housing uses – there are no interior columns to worry about. Northwestern’s “lack of flexibility” argument is simply code for “maximize zoning envelope,” which would give something back to the city if the developer paid any real estate taxes. But they don’t. So, if and WHEN they at long last build that skyscraper, we get all of the congestion and shadows WITHOUT any economic benefit to the city – beyond the increment between 800 research jobs and however many more they can squeeze into their unplanned, undesigned and unfunded zoning envelope.

Sign the petition HERE.

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago

September 30, 2010


The next great new building in Chicago is Perkins and Will’s new hospital building for the Rush-Prebyterian St. Luke’s Hospital complex on the Near West Side. The new building features a multi-lobed design rising above a square base, looming over the Eisenhower Expressway and expressing with its insistent curving form a humanism central to the successful medical relationship. It is new and exciting.

And it is very similar to a 35-year old building, now threatened, by the architect who first brought this undulating form to the world of medicine when he crafted a maternity hospital that seems, in retrospect, like the first acknowledgement of the feminine in hospital architecture. In fact the new building touts the virtue of its plan in the same terms Goldberg used for his building in 1975:

“The tower’s butterfly-like shape allows for clear sight lines to every room from one of the nurse’s stations on each floor, allowing caregivers to see and respond to patient needs more quickly.”

Demolishers love to tell you how older buildings are functionally obsolete. I love to tell them I told you so. The Garrick Theatre was demolished in 1961 for a parking garage. The parking garage was demolished 35 years later for a theater. What goes around comes around and obsolescence rarely lasts a long time.

A major new effort to save Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital has been mounted by our friends at Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago, and promoted by no less than Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who linked to this Facebook advocacy page.


This is a fantastic building. Unfortunately we live in a world where hospitals and universities present the greatest threats to our landmarks. Because they need to do the latest and greatest thing in their new buildings.

Even when the latest and greatest thing is 35 years old.

NOVEMBER UPDATE: The National Trust Midwest Office and Landmarks Illinois (I am on both boards) are working hard on to save “the cloverleaf” Prentice. I would also note that my first Prentice photo above has gone all over the interwebs – Blair Kamin credited it a few weeks back on his blog, and then Metropolis POV ran it again today sans credit.

DECEMBER UPDATE: I left the following description – from colleague Anthea Hartig – on the Save Prentice Facebook page:

“The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.”

And the question: Can you think of another building that achieves this as well as Prentice?

The responses were: Mies’ Crown Hall, Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Saarinen’s TWA flight center, The Monadnock Building, and Ronchamp. Here was my response:

These are great examples of the architecture-engineering discourse, although I think Saarinen’s comes closest to Goldberg in seeking an aesthetic structural efficiency, and TWA has a lot of formalism in there. I think Pei and Corbu are even more formalist (nothing efficient – but everything beautiful – about Ronchamp). The Monadnock is perhaps the first iteration in the discourse, more elegant than efficient, while Crown Hall gains and suffers from Mies’ perfectionism and bravado: Prentice is a well-turned ankle while Crown Hall is a bulging bicep.

See the Facebook page and the new video here.

APRIL 2011 UPDATE:

Last week Northwestern Hospital announced they will demolish the building after the tenant moves out in September. They have no plans for the site – it is pure Neanderthal land banking. Odds are it will sit vacant a long time.

Alderman Reilly has asked Northwestern to hold off on applying for the demolition permit until the Landmarks Illinois Re-Use study comes out in a few weeks, which they are doing because – why not? They are using the building until September, and since it is just a dumb land bank, it doesn’t exactly matter when they demolish, because they won’t be rebuilding for a long time.

SIGN THE PETITION AGAINST YEARS OF VACANT LOT HERE

JUNE 15 UPDATE: Prentice is named one of the 11 Most Endangered Sites in the U.S. by the National Trust for Historic Preservation! I made the announcement at the Save Prentice Rally today!

We made the announcement in front of a full vacant block. Next to another vacant lot half-a-block large. Would you like Northwestern to create a THIRD vacant block in Streeterville?

2012 UPDATES: See my July 2012 blog updated through late August

Great Chicago Churches

June 11, 2010

Twenty years ago when I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we did a survey and planning study of historic houses of worship in Chicago. This was one of many preservation responses to a crisis in church preservation spurred on by the 1987 closing of two huge Catholic churches that were imposing neighborhood landmarks, Holy Family Church (1857) on Roosevelt Road, and St. Mary of the Angels Church (1920) in Bucktown.


Both churches were ultimately saved, and restored, but a larger issue had been exposed to a wide public, and there were many responses to the crisis. A new church preservation group was formed, a state legislature panel inquired into the problem, and a lot of effort was sponsored by local groups like Landmarks Illinois, including the survey, which was called Spires In The Streets. We also led church tours in the 1980s and 1990s, so I got exposed to dozens upon dozens of historic houses of worship in Chicago. I have my favorites. About four dozen of them. Here are a couple I have visited recently.


Our Lady of Sorrows, West Washington Boulevard, East Garfield Park. This one (1890-1902, Englebert, Pope and Brinkmann) is a stunner. It is nice on the outside, but on the inside it is a revelation – like you are in St. Peter’s in Rome. They even have a replica of the Pieta, and altars running up and down the side aisles.


Last Thursday I was down at St. Thomas Apostle in Hyde Park, Barry Byrne’s 1922 attempt at the first modern Catholic church. I am actually there a lot, and our historic preservation graduate students did measured drawings of the building this past fall. It’s modernity lies in the unobstructed interior and thrust altar, while the exterior is a warm skin of brick that wraps around corners with delicate serrations and hand-modeled terra cotta ornament that sets off the roofline and windows. There is no steeple or side aisle in this resolute but not strident modernist statement by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

I paired St. Thomas Apostle on a tour last year with Louis Sullivan’s amazing Russian Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral of 1903, which is also being assiduously restored.

But these all are somewhat well known – there are many that are undiscovered, or at least little viewed by those outside of their congregations because they are off the beaten track.

Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, built in 1899 by Hugh Garden as Third Church of Christ Scientist, West Washington Boulevard.

First Baptist Congregational, built in 1869 by Gurdon Randall, on Union Park at Ashland.

Eighth Church of Christ Scientist, Leon Stanhope, 1910, on South Michigan Avenue

Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church, originally built as 41st Street Presbyterian Church by John Long, on South King Drive.

Quinn Chapel A.M.E., built by and for the city’s first African-American congregation in 1891.

First Church of Deliverance, built by Walter T. Bailey in 1939 – an amazing Art Deco structure that pioneered gospel music radio broadcasts.

Kenwood United Church of Christ, William Boyington and Otis Wheelock, 1888, made of Maryland granite and a great example of Richardsonian Romanesque style.

And of course, one of the great Chicago treasures: Second Presbyterian Church on South Michigan Avenue, with its awe-inspiring Arts and Crafts interior featuring the city’s finest collection of stained glass, including a wealth of Tiffany windows.

Now, these last eight examples are all protected as Chicago Landmarks, and they all chose that status. All eight (and many others like them) were landmarked by largely African-American congregations in inner-city neighborhoods. Chicago Landmark status was a way to save their church. Most of the churches and other houses of worship in Chicago that are official Chicago Landmarks share these characteristics. Back in 1987 the city attempted to landmark Fourth Presbyterian Church on North Michigan Avenue, a prosperous congregation in one of the city’s best locations. The resistance led to a change in the landmarks law that prevented houses of worship in active use from becoming landmarks unless they sought the status.

Of course, politically, few aldermen would landmark an active house of worship without the owner’s consent – it would be a bad move politically. So, in fact, most of the houses of worship landmarked before 1987 also actively sought the status.

This of course, is K.A.M.- Isaiah Israel synagogue, a Chicago Landmark built in 1922 by Alfred Alschuler. It is now the SAFEST place on earth to attend services, because it sits across the street from Barack Obama’s house.

The effort to preserve historic houses of worship received another boost last year when Chicago again became home to a preservation organization focused on this problem – Partners for Sacred Places, founded in Philadelphia in 1988, opened a Chicago office led by Gianfranco Grande. If I had a spare minute, I would help them out, because they are doing great work helping congregations learn how to preserve these often challenging, large buildings.

I have more favorites to show you, but it will take several more blogs to do so….

October 2011 Update:

Always liked St. Nicholas Ukrainian on Oakley – Worthmann & Steinbach, with 13 domes and great murals added for the millenial celebration in 1988.

County Hospital

March 3, 2010


In Chicago today the news is the unanimous decision of the Cook County Board to rehabilitate the historic Cook County Hospital Building (1914, Paul C. Gephardt) as medical offices. Seven years ago the building was to be demolished after the new John Stroger Hospital replaced it, but Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago and others were able to find enough County Board allies to prevent demolition, and the unanimous action yesterday illustrates the shift. The project also ably illustrates several intriguing aspects of rehabilitating historic buildings.

First, there is the associational aspect. While the hospital had several historic firsts: blood bank; indigent care, certain emergency room procedures. Yet many people of course had very negative memories of the hospital since it was the medical last resort for so many of the most indigent for so many years. I remember going there in 1983 to see a friend who had gotten his head cracked for supporting Harold Washington’s mayoral candidacy. It was not an environment to elicit enthusiasm, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected, having grown up with horror stories of the public hospital. What is intriguing here is how the negative associations are translated into a push for demolition. We got similar reactions in the effort to save one of the Jane Addams Homes, replete with the negative association we formed of public housing in the 1960s and 1970s.

But of course we toured the homes with people who had lived there in the early, glory days of public housing, who had nothing but positive memories of the place in the late 1940s. The problem with negative historical associations is that they can be employed to demolish an otherwise beloved place. I always recall the example of Stop N Shop on Washington Street in the Loop. Until the early 1980s, it was a rare and wonderful downtown grocery with all of the finest delicacies – I remember gigantic chocolate-dipped strawberries in an era before strawberries all became gigantic (steroids?). Stop N Shop was a real treat and a beloved place. It also occupied a stunning 1930 Art Deco building, but the entire block was slated for redevelopment.

Now, you would have a problem demolishing a lovely store with positive associations, so Stop N Shop was closed, and a discount men’s clothing store (two pairs of fuschia trousers for $10!) was put in its place for a few years. By the time demolition came around, no one was bothered by losing the cheap pants – but they would have been upset about the chocolate-dipped strawberries.

Back to Cook County Hospital. We also have the aesthetic issue, and here the hospital’s grand Beaux-Arts facade with paired fluted columns, elaborate terra cotta ornament featuring garlands, cartouches, human and animal sculptures and grand arched entrances proves worthy. Not only that, but compared to the refrigerator box that is the new Stroger Hospital, the Classical detailing and refined proportions began to look better and better. I suspect that if the new hospital had a more felicitous design, the rapture people developed with the old hospital might not have been as intense.

Photo by Antunovich Associates courtesy Landmarks Illinois.

Then, of course, you have the issue of construction then and construction now. Building built before 1930 tend to be REALLY WELL BUILT, and Cook County Hospital is a good example. Despite the bands being used to stabilize the terra cotta details, the steel and concrete structure has been investigated and found to be sound. Antunovich Associates did a re-use plan via Landmarks Illinois that helped forestall demolition last decade because it proved the building was still a viable structure. Blair Kamin’s excellent piece in the Tribune notes also that rehabbing the structure saves about 900 truckloads of landfill debris, not a small number. This is of course WHY PRESERVATION IS SUSTAINABLE. And green. (BTW check out the new GREEN issue of Preservation Magazine – or go to the National Trust link at right!)

Now, the other intriguing aspect of rehabilitating historic buildings is of course the economic aspect. The County Board did dither about the cost – apparently $23 million more (about 20 percent) to rehab rather than to demolish and build new. Ignoring the social and environmental costs of those 900 trucks of debris, this aspect of course triggers a familiar response – preservation costs more.

Does it? Demolition and a new office building would cost $85 million instead of $108 million, which is more IF both buildings do the same job for the same period of time. Which I doubt.

Old buildings, like old windows, are generally built with stronger materials than modern ones. Beyond structure, this is a gut job, and the big cost is that decorative facade, accounting for 80 percent of the cost differential. They are talking about TIF financing, an overused tool, but if they were to make it a private building it would immediately be eligible for tax incentives which would make up the entirety of the difference. Just like preservation tax incentives are intended to do.

But comparing a lovely old Beaux Arts landmark with a new refrigerator box is like comparing apples and Tupperware. There is a functional comparison, but the new building would NOT have a decorative facade. Would it need one? No, but you never NEED beauty or grace in life, do you?

The fact is we ALREADY have a decorative facade and we know it looks good – much better where it is than in a landfill. This building got a lot of public support in the eight years it took demolition to turn into rehabilitation.

And it is prominent – this building has a giant plaza in front of it and then an expressway – it is a face of the city and deserves to be preserved as much as other faces of the city like Michigan Avenue or Lake Shore Drive.