Posts Tagged ‘National Trust’

Miami Beach

January 25, 2010


all photographs copyright Felicity Rich

In my role as a Trustee of the National Trust I attend three meetings a year and while the meetings themselves are intense and plentiful, we do reap the benefits of visiting stunning historic places in great American cities. This weekend we were in Miami Beach, which seems quite the posh destination, and it is. Thanks to preserving buildings.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

In the 1970s and 1980s South Miami Beach had serious issues of crime and drugs. It also had blocks and blocks of fantastic but run-down Art Deco hotels that had opened in the 1930s when Miami Beach became a vacation destination. A few visionary developers, including National Trust Trustee Tony Goldman, started restoring these buildings and today South Beach draws tourists from all over the world to its beaches and protected, restored Art Deco district.

Friday Tony hosted us on The Hotel rooftop for drinks before we visited another Trustee’s stunning contemporary rooftop condo with views of South Beach.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

There was a great symmetry to this meeting because our President Dick Moe is retiring and this was the site of his first National Preservation Conference in 1992. That was also my first conference, as a staff member of Landmarks Illinois. That was in the wake of Hurricane Andrew and there was much cleanup yet to do but Miami impressed me at the time. It was also sad because this year we lost Floyd Butler, who had founded the Young Urban Preservationists, a way to teach inner-city kids, and he and I had spent much time together in Miami in ’92.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Thursday we had dined at the home of Arva Moore Parks McCabe, a pioneering local preservationist, who last night related how she came to the Trust in 1973 seeking help saving a house in a historic district and the Trust sent her to Oak Park, Illinois. It worked, and she and others of the Dade Heritage Trust have saved much in the meantime, including a fascinating effort by Trustee Jorge Hernandez and others to save the Miami Marine Stadium, one of the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered properties last year.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

The Miami Marine Stadium is a 1963 concrete composition that is part of an outdoor marine arena unlike any I have ever seen. The folded slabs of the roof and bleachers projecting over the water recall the most visionary concrete designs of the 1950s and 1960s and even in despair the building impresses.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

Local preservationists have defied the odds and the authorities to make significant progress towards its eventual preservation. We had the honor of touring the site by boat with the architect who designed it as a young man, Hilario Candela.

Then we had a lovely dinner at Vizcaya, the stunning Italianate Deering mansion on the shore in Miami, an over-the-top historic house and gardens that is open to the public and which the National Trust helped local preservationists save from over development a few years ago. The whole place is made from coral stone and there is a massive boat folly across from the terrace that reminded me of Cixi’s folly, the marble boat in the Summer Palace in Beijing. Vincent Scully whom we awarded the Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award in Nashville was there and I got to speak with him.

photograph copyright Felicity Rich

It was interesting to hear Dick Moe and Arva Moore Parks McCabe and others talk about a Miami that “got no respect” from the preservation movement back in the 1970s, because my first exposure to the place in ’92 was all about preservation. How saving and rehabilitating buildings revitalized a community down on its heels and made it an international destination. Almost a generation later, the Miami Marine Stadium presents the same opportunity. Every generation can reclaim its unique and valued connection to place. If it chooses to.

Green Preservation

November 4, 2009

Preservation is green. It retains the carbon footprint of structures that are already there, requires less materials, less expense of energy to construct – because it is already constructed. It is true that some older buildings (more likely those built 1940-2000) USE more energy than new “green” buildings, but the greenest new building will still take 30-40 years to pay off its carbon debt.

Two years ago, National Trust President Dick Moe made a speech at the National Building Museum about preservation and sustainability. It was epochal. He had the statistics that proved that “the greenest building is the one already built” but he wasn’t just preaching to the choir. He was making it known that there was a vibrant, multifaceted preservation movement, and that this movement was staking its claim to sustainability and moving even further in that direction.

The results are out there. Two sites you HAVE TO SEE are blogs linked at right: Barbara Campagna’s green preservation blog (Barbara is the Graham Gund architect of the National Trust) and Carla Bruni’s greenpreservationist.org blog. Carla is a graduate of our Master’s program in Historic Preservation and she has already made a mark. We had her speaking on her work in New Orleans and now she is teaching a preservation class at the Center for Green Technology.

You can’t consume your way to sustainability, folks.

Back to Dick Moe. He announced his retirement this week, and it reminded me of that epochal speech two years ago and how excited I was that he was leading the National Trust and the preservation movement into the future. And it wasn’t the first time he had done it. During his 17 years at the helm, the National Trust reinvented itself from top to bottom. The Trust, founded 60 years ago to save historic houses, nearly doubled its collection of historic properties, but much more significantly, it broadened that collection to more nearly represent the American experience and American architecture. From the commercial Gaylord Building to Philip Johnson’s modernist Glass House to the Acoma Sky City Pueblo, the National Trust’s collection of historic sites has been revolutionized. Not only do we own the two most famous modern glass houses, we also have a new Modern and Recent Past Initiative, a new Preservation Green Lab in Seattle, a more vigorous series of regional offices and a robust collection of statewide and local partners. There are three times as many statewide preservation organizations today than there were in 1992. Dick Moe didn’t simply grow the Trust, he expanded its relevance and helped make it the leader of an expanding nationwide movement. His leadership will be missed but his impact is visible everywhere you look.

Longworth’s Caught In The Middle

August 12, 2009

Royce Yeater, Director of the Midwest Office of the National Trust, lent me Richard Longworth’s 2008 book Caught In The Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. It is a compelling read, thanks both to Longworth’s skill (I saved and filed every one of his 2002 Chicago Tribune articles on Europe) as writer and researcher, and also because of what it portends for the future in terms of regionalism, planning, and the survival of place.

Royce warned me that it was depressing, and indeed the book clearly states that many Midwestern towns, cities and places created during the 19th century for an industrial/agricultural economy will not survive into the future. He describes many places that are already emptying out – in the age of globalism there are global cities and there are places that don’t matter so much. Chicago is lucky – it is the global city in the Midwest and it has already adjusted to the new economy, but cities like Cleveland and Detroit are half their historic size and shrinking. Smaller cities dependent on certain industries, like the auto industry swath that stretched from Flint down into Akron are in similar straits, and the era of the megafarm has made hundreds of rural agricultural towns redundant.
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As places become redundant and people leave them, they become ghost towns to some extent. Their buildings and streets become redundant and fall into disrepair, or they become meth labs and plunge headlong into despair. Young people go to the big cities, even in the 1980s when I lived in Wicker Park it seemed all my friends were from Michigan. Heck, almost everyone in Manhattan is from somewhere else.
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The reason the outlook is grim for preservationists is obvious – if you have an historic town like Galesburg that loses its industrial raison d’etre – a lot of historic buildings will go vacant and die as well. Longworth describes some smaller towns that survive because they are within commuting distance of a big town that still functions as an agricultural processing center. And of course, in the age of the internet certain people can live anywhere and stay in touch and in business electronically. I recently visited an old friend who does just that near Savanna, Illinois. But the idea of business people living anywhere came with the telegraph, not the internet, and the reality – as Longworth notes – is that people want face-to-face contact and the successful global cities attract lots of creative young people who want to be around others.

Much of the book describes the trains that have already left the station – the family farm is not coming back, and subsidies to farmers accelerated that process. Yes, organic farming and local farming via farmer’s markets is more sustainable and has made headway, but that is still a tiny boutique portion of the marketplace. The corn and soybeans of the Midwest are in competition with China, the Ukraine and Brazil , or even Saudi Arabia as a full tenth of the corn becomes ethanol.
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The industrial transformation is even more dramatic and complicated. Not only has tons of industry abandoned the Midwest – we were talking about the Rust Belt three decades ago – for the South and China, but the industry that remains is really, really different. Caterpillar is still in Peoria, Harley-Davison in Milwaukee and cars are still in Detroit, but they are modern industries. Gary produces more steel than ever – but it does so with one-tenth of the workforce. Moreover, modern factories no longer employ high-school graduates – you need at least a couple years of college to operate the computers that operate the machines on the assembly line.
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Longworth is particularly damning of the educational system – most Midwestern states spend more on prisoners than students, and even the so-called public universities – the great land-grant schools like Illinois and Michigan and Wisconsin and Indiana – are now major research institutions that are becoming increasingly private as research grants grow and state support vanishes. By next year, the University of Michigan may get as little as 3 percent of its budget from the state. That’s not a public school anymore. He chides the Midwestern ethic of “it’s good enough” for perpetuating an educational system that got people through high school so they could work on assembly lines or farms – but that doesn’t cut it anymore.
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Longworth’s primary frustrations have to do with the fact that the Upper Midwest is – and always has been – an economic and cultural region, but it is hopelessly divided by outdated political divisions. In terms of education, he longs for a California system that would allow various Midwestern schools to play to their strengths rather than duplicating each other – and giving all Midwest students “in-state” tuition. Given the extent that states DON’T support their schools, the idea makes complete sense.

He is similarly frustrated by governmental divisions determined by horses and buggies. Counties and townships and even state capitals often make little sense in a global world and indeed impede our ability to compete globally. He repeats the legendary story that county seats were located so that young couples could travel there for a marriage license and get home by nightfall, thus “forestalling any twilight hanky-panky among the hedgerows.” He advocates getting rid of the redundant counties while retaining the old courthouses as museums “which is what they really are.” Thus the recent Richard Driehaus initiative through Landmarks Illinois, saving and drawing attention to the historic courthouses – but they need new uses, especially as their counties depopulate.
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Globalism’s most obvious aspect is the urban-rural split (look at China), which in the Midwest is already a long-running political battle that the new economy has only made worse. Chicago’s epic battles with Springfield are symptomatic, but other states are also divided, and the economic divisions exacerbate the split: Most of Wisconsin’s economy is in Milwaukee and the forty miles north of the Illinois border – a huge chunk of the Indiana economy revolves around Indianapolis. Old political divisions haunt the REAL economic divisions of the Midwest like ghosts of a bygone era. Chicago is famous for having 1200 separate units of government. I have a friend who got rid of one of those, but he is the exception. The worst aspect of the multiple jurisdictions is that they compete with each other for economic development – which drags the region down because they are fighting over scraps rather than banding together to land real global industries that would benefit the region and play to its strengths – like bioscience industries which by all rights should be in and around the Midwestern farms and research universities but end up in California because that’s where the VCs are. If the Big 10 schools got together and the Midwestern states got together they could lure the VC to the Midwest and create Soybean Alley or Switchgrass Plains or whatever you want to call it but right now the money sits on the coasts and collects all the good talent from the Midwest.

This is a great read and a call to action. It is also a dire prediction for a wealth of historic resources in a series of shrinking communities. But that is always the preservation challenge – finding the new use in the new economy for the embedded energy and place quality that survives from the past as a physical, economic and aesthetic resource.

I like the Midwest and I think Chicago is making a go of it in the global economy – as much as we wring our hands about the details, I think we will get the 2016 Olympics seven weeks from now, in spite of the local political culture – BECAUSE of one local politician who is currently the most impressive leader in the world. The real future challenge lies with our politicians and university administrators and their ability to see the future and make common cause. At the National Trust, we already see the Midwest as a region – maybe the Midwest will see itself that way as well.
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House. Museum.

July 10, 2009

The news officially broke yesterday that Landmarks Illinois would cease to be the operating partner for the Farnsworth House, a National Trust Historic Site and one of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s most significant buildings. Landmarks Illinois joined John Bryan and the National Trust in buying the Farnsworth House at Sotheby’s auction house in December, 2003, thus saving it from a potentially devastating move away from its riverine location in Plano, Illinois.
fh f riverS
In 2003, the National Trust was already well aware of the problems associated with operating house museums, having held a conference entitled “Are There Too Many House Museums” 18 months earlier. The historic significance of this conference has only swelled in the ensuing seven years, although arguably the Fox River has swelled even more, coming within inches of the house in 2007 and inundating it in 2008, a mere 12 years after the last 100-year flood. Here’s the wardrobe, where you can see the flood damage – and this is only a 12-year old replacement from 1996.
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The added hassle and expense of major repairs occasioned by the floods and by ongoing issues stemming from its age and design led Landmarks Illinois to cut ties after having set up a solid operating procedure and staff, while still losing money. The National Trust, created by Congress in the 1940s for the express purpose of operating house museums, is the acknowledged leader on the issue. Which is why it was the first to ask that key question “Are There Too Many House Museums” and why it has a broad base (some 30 sites) for understanding the issues involved. (Full disclosure – I have been on the boards of both organizations for the last few years.)
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Make no mistake: The Farnsworth House is fantastic. There are many buildings in this world I knew first through photographs and then was disappointed when I saw them live. Farnsworth is not one of them – seeing it for real was a revelation, as all great art is when you encounter it. Many more eloquent people have written about it so suffice to say it is a perfect Greek temple. I will take 100 people there next week on two tours and it is definitely worth the hour’s drive from Chicago and more.
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But the Farnsworth House – like most National Trust sites – is an exception. The United States is full of house museums, most of them run by local historical societies, most of which were formed for the express initial purpose of saving the house of a community founder or other early architectural and historical landmark.
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These are noble goals, and part of the goal is to insure that the entire public can visit and appreciate these sites. We were at one such last week, a 1783 Dutch colonial farmhouse built by the earliest settlers that was saved and preserved by descendants of those settlers way back in 1916. And visited by descendants of those settlers last week, namely my wife and daughters.
dyckman house
I like these places. I like to visit them and I have also been impressed with how so many of them have done more creative interpretation in recent years. One of our favorite phrases at the National Trust is “beyond the velvet ropes,” which is to say house museums need to break out of the old museum box, take some curatorial risks and become more interactive and dynamic. The reason is obvious. If the velvet ropes stay where they are, you visit the house with your fourth-grade class and then YOU NEVER GO BACK AGAIN because you have already seen it.
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The problem is a basic economic one. To run a museum – especially a house museum – you need some source to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. When the National Trust did a survey several years ago they found that the average house museum took in $8 per visitor and spent nearly $40 per visitor. That means that admissions covered about 20 percent of costs. I have done a little research on this issue and guess what – it was always like that. It was like that in the 1910s when William Sumner Appleton preserved houses for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and funded 80 percent of operations himself. It was like that in 1920s Charleston when a similar society purchased the Manigault House in order to save it – and had to buy it again, twice, within ten years until a major benefactor was found. It was like that when the Chicago School of Architecture Foundation bought the Glessner House in 1966 and basically leased office space in the building and started a docent tour program to subsidize the costs.
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Most historic house museums are a fiscal nightmare. Which ones do well, or at least survive? There are several models. One is to have an endowment which can cover a certain percentage of annual operating costs, and many sites have this. Another is to have an income-producing property, which we have at the Gaylord Building. Another is to raise the volume of tourism to such a high level that it can provide more than 20 percent of operating, which they do at Fallingwater. Another is to raise the admission prices high enough to cover the costs. This can work at world famous sites, but it patently won’t work at local historical societies whose purpose is to save the building for the people. Another is to have a successful gift shop, a source of income the Frank Lloyd Wright sites have had good fortune with, and of course this is also the model many traditional museums use to make ends meet.
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Another model is the one no one wants to talk about but is becoming increasingly necessary in order to preserve these buildings: put them back in private hands. The fact of the matter is that the economics of a home and economics of a public facility are completely different – people make economically unjustifiable decisions about spending money on their homes all the time – just look out of the airplane window at all of the swimming pools. Private owners also mean less wear and tear on historic fabric. Fallingwater spent many millions correcting deflection of its slabs and acknowledges it will need to do so again before long due to the volume of tourists.
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I was an early advocate of a private owner saving the River Forest Women’s Club because it was clear no public owner had the money to restore it after many years of deferred maintenance. The problem with private ownership is that it defeats the basic impulse of having everyone appreciate the house, although in many cases the properties are made available to the public on a limited or annual basis, in events like Oak Park’s Wright Plus every May. Most properties covered by preservation easements are private, but the easements require some sort of token annual opening to the public, which is common on community and neighborhood house and garden walks. I remember being in Pontefract, Yorkshire in the 1990s and having the good fortune of being there the only day of the year the Hermitage was open, so we were able to descend this 60-foot spiral staircase into the earth and see it. Public ownership is also of course subject to public monies – witness the indefinite closing of a dozen Illinois historic sites last year, or the drastic reduction in opening hours that has affected other sites. Sometimes once a year is a lot.
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By far the most exciting model for making a house museum economically viable is the one that Hull House in Chicago and Brucemore in Cedar Rapids have used: become the center of the community, a place where things are always changing, always interesting, and always interactive. To do this requires discarding curatorial imperatives or at least finding space for dynamic interaction with the public. It also requires an uncommon leadership ability and uncommon creativity.
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At the National Trust, we will continue to work on these sticky issues and come up with new models, just as we will continue to work on the Farnsworth House, raising an endowment so it can maintain public access as much as possible.


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