Posts Tagged ‘Oak Park’

Here Eat This! House Museums and Ultimate Use II

June 20, 2012

In the past I have written about the challenge of house museums.  See House Museums and Ultimate Use.  Almost a decade ago, the National Trust – which was basically created by Congress in the 1940s in order to receive houses and turn them into museums – started to discuss the end of the house museum as we know it.  No more velvet ropes and stilted ossified stories of wealthy Victorians and the silver service they used when the Admiral visited.

As I have noted before, the house museum NEVER EVER worked as an economically viable use.  Those house museums that thrive are those that either A: charge a lot for a visit; B: do a bangup gift shop business (like the Wright sites); or C: have reinvented themselves a community centers, business retreats, or private homes.  It is that last option which just surfaced in Oak Park.

Hemingway birthplace, Oak Park

Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was born in Oak Park in 1899, so some years ago they turned his birthplace into a house museum.  They had a strong funder, so they also turned an old church into an exhibit of his high school years and purchased his boyhood home – where he lived from age 6 to 18 – and hoped to give it a public use as well.

Hemingway Museum, Oak Park

Now, you can also visit Hemingway’s homes on the Gulf Coast, so he is an attraction.  But three museums in one town?  Too much.  That reality finally met its match when the boyhood home went to a private owner who will restore it as a single-family home.  And preserve it.

Hemingway boyhood home, Oak Park

USUALLY the best way to preserve something is as a private facility, not a public one.  This runs counter to our concept of public significance: Hemingway belongs to everyone.  To which I answer: so does the outside of his house.  People come to Oak Park to see Hemingway and they still have two museums plus a house they can walk by.  People come to Oak Park to see Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, even though 92% of them are private and not open to the public.

I did see another Frank Lloyd Wright this weekend – Pope-Leighey at Woodlawn, near Alexandria, Virginia.  That is one of the National Trust sites, and it is a good example of the trends in house museums.  Woodlawn is of the Washington family, but it has never been able to compete with Mount Vernon only 3 miles away.  So now it is doing what all historic sites are doing in 2012: goin’ foodie.

I noticed this in Lima, Peru during my work there over the past year, and I noticed it in Weishan, Yunnan, which doesn’t get a lot of tourists but has the best food on the planet.  (I know I only ever did Michelin green guides, not red guides, but trust me on this.  I have been around.)

Old Post Office, Lima – now Gastronomy Institute

My own dear National Trust site, the Gaylord Building, recently did a study to try to get in on the gastronomy thing, because it is seriously cresting in 2012: farm-to-table, locavorism, sustainability.  All of these trends resonate with conserving the embodied energy of an existing building.  Gastronomy is intangible heritage as well, something I saw on display in Lima.

The National Trust is doing it at Woodlawn, thanks to Arcadia, which has created a garden for local restaurants and others and is now a major player in the locally-sourced garden vegetable-and-fruit market for the area.

This will only get bigger, and I welcome it as yet another way to break us out of the idea that a historic place needs to be a museum.  I would rather it be an interpreted, dynamic, LIVING site.  Or even better, a GROWING one.


Conserving Buildings and Preservation Laws

September 19, 2011

Almost a year ago in Austin, new National Trust President Stephanie Meeks outlined her plan for the Trust going forward, which I reviewed here. In that speech, she said preservationists need to become more visible beyond those who just say “No!”

But that isn’t who we are. Never was. I was reminded of the wise challenge my dissertation advisor Bob Bruegmann gave me years ago when he asked if I could write a history of preservation that had nothing to do with laws. I couldn’t, really, but I could show that tons of preservation was happening in a lot of places long before there were any laws. The laws came LATER as an expression of the public will to preserve, especially in historic districts.

This occurred to me as I rode past the Mallen House in Oak Park, a few blocks from my home, and saw this amazing excavation going on. The owners of this lovely 1904 George W. Maher Prairie Style house have been restoring it for many years, and they are extremely meticulous, detailed, and accurate about the restoration. The building had been heavily altered in the past – it wasn’t even featured in the second, 1990s version of the FLW Historic District book. and they are slowly but surely bringing it back.

Three years ago it looked like this:

And 6-7 years ago it looked like this:

This restoration is not happening because Oak Park has a local preservation ordinance, or because there is something about either the local or National Register historic district that requires this. No preservation law requires an owner to restore their property to the way it was. Got it?

If your property is in a historic district and the cornice is missing, or a previous owner added rubble stone facing to the entrance or blue aluminum siding you can go ahead and keep it that way. Preservation laws might make it difficult for you to tear down your house, but even in Oak Park they can’t prevent owners from making a variety of changes as long as those changes don’t amount to a demolition of a significant portion of the property. And no laws require restoring the building to an earlier version of itself.

The National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966 to help save buildings and districts threatened by massive government projects, notably highways and urban renewal. The National Register has no say over private projects, and even in the federal project situation, restoring an original design is rarely required. In historic districts especially – which is where landmarks laws began – the goal is to discourage demolition, not to restore. In fact, the goal of our entire movement is more appropriately to re-purpose significant elements of the past to make them a vital and economically viable part of the future.

or the backdrop for yet another 1970s TV show remake?

I have studied, and continue to study, historic districts. In the history of most historic districts, you find quite clearly that the creation of the historic district – whether local or National Register or both – usually POSTDATES significant rehabilitation activity. First, people invested time and money and enthusiasm into their buildings.

Then, later, the historic district was created as an expression of that previous investment. Yes, sometimes, as in the effort to save that neighborhood in Buffalo where the Peace Bridge wants a truck depot, the landmark effort is aimed at thwarting an ill-considered development plan. But such an action never takes place in the absence of a motivated local constituency that values their community.

Society Hill, Philadelphia

Oak Park is a great example of this. I said it in an earlier post, but the reason my block has so many lovely restored and rehabilitated houses is that PEOPLE WANT THEM. Yes, there is a law should an individual break the bounds of the social/community contract and propose demolition, but the vast majority of investment and rehabilitation is not an expression of the law. The law exists as a fallback, and one which is limited to slowing down demolition, not one which talks about paint colors or acroteria or Scamozzi column capitals.

My neighborhood is lousy with Scamozzi column capitals

I restored these column capitals because it was really important to me. The Landmarks Commission thought it was a great idea, but they had no grounds to stop me if I had kept the godawful metal replacements that had been put there a generation ago. Indeed, I could still have gotten a preservation tax incentive WITHOUT restoring these columns, as long as I did not wantonly dispose of other, still serviceable, historic features.

I suppose they make nice garden ornaments…

In my research I found that preservation happened in places like Greenwich Village for almost three generations before there were any laws to enforce it. There was a rash of rehab there in the 1910s and 20s, some of which altered buildings in ways we might not agree with today (see the post about Andrew Dolkart’s book here.) There was another wave of rehab in the 1930s, by renters, NOT owners, which causes problems for those who assume only an owner has an economic interest in real estate. The area didn’t become a landmark district until 1969.

above photograph copyright Felicity Rich 2006

I found the same pattern in Chicago’s Old Town, which was beset by rehab in the 1920s and again in the 1960s, before SEEKING and getting local landmark designation in the 1970s. I have watched a whole lot of historic districts get created in Chicago over the last three decades and in no case did the community oppose the district. Yes, there is a lawsuit against the Chicago landmarks law brought by owners in two historic districts, but they are clearly in the minority, attempting to use the judiciary to overcome the legislative will of the people.

However you slice this issue, the fact remains that the majority of preservation happens because owners and renters and community members WANT it, not because there are laws.

Oak Park best neighborhood

October 13, 2010

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

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

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

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

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.

Pleasant Home

March 25, 2010

I have been involved with the Pleasant Home Foundation in some fashion almost since it was set up in the early 90s by a group that included former SAIC President Tony Jones. I moved to Oak Park in the later 90s and had a regular gig talking to groups there every May, offering insights into the relationship of Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher, and his more famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897 and you could argue he achieved many aspects of the Prairie School idiom a year or two before Wright. (The name comes from the streets – Pleasant and Home – whose intersection it occupies.)

The house has the broad eaves, overhanging hipped roof and decidedly horizontal massing of the Prairie School. It also has urns flanking the entrance and is centered on the hearth/fireplace, a device Wright also used.

Both Wright and Maher had worked together in the office of Joseph Lyman Silsbee, who developed very sculptural proto-modern compositions in the Shingle Style, which emphasized continuous surfaces, one of the often-overlooked but essential markers of the Modern. Maher started his own practice several years before Wright, and admittedly was more conventional in his compositions, employing a rhythm-motif theory whereby key elements – in Pleasant Home a shield, a tray and a lion – were repeated in stone, wood and stained glass ornament.

Like many early Prairie homes, Pleasant Home was a large house for a wealthy client – John Farson – during the dawn of the Progressive Era and the American century, when business people wanted to appear forward-looking. Modernity aside, it was a big, fancy house. It passed to the Mills family in the early 20th century and eventually to the Oak Park Park District in 1939, and over time senior activities were organized on the lower floor while the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest occupied the upstairs. In the 1990s Tony Jones and others crafted the Pleasant Home Foundation to operate the house as a museum, although it still gets only a fraction of the visitors who come to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio a half-mile to the north (on the same street!).

So I have lectured there and brought groups to the house under the previous Director, Mary Beth Blattner, who had the house listed as a National Historic Landmark, and the current one, Laura Mercier Thompson, who just got a letter from First Lady Michelle Obama announcing that Pleasant Home had become one of the newest stewardship sites of Preserve America, a national program administered by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. It is a big deal, one of a couple Executive-level programs, along with Save America’s Treasures, that recent Presidents have instituted.

I have been pleased to be involved a little with the Restoration Committee at Pleasant Home, and our students did HABS drawings of the house back in 2000-2001. I recall one time when the library restoration was being discussed and we were trying to determine whether a certain lamp was from the Farson era or the Mills era, and Kathy Cummings (the expert on George Washington Maher) and I noticed a calendar on the wall in an undated photo, which we were able to use to determine the date of the photo and help guide the restoration. It was a fun “detective” moment.

Another moment occurred five years ago when the front gate was being restored at a metal shop in a nearby suburb and architects John Thorpe, Frank Heitzman, Leslie Gilmore and I were looking at the proposed “shield” pattern for the crown of the gate and realized it did not match the photo. John sat down on the floor of the shop and sketched out the correct pattern.

I have been too busy the last couple of years to participate much with the Restoration Committee, although they did bring me back last summer to give my old “Wright and Maher” side-by-side slide lecture. But you should visit – it is a half block from the train line (Metra and CTA) and now it is most deservedly a Preserve America Steward.

Oak Park settles down a bit

February 9, 2007

fields op

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lying Liars in Oak Park

January 29, 2007

colt lake obliq

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Next week – February 9 – a business group is hosting a breakfast about preservation and development in Oak Park. They are doing their level best to prove Santayana right – namely – forget history and be condemned to repeat it.

2004: Crandall Arambula do a downtown plan for Oak Park that calls for widespread demolition. People are mad.

Spring 2005: The ruling party is voted out of office for the first time in 50 years. Because of the bad plan. Westgate (a street in downtown Oak Park) makes Landmarks Illinois’ Most Endangered List.

Fall 2005: A broad community group redoes the plan for downtown Oak Park and their “consensus plan” recommends demolition of the Colt Building (see the picture) in order to save the other buildings on Westgate.

2006: The radical Village Board overrules the community and tries to save the Colt Building for a year. One of the radical Village Trustees resigns.

2007: Business groups start spreading lies that the Village has landmarked everything over 50 years old. The Preservation Commission votes to save a graystone and is overruled 5-2 by the Village Board. Business groups and the Hearst paper push for more change on the Village Board. Another radical Trustee resigns.

Actually, if you read the summary above carefully, the story is over. The Village Board is already voting down preservation by a comfortable margin. But, like Fox News, a local group is trying to get a wedge issue out of preservation, but in order to do that, they need to repeat history, to whit:

Summer of 2004: Crandall Arambula does a telephone survey with questions like this:

Which is more important, development or preservation?
Should downtown focus on development or preservation?

Fast forward February 9, 2007: from the ad for the panel:
“seek a better balance between development and preservation?”

DUH-OH! Call Santayana – they done did it agin!!

Which is more important – ice cream or dessert? Talk about false freakin’ dichotomies!

I know a woman who sits on the Board of Wal-Mart and the Board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Another National Trust Trustee runs the Sonic fast food franchise. Welcome to my world, which is real, and not some ideological dream.

PRESERVATION IS DEVELOPMENT. Sorry to shout, but between the Wednesday Journal and the “Business and Civic Council” of Oak Park there is a heckuva lot of misinformation going around, and sometimes you need to bust some caps.

A whole bunch of preservationists agreed to the demolition of the Colt Building and then the Village Board turned it over 4-3. Two of those votes are already gone. Now they are turning on the Historic Preservation Commission, which has been a model of due process and deliberation (and also voted for the consensus plan).

This 50 year thing? Wha-a? When I was on the Oak Park Commission we approved the demolition of at least four such buildings. This is what the Hearst paper and the narrow-minded miss: Preservation is not a thing, it is a PROCESS. The results are not predetermined.

I have argued this point with developers, but they are just angling – angling for the absence of a process, which would make their job easier. And like any job made easier, it is done worse. You do economic development without any process and it happens faster and easier and it is gone in two years and looks like..well…

That is what the Wednesday Journal and this pretend business and civic group are up to – desperately looking for a wedge issue so it can elect no-process economic development junkies, the same kind who gave us the Cramble Tarantula plan and the retail equivalent of a floating crap game.

Preservation development is development done with a plan, done within the character of a community and with a process. It is a marriage made to last a lifetime, not a one-night stand.

A Deal Falls Through

February 16, 2006

Strange things always happen in the People’s Republic of Oak Park, a tenacious, opinionated and privileged suburb just west of Chicago – the only suburb with two CTA rapid transit lines.

The other shoe has finally fallen in the Downtown Oak Park development saga, some of which is visible at

Oak Park was embarrassed last year when they adopted a whack plan by Portland firm Crandall-Arambula. I happened to be one of the random telephone interviews during the summer of 2004, so I know how bad their methodology was. The questioner kept asking me to choose between historic preservation and economic development. DUH! Historic preservation IS economic development I tried to say, but their script did not allow this. 250 grand wasted.

Despite saying “historic buildings” every other word, the plan wiped out 7 nice old Tudor buildings on Westgate Street to make the Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) more profitable. Again, a whack dichotomy – Chicago has used TIFs to save historic buildings right and left. So, LPCI put the Westgate district on its Most Endangered List (see Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois link at right). People were pissed, and the ruling party got dumped in the elections for the first time in 60 years.

But the plan was still there, along with a deal the Village made to buy one of the doomed buildings. The 1932 Colt building was designed as an open arcade from Lake Street through to Westgate. I don’t know how successful the building was, but the party was over by 1952 when the arcade was filled in. More recently one façade was covered with EIFS after its limestone spalled off – EIFS is the aesthetic equivalent of smearing lard on an oil painting.

Local papers and leaders saw the Colt as the opportunity to stop the demolition of downtown Oak Park. A Steering Committee was appointed to come up with a plan for the Colt, Westgate, and the surrounding “superblock.” Volunteers from local commissions spent three months of long Tuesday nights listening to four consultants, local merchants and every citizen who wanted to say something.

It was the most open and patient public planning process I have witnessed in 23 years.

They came up with a consensus plan that demolished the Colt Building for a new street to revitalize Westgate after 70 years of malingering.

It was a real process. A majority of the committee members went into the process wanting to save the Colt Building. The process happened, and a majority concluded it could not be saved. LPCI and I went along with the plan, since it promised to save 5 of the Westgate buildings forever, and these 5 buildings were better – a higher degree of craftsmanship and architectural detail.

Then, at a Village Board meeting, an odd thing happened. Trustees kept referring to Kathryn Jonas and Mike Iversen, two citizens lobbying to save the Colt Building. In most towns they would be ineffectual gadflies, but in Oak Park they have serious clout. Sure enough, the Village Board rejected the consensus plan. Even reformers want their committees to give them the “right” answers. It was amazing to see radical preservationism running the political table.

I had said that the Colt wouldn’t qualify for tax credits, but the last-minute gang proved me wrong with an eleventh-hour letter from the State Historic Preservation Office. The tax credits still left a multimillion dollar hole in the budget, but Mike Iversen – in contrast to all the consultants – said the numbers worked. And he had the only numbers that mattered: 4 out of 7 Village Trustees.

LPCI was accused of nefarious insiderism since the architect for the developer, Joe Antunovich was previously LPCI’s Chair. Great fodder for conspiracy, except LPCI’s statement called Antunovich’s plan “appalling”. I offered Kathryn Jonas a copy of the statement and she declined. Evidence can be so bad for a good conspiracy.

Then developer Sy Taxman – who owns the Colt Building – decided to keep negotiating with the Village when he should have walked. The political leader, Bob Milstein, wanted him to walk. I thought it was a classic case of developer crying wolf. They always say that they need this or they can’t do the deal, but then they hang around, hungry. Taxman extended the deadline almost five months.

Well, today Taxman finally walked. The Village now owns the Colt Building for $5 million. It will cost at least that much to rehab or restore it, although the result would never command $10 million in the market.

The Village says it will now get responsible bids– we should expect one from Iversen since he is the only one who has numbers that make the building work. I won’t miss Taxman, but I wouldn’t miss the Colt Building either. I won’t miss the next chapter in a political saga that rivals Chicago’s 1980s Council Wars, but I will certainly miss the next opportunity to spend three months of Tuesday nights on a fool’s errand.