Posts Tagged ‘preservation planning’

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.

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A Better Plan

August 18, 2009

One of the things that has made Landmarks Illinois an effective preservation organization has been its ability to transcend the primal impulse of many preservationists – the “Just Say No” response – and provide a more intelligent way to proceed. When a developer/institution/politician/agency says “This is what we want to do” the preservationist in all of us just wants to shout “no!”. But that is neither effective nor even a complete response. Much, much better to say: here is the better plan that achieves your goals and saves historic buildings.

This is what Landmarks Illinois did this week with their new plan for the 2016 Olympic Village on Chicago’s lakefront – they picked the best Gropius buildings – not all of them – and came up with a more intelligent and sustainable plan – you can see it at http://www.landmarks.org or click at the link on the right.
Composite aerialS
The organization actually has a long history of doing this – coming up with a more sustainable plan than what is first proposed. And the plan is usually a compromise – it doesn’t save everything the most ardent preservationists want to save, as is the case here at Michael Reese Hospital campus. Landmarks did it way back in 1980 when the City of Chicago proposed demolishing Block 37. They picked 4 of the 8 historic buildings and proposed a development that met all of the city’s requirements for the block. The city ended up demolishing the whole thing and then letting it sit vacant for 18 years.

They did it several years ago with Soldier Field – developing a new stadium for the Bears while holding onto the history – and National Landmark status – of Soldier Field. The Bears went ahead and modified the field and lost the landmark status.

They did it again with Cook County Hospital, showing how the old hospital could be adaptively re-used for needed office space. That one got enough traction that it came to fruition – albeit with the loss of the rear of the building. But that is what I like about Landmarks Illinois – they know how to save something by coming up with a better plan. You can argue that they should have saved more, but you can never argue that the original plan was better. And it meets the opposition to preservation on its own terms: What do you want? How many square feet, what uses, what plan requirements? Let’s take all of those parameters and do it WHILE saving the best historic buildings.

This is what good planners, good designers, good developers do. They take the MORE creative approach of looking at how all of the programmatic goals can be achieved without starting from scratch. Creativity is not measured by how blank the canvas was at the start. Heck, the vaults of the Sistine Chapel are a huge impediment to a decent painting.

It is a measure of the maturity of an organization like Landmarks Illinois that it chooses to argue for preservation by doing a BETTER job of planning than the opposition. You can argue about the significance and beauty and innovative epoch-shattering character of a building, but it can all be for naught if you can’t show them a better way. As baby preservationists, we first just see those arguments of history and architecture and beauty and human scale. Eventually we learn that we have to speak the language of those who would throw away those qualities. It is a language Landmarks Illinois has mastered over the years.