Posts Tagged ‘River Forest’

Chicago October 2009

October 8, 2009

1. Save Gropius Buildings at Michael Reese

Blair Kamin in today’s Tribune makes the case for saving the Gropius buildings at the former Michael Reese Hospital. He also takes to task the city’s spokesperson for an indefensible “we are proceeding” position. This is no longer an overnight development for the Olympics and it is no longer a job for the knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing sector of the development community. It is not that hard to reuse some or all of these buildings, and now that we needn’t follow the dictates of the Olympic village, we can use variety in height and scale (as Gropius did) to make the south lakefront more urbanistically interesting than it would have been under the previous plan.
MRH kaplan anglS
MRH gropius 31st bS

2. 839 Park Avenue, River Forest. I blogged about this one recently. Hometown architect. Significant student of Frank Lloyd Wright. A design that sits in the landscape in a way that CANNOT be achieved in less than a generation. What new building will look half as good as this?
park drumm709s
This has been covered in the local press, but NO ONE mentions the Illinois Property Tax Freeze as an option, which it clearly is – as noted by Landmarks Illinois and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

My conclusion? The new owners are head over heels in love with property taxes!

They have chosen to put this million-dollar home in a landfill and GIVE us twice as much in property taxes than they would have if they simply built a rear addition to double the size of the house and improve its floorplan. I guess they are saving everyone else in River Forest a lot of money.

Maybe not – depending on how the new building looks, it could depress local values. Could that be the strategy? Build an ugly house and thereby reduce values and thus property taxes? Hmm. We will have to see.

3. Aqua – Sitting (or standing) in the new modern wing at AIC you are surrounded by Piano and confronted by Gehry. But you are also astounded by the female winner of this “contest” – Jeanne Gang and her Aqua, quite easily the most interesting, urbane and aesthetically pleasing highrise in twenty years. Everyone is noticing its insistent elegance between its more brusque and brash neighbors.
mod wing bridgeo909s
mill pk aqua
mill pk aqua cls

4. The Society of Architectural Historians conference is here in Chicago in April. I am Local Chair and you should all come – great tours and the latest and greatest thoughts from those who think about buildings across all places and all times.


NOBEL PEACE PRIZE TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA – Only the second Chicagoan to win this award – the first being Jane Addams in 1931. The New York Times headline calls it a political liability at home. Huh? John Bolton, the cantankerous anti-furriner that was made ambassador to the UN (that’s IRONY with ALL of the letters capitalized) said: “It’s high-minded Europeans talking down to hayseed Americans, saying this is the way you ought to be.” That’s probably true, but Mr. Bolton shouldn’t worry. If history is a guide, low-mindedness will certainly make a comeback before too long. Or did they blow it all on town hall drive-by shoutings?


Landmark houses in different places

September 20, 2009

park drumm709s
Here is a lovely 1920s William Drummond home in River Forest that was recently sold for a few nickels shy of a million dollars as a teardown. Drummond was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s longtime apprentices in the Prairie era, and he lived in River Forest, where he designed numerous Prairie homes, a church, the library and the women’s club, now an award-winning private home. His 1920s designs featured these long sweeping rooflines that blended the continuity of modernity with formal nods to the traditional styles like Tudor that had captured popular taste in the period. This is one of a small number he did in River Forest, and it is gorgeous. It has a lot of interior layout issues, due to the integral garage, but it is unfortunate that a competent designer was not hired to make the house work for modern needs. You don’t need a competent designer for a teardown – anyone at all can do that. It is simpler. It takes no thinking or endeavor, only money.
bellinger cS
The Sunday paper (Tribune) has an article on this house, called “Coloring Inside The Lines” by William Hageman. That is a nice title, because it describes what happened here and what should have happened to the Drummond house in River Forest. This is the famed 1860s Bellinger Cottage on Chicago’s north side, which survived the Great Chicago Fire thanks to Policeman Bellinger, who reportedly poured hard cider on the house to keep the flames away. It is a small cottage that new owners – who spent over a million on the house – wanted to add on to. They did, but they stayed within the historic guidelines – not expanding into the side yard or altering the building’s appearance from the street. They moved a stair that had chopped up the inside of the house – a similar issue to that presented by the Drummond’s interior. They hired my friends at McGuire Igleski Architects, who know how to work with owners and landmarks commissions. The article mentions the importance of the architects, owners and builders getting in sync. And now they are in the Sunday papers.

I don’t know if the house that replaces the graceful Drummond on Park Avenue will make the Sunday papers, but I doubt it. Since they don’t have to color inside the lines, there is little call for creativity and little need for coordination. You just follow a formula. But they could have done something fantastic, adding on the rear, reconfiguring the interior. You can’t buy that facade – those bricks, those openings today. It isn’t that they are expensive – they don’t make them, period. This house is irreplaceable.

River Forest has an extremely weak landmarks ordinance and Chicago has a working one. A so-called “property rights” advocate might say this is better for River Forest. I say you get a better picture coloring inside the lines than scribbling all over the place.

October Update: The River Forest commission held a hearing on the issue which included this blog. It also included KEY information from Landmarks Illinois, which was not brought up locally: if you saved the house and added on the rear, you could take advantage of the Illinois Property Tax Freeze. It seems few people were aware of that. I hope the owners take advantage of it – unless they are tax enthusiasts who eschew such givebacks.

December Update: The Drummond is gone. The property tax enthusiasts who own the site won.

Razing River Forest

July 12, 2008

Well, that lovely little Drummond Prairie House on the 1100 block of Park is still there months after fencing went around it, but one of River Forest’s best Moderne houses went down quite suddenly a week or so ago. This gem, on the corner of Division and Ashland, vanished with short notice and certainly takes a notch off the suburb’s architectural value. They knock’em quick on Ashland – in our survey this Spring we suggested amending the district to exclude one house – formerly in the National Register District with its neighbor – because they razed the neighbor overnight for a pool a couple of years ago. Two blocks to the north, same story this summer. I guess public outrage at teardowns has finally reached a broad enough swath of the publication that those who will do it must do it quickly and darkly.
The pictured house at Division and Ashland was an excellent example of the postwar triumph of the “International Style” or “Arte Moderne” with its prominent horizontals and celebration of modern building materials. The staircase march of casement windows seen to the right was fantastic.

So River Forest is less architecturally significant than it was a few weeks ago. Even the recent claims that the 700 block of William was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright can’t add enough cachet to make up for this loss. After all, the 700 block of William is there, it is a Prairie gem of unparalleled proportions, and whether it was designed by Harry Robinson and William Drummond, who both worked in Wright’s studio or Wright himself (who also worked there) is an academic question. The fact of that block overshadows any authorship and its value remains as an excellent and surprisingly large and intact example of the Wrightian Prairie Style of the 1910s. Besides, the new claims are not based on evidence but connoisseurship – basically an informed study of the houses that finds more similarities to Wright than his students.

When Marion Mahony began making claims in the 1940s that Walter Burley Griffin had designed several of Wright’s projects, former apprentice Barry Byrne (who briefly worked with Drummond as well) dismissed these various claims of authorship as “absurd. We all (Drummond particularly) initiated designs while there, but we followed Wright’s other work and manner in doing so.” That is the trick to connoisseurship – it is very useful if you are trying to detect “fakes” but less helpful in distinguishing between similar and contemporaneous authentic originals. The 700 block of William is an authentic original Prairie School treasure, not a fake.

I still have to get to posting more info about Pingyao, where of course they have similar issues….

River Forest

July 14, 2006

winslow house river forest

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

I guess River Forest hasn’t had enough teardowns yet because the Trustees are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a preservation ordinance. The proposed ordinance is the typical weenie milquetoast kind that places like Kenilworth or River Forest propose. While it allows designation of landmarks, it requires owner consent, which sort of defeats the purpose. The owners who would consent are not the ones causing the trouble.

What River Forest leaders fear is the idea of a preservation ordinance, not the reality of one. Reality is much more everyday, like the familiar experiences of thousands of communities that have had such ordinances for decades.

You also hear a lot about private property rights. This is an idea too, with no foothold in reality. It is a Karl Rove issue: sounds good; seems important; has absolutely no impact on your daily life.

The purity of the roperty rights idea is abridged the second you allow electricity, gas, water, sewer, telephone or cable lines onto your property. Any law dude will tell you that property is a bundle of rights: the right to use; to buy or sell; mortgage or subdivide; build or demolish. Preservation ordinances often (but not always –there is no always in reality) restrict the last of these, while zoning ordinances restrict the first and third and the market restricts the second. If people were really concerned about their abstract rights, they would get rid of the zoning ordinances that restrict the height and use of their property.

Zoning has, throughout its history, had a much more dramatic impact on property values than preservation. In 1957 Chicago doubled the allowable density downtown and a few years later New York City was zoned for 16 million people. Talk about government largesse.

The market is even wilder. Wicker Park became a National Register district about 1980 and a Chicago Landmark district about 1990, but could not compete with the tripling of real estate values that happened in undesignated Bucktown – just across the street – in 1987.

Preservationists are fond of pointing out that historic districts improve property values, although some could argue that they simply recognize areas where the value has started to increase due to rehabilitation. A bit of a chicken and egg problem.

The real issue in River Forest is that some people have made a killing flipping property and some other people who think they might don’t want to miss their chance. Same thing is happening in Lincoln Park’s Sheffield, and it is getting very ugly there. I mean UGLY.

But windfall property profits are also more idea than reality. The people who actually make a killing are the real estate hustlers, and the current crop has taken a page out of the 1960s blockbusting book. Back then, you bought two houses on a block for twice their value, sold them to African-Americans and then bought every other house on the block for half its value, and then resold it to African-Americans for twice what they paid. White flight was much more profitable than integration, at least for the hustlers.

Teardown mongers do the same thing, without the racial aspect. Overpay for one or two houses on a block, knock them and build some oversized Playmobil Palazzo and sell it for two million to get all of the neighbors thinking: hey, I could make a killing.

By the time half the block is done the ambiance that the original McMansions borrowed their value from is gone, and so are the hustlers, who have taken the money and run to the next town.

The truth about blockbusting and teardowns is that the neighbors never make the killing, only the hustlers. But the IDEA of making money makes the neighbors – and The River Forest Trustees – think preservation is going to take their money.

Who is getting taken here? Who are the professionals?

It is a shame, because River Forest has some gems, and not just the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright but also local luminaries like the Buurma Brothers. Better go look at them soon, because the hustlers are circling.