Posts Tagged ‘teardowns’

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….

how does economics work?

April 22, 2008

There was a great symposium Saturday at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, one of several in conjunction with their exhibit on the history of Chicago preservation: “Do We Dare Squander Chicago’s Great Architectural Heritage?” that runs through May 9 (See it now!). Prof. Bob Bruegmann opened it up with an excellent history of teardowns and the inquisitive, expectation-overturning perspective he brings to everything. Prof. Richard Dye, an economist, explained the economics of teardowns. Both men suggested that an upside of teardowns was that they shouldered a bigger portion of the tax base, a fact that neighbors of teardowns are perhaps loath to admit. Bob did note that increased values could mean higher taxes for the teardown-adjacent in their little historic houses as well, and he also sagely discussed the new penchant for small houses, which are of course greener and thus more chic and popular with the wealthy.

Which is part of the objection to teardowns – lots of people hate them not for what is lost but what replaces them – ersatz castles with turrets and lions and gargoyles and balustrades that scream “I just got a lot of money and I don’t know how to use it!” (That is of course an Obamaesque elitist opinion).

Anyway, back to the economist Dye, who talked about how markets work to maximize value in good locations, which lead to teardowns, and markets fail because houses are durable goods built for current fashion but last longer than those fashions. Cathedral ceilings, great rooms, bathrooms that would make a Saudi prince blush, and other trappings of 1999 are popular examples of the fashionista excesses of McMansions and Lollapalazzos.

So I was suddenly struck – as a historian – by the fact that the teardown phenomenon emerged at the same time as the TIF phenomenon, and mindful of the big fight in Oak Park over extension of the downtown TIF, I asked whether there was a connection between these things, since teardowns occur largely in inner-ring residential suburbs that rely on a residential tax base, and since (I presumed) TIF districts limit the amount these places can rely on commercial taxes, hence teardowns – by increasing the tax base – might be related.

This got Dye’s hackles up. His short answer was no but his long answer – which came first – was that I had an understanding of TIFs that was much clearer than his and he has studied them. Zing! TIFs are simply a financing mechanism he said. Fair enough, but I told him later it was an honest question – I noticed a cohort and asked if there was a correlation. In my neighborhood the school district negotiated carve-outs to the TIF district and blamed it for their reduced income. The first TIF happened at the same time as the first teardown. That doesn’t mean they are related but you can see where the question comes from.

And my hackles get up when people describe any development – commercial or residential – as shouldering more of the tax burden. The suggestion is that I would be paying more taxes if the development didn’t happen. I hope someone at the various land institutes is studying this, because it counters both intuition and experience. Consumers have a hard time with this argument basically because taxes are historically unidirectional, and the conceptual leap “But your taxes would have gone up 200% if we hadn’t spent $25 million of public money on that shopping center” is hard for the average guy to make.

If there is a new development, property values go up and so do my taxes. If I oppose a new development and granted some queer quirk of history, stop it, values presumably are depressed, and so are my taxes. This seems to me related to Bruegmann’s argument – shared by a whole lot of economists – that regulations add costs to real estate and thus reduce affordability.

But of course real estate economics is about location, not cathedral ceilings or giant master bathrooms or high end appliances or Frank Lloyd Wright, as Dye and so many others noted. Teardowns occur in choice locations near transportation, amenities and where zoning suggests it.

Oh – there it is. A stick in the eye of the free market. Zoning. Seems government controls that, and it seems to have an oversized influence on the teardown market. My town downzoned a bunch of areas – to their actual size – recently because of outrage over teardowns of small houses just outside the historic district. Interestingly, inside the historic district there are loads of cases where they simply add lots of units on the rear, thus capturing more of their land value. Land value that comes from zoning.

Now, I’m not an economist but I am an historian and I know that Justice Sutherland was a fierce advocate of property rights and I know that the reason he upheld zoning in 1926 (I mean gee whiz he could have gotten someone else to write the opinion – he wanted his fingerprints on this one) was that it upheld property rights in the abstract and property values in specific. Location makes the big differences in price, but zoning creates the demand for teardowns in all sorts of markets – which is where teardowns are occurring. Teardowns have ripped across this country in the last 15 years with unprecedented speed affecting all sorts of communities.

Correct that – there is a precedent and it is zoning. Between 1916 and 1926, 591 zoning ordinances were enacted regulating the properties of 30 million people. Talk about a fad – that is like the iPod. Don’t tell me it didn’t have to do with property values. But somehow this topic – government granting value through zoning – doesn’t have much place in the discussion, which is queer. The whole point of Chicago’s 1957 zoning ordinance – which doubled downtown density – was to get downtown development going. TIF is a form of financing yes, but it is also a government subsidy to stimulate development in the same way zoning is a government subsidy. They are both clever in the sense that they are subsidies where you don’t have to write a check.

Now before the numbers crunchers get their knickers in a twist, look at the history. We zoned in the 1920s and then we rezoned in the 1950s, so we should have zoned again in the 1980s, but we didn’t. We didn’t rezone until the aughty-aughts (2003) and then zoning had so many damn community activist inputs raising costs that it wasn’t much good at granting value.

Oh wait, I thought of another precedent for teardowns – blockbusting. The Austin neighborhood in Chicago – about three square miles – went from all white to all black in 5-6 years. Now blockbusting was a technique whereby a speculator offered one or two white homeowners on a block a lot double what their house was worth and then sold it to a black family at a slightly inflated price, because they were buying in a white neighborhood. The speculator could afford to lose money on the transaction, because once it was complete, thanks to racism, they would be able to buy all of the other houses on the block for half price and sell them for full price.

Teardowns are different of course. Speculators find a nice neighborhood location with good amenities, offer someone a good price for their house, knock it and build a newer bigger better house. The neighbors see that and often decide they would like to cash in as well, so they get the same good price for their house, right?

The trick here – as far as an amateur like me can understand – is that real estate is all about externalities. I was taught that real estate is a commodity and an asset whose value is not intrinsic but based entirely on its surroundings. I had a real experience of this in the early 1990s when I bought two Frank Lloyd Wright houses for a dollar. As we priced out the rehab, it became clear that these houses – despite their pedigree – had a negative value of at least $40,000 apiece. Why? Location. I should share this story with Dye and Dan McMillen, since it underscores their contention that location outweighs all other factors. Even regulations, I suppose, since those are generally advocated by residents who want to maintain their property values, just as they did in 1926. I agree with the economists who say that regulations increase prices (by increasing costs) but there is a massive “D-OH” here: that is the economic expression of what the people wanted.

But the real stick in the number-crunching eye is this: people aren’t rational consumers. The majority of our economy is a consumer economy and the biggest consumer item is the personal home. There are economists who study consumer rationality, and maybe they should look at the uber-tacky McMansions and dissect some of that consumer irrationality (I suspect it is simply the absence of a visual sense).

I have studied some economists who look at land value and regulation like Glaser and William Fischel, whose most brilliant insight (related in the Homevoter Hypothesis) came at a zoning meeting when a neighbor he knew and respected opposed a development that was obviously going to be good for the neighborhood. Fischel’s eureka moment came when he realized the property owner was motivated by a simple principle: uncertainty. You can tell me it is going to be good, you can tell me I will bear less of the tax burden, but all of that is in the future and I want to keep what I have now. I am not certain how that development will turn out and I am not certain what will happen to my taxes.

Zoning arose in response to what Fischel terms “the radical uncertainty created by the truck and the automobile” and all of the various regulations from historic districts and moratoriums in response to teardowns arise from the same motivation. Some people hate what is lost and some hate what replaces them. But everyone hates uncertainty.

more teardowns

April 16, 2008

820 park st408s

Originally uploaded by vincusses

Well, it is spring and as usual that means there is a lot happening in preservation. I have some long wordy blogs in the works analyzing heritage and so forth, but for now we need a quick update. First, our class has been surveying River Forest to offer suggestions for updating their survey and we have already found what looks like a significant teardown about to happen, this lovely Prairie School gem on Park Avenue by Tallmadge & Watson. Yes, the same Tallmadge who coined the term “Prairie School” and started preservation in Chicago. This is considered a minor Prairie School house in Jeannette Field’s Architecture of River Forest book, but it is still a perfectly good building wrapped in fencing and porta-potties awaiting the Scraper for some new Lollapalazzo.

The Spindle in Berwyn is up on eBay, at $50K with no bids.

This Thursday I am doing the Snapshots Lecture at the Chicago Cultural Center at lunchtime with the provocative title “A City Cannot Be a Work of Art” which is a quote from the late great Jane Jacobs. It is a history of historic preservation looking only at historic districts. That evening I am moderating a panel at Chicago Architecture Foundation with representatives from various Chicago historic districts to hear about how they created their districts, their hopes, fears, failures and successes.

Then Saturday CAF is offering a series of sessions on Teardowns, including the always provocative Bob Bruegmann on the history of teardowns. I’ll be there!

McMansion World

March 21, 2007

Portuma McMansion 2002

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Morning news: McDonalds is suing the Oxford English Dictionary over the word “McJobs,” describing low-paying menial jobs without hope of advancement. This made me wonder if the golden arch attorneys would be heading after “McMansions” next.

McMansions are what follows the teardown. They are franchised, mass-produced homes that are “mansions” in size and price only. They are McMansions because, design-wise, they are collections of signifiers, generally assembled artlessly, like the eponymous sandwiches. Palladian windows. Curving front staircases. Quoined corners. Big flat warpy windows with fake muntins that look like scotch tape because people read “divided lights” as “classy”. Balustrades, columns and pediments, the bacon, lettuce and cheese of Classical style (heavy on the cheese). They also tend to be SUPER-SIZED. Entrances tend toward the subtlety of a streetwalker, with similar effect. Like the burgers, they have all the outward signs of taste but the inside is nothing but architectural trans-fats: pressboard and PVC.

They are actually very useful for illustrating the importance of proportion, because they almost always get it wrong, even in Hinsdale. The windows are too big and/or too divided, the quoins are usually WAY too big. If they have urns, they look out of scale, which is odd, because Wright could design 2-ton urns that didn’t look out of scale. Gables inset in gables, as if mere doubling masters an effect. The relatively inoffensive Irish example here has those inexplicable entrance sidelights and the bizarre fanlight below a pointed (but pointless) little eave gable. You can actually spot these things at 4-5 blocks distance because of the mistakes in proportion and because the windows give them an empty-eyed look, like a zombie in search of a brain.

And you can spot them EVERYWHERE. Not just Orlando, Dallas and Denver. I’ve seen them in Ireland, where the houses have the ostentation and only the garages are smaller. I’ve seen them in the former farm fields outside Wroclaw and Toronto, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh and Paris and Shanghai and yes, even Portland. Every nation in the world uses the same architectural symbols that signify elegance to the buyer and sudden wealth to the trained observer. In their global reach, they are the 21st century answer to 20th century urban renewal, which had ruinous effects not only in the Bronx and Kalamazoo, but pointedly in places like Marseille, Berlin and Sheffield.

This is another reason the name “McMansion” is good, because like the fast food franchises, they are all over the world, and they always look the same. I’ve seen them in Kyiv and Vienna, and in the curious attenuated sliver towers of Hanoi, where the columns and balustrades surmount a functionally useless top story. I haven’t been to Moscow or Lahore, but I am sure I would see them there, because I have seen them in Park Ridge, where the best way to advertise American arrivistism is a Louis XVI porch with gargoyles.

Park Ridge: a Fistful of Dollars

March 8, 2007


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Park Ridge, a suburb northwest of Chicago is careening into mediocrity thanks to teardowns that are turning a once-elegant neighborhood into a fast-buck boomtown, a Wild West municipality.

They tore down a Barry Byrne house Monday because contractors (several of them) told them they could get a new house for the same price as rehabbing and adding on to the old house. That is true, if the contractors lack skill.

Fact of the matter: Your new pressboard, gypsum and formaldehyde house with plastic windows can’t last a third as long as the one you already had (clay tile construction – brick basically). You just traded a 1923 Studebaker for a ’07 Kia. You been hustled. Bad.

The photo says Contractor Greed but it isn’t really that simple. There is also laziness. Most contractors in a teardown-happy town like Park Ridge already have had one or two McFinger McMansions approved and they can recycle the plans. It is always easier to build new, requires much less brain work, much less skill. Yes, it is cheaper if you don’t need new plans or you don’t have to pay experienced tradespersons, so greed is definitely there. But there is a fair admixture of laziness.

Barry Byrne was arguably the most original architect trained by Frank Lloyd Wright, a lifelong running friend of Wright’s sons John and Lloyd, a lifelong collaborator with Alfonso Ianelli, one of Chicago’s greatest sculptors (he did the Prudential Rock you know, and the sprites from Midway Gardens in everyone’s backyard). This demolition destroys not one house but five, since they were designed as a group. Now the others are ready to demolish, and one of the three Harold Zook houses next door is for sale and the realtors say it is a teardown too.

Paint the town red. This ain’t no place to live – it is a place to make a fast buck and get the hell out before they start shooting.