Heresy and Apostasy

October 25, 2005 Chicago Buildings Comments Off on Heresy and Apostasy 188

I am getting beaten up about a position I took along with Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois regarding a collection of buildings in Oak Park. We joined a Steering Committee process and while we did not advocate demolishing any buildings, we signed onto a consensus plan that recommended demolishing two buildings in order to save five buildings. See www.oakpark.us and look under the downtown development plan.

So we are now accused of preservation heresy and apostasy.

Is historic preservation a religion? Can you excommunicate preservationists?

In the last blog I talked about the American tendency toward puritanical monasticism – a phrase that conflates Protestant and Catholic traditions. To be fair, let’s throw the Orthodox in there and talk about holy hermits of preservation. These are the ultra-radicals, the Provo-preservationists who are not afraid of personal ad hominem attacks on developers, architects and… even fellow preservationists.

I had one such holy hermit harangue me weekly by telephone for about two years, his basic mantra being that there was no preservation in Chicago and the preservation groups were totally in bed with developers and compromised and hypocritical and avaricious. Another emerged early this year out in River Forest. In both cases, they were incensed not by demolition but by the preservation of a landmark that did not satisfy their idea of how it should be done.

It’s like Monty Python’s Life of Brian when the radical underground populist liberation group reveals that they hate the Romans more than anyone – except the other radical underground populist liberation group.

There are preservation groups like LPCI, the National Trust and Preservation Chicago, which all consider themselves part of a “movement.” Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago talked to one of my classes last week and referenced the civil rights movement. Movement politics can be very ideological and ideology is at the very least quasi-religious. The most ideological movements – the NRA leaps to mind – will brook no compromise at all. An assault on assault weapons is an assault on little old ladies with hunting rifles. Some preservationists are the same: any demolition is bad demolition. When an established 35-year old organization like LPCI takes a compromise position, it becomes like the old established conservative imam, rejected and reviled by the mullahs on the street. The National Trust, an even creakier 56-year old, gets it as well. And now me (exactly in between in age) I’m the apostate.

I’m still getting used to this. Twenty years ago I was the punk with the halo crying foul everytime anybody proposed demolishing a historic building. I was never quite the holy hermit but the veins in my neck popped as I would research something and look and look at it until it got more and more beautiful and became an obsession and this building that never cost a second glance on the street morphs into a bejeweled temple worth chaining yourself to as the wrecking ball swings.

I carried signs and even dressed funny for landmarks, but I never chained myself to a building to stop a wrecking ball. Besides, the idea of facing certain death for a cause seemed a lot more romantic a few years ago.

So who is right? If you believe the ideology, it is always the fundamentalists. But being right is being ostracized from society. You can’t be excommunicated by a holy hermit. I prefer to stay in society and in history. It is messy and compromising and everyday and and contradictory and flavorful. Authentic, in a word.