The Fallacy of Primacy

October 2, 2006 History, Interpretation Comments Off on The Fallacy of Primacy 193

Another in an ongoing series aimed at upsetting traditional notions of heritage – which is fake – in favor of history – which is less so.

This year in China, a collector found an 18th century maps purported to be an exact copy of a 15th century map that Admiral Hen We completed after his circumnavigation of the globe. It apparently influenced later European maps. This added another piece of evidence to the very justifiable claim that the Chinese explored most of the world in the early 15th century, 70 years before Christopher Columbus. Last year a guy called Gavin Menzies had a popular book called 1421 that detailed this voyage and tried to find artifactual evidence for Chinese landings in North and South America. He naturally trumpets the new discovery verifying his thesis.

So, is all of our history wrong? Do we have to rewrite it now? Of course not. Continue Reading

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Hull House interpretation

May 10, 2006 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Interpretation Comments Off on Hull House interpretation 211

Hull House

This week I am participating in a meeting at Jane Addams’ Hull House Museum at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to determine how the site should be interpreted in the future.

In the 1960s, when they built the University, Hull House, founded by Addams in 1889, was to be another casualty of the clear-cut neighborhood, but then Senator Paul Douglas (the guy who saved the Indiana Dunes) pushed to save Hull House as a memorial to Addams’ pioneering social work. Douglas had been a Hull House resident. The House was saved, along with a Dining Hall, but the rest of the 13-building Hull House complex was demolished. Continue Reading

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Now and Then

March 3, 2006 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on Now and Then 154

Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion, that places more faith in the past than the future, or so it seems. So many historic preservation battles pit a glorious past against a cheapened, money-grubbing future or celebrate the accomplishments of long-dead forbears, implicitly denying the ability of current persons to reach such heights.

This thought came to me last week reading Thomas Friedman’s history of the 21st century “The World Is Flat.” He said we need a positive view to succeed in the future. I wondered – does that make all preservation a demi-nihilistic “things were better before and can never get better than they were” sort of enterprise? Continue Reading

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Modern preservation

February 28, 2006 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on Modern preservation 183

Pilgrim Baptist Church’s walls are salvageable (yay!)

The restoration of Carson Pirie Scott Building is almost complete (yay!)

A developers proposal to demolish 17th Church of Christ Scientist (boo!) was leaked by Phil Krone.

Last week I read about the decay and demolition of hundreds of modernist landmarks in Moscow (boo!).

17th Church of Christ Scientist was built in 1968 by noted Chicago architect and preservationist Harry Weese. It is a flying saucer of High Modern delights, a washer and nut bolting down the bend in the river where Wacker Drive turns sharply toward the Michigan Avenue bridge. The quarter-round plan was innovative (although if I were a persnickety architectural historian I would point out a precedent published in Liturgical Arts in 1942) and the result was a building that is interesting in and of itself and also urbanistic, making its surroundings more interesting. So far the congregation have resisted the developer’s advances, but you never know – every church has its price. Continue Reading

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Identity is Theft

December 28, 2005 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 171

Felicity Rich and I collaborated on a piece that is currently in the Faculty Sabbatical Show at Betty Rymer Gallery through mid-February. The piece is largely a website (identityistheft.com) and we will be doing a gallery talk about it on Thursday, February 9 at noon. Briefly, it is about how we steal elements of our identity from the past, from foreign places and experiences; about how identity is a tricky bit of both belonging and separating. And of course it is about what this blog is about: How history gets denatured into heritage. Continue Reading

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Building Time

November 3, 2005 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Interpretation Comments Off on Building Time 188

I had a morning meeting of the Steering Committee for the Farnsworth House, the stunning glass house built in Plano, Illinois by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951. (You can see it on the LPCI website link at right) The house was famously sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2003. LPCI and the National Trust hooked up and bought it for over $7 million, saving it from a potential move out of state.

The house is a marvel. Yes, its style is modernist, its materials glass and steel, its entire perimeter floor-to-ceiling glass, but the emotional effect on the visitor is a Greek temple. It is mathematical perfection sitting in the natural perfection of the Fox River floodplain, a perfect little symphony of white I-beams, travertine and spartan, sculptural furnishings. Neither too many notes nor too few. No wonder it was auctioned off like a work of art- that is what it is. Continue Reading

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Place Identity

October 11, 2005 Chicago Buildings, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on Place Identity 188

This weekend I led the Chicago Fire tour for the Chicago Historical Society as I have for the last four or five years. We follow the 4-mile long path of the fire, hearing eyewitness accounts and describing how it spread and what it destroyed.

The Fire is a central event to the civic identity of Chicago – it is one of the four stars on the city’s flag. When my Michelin editors came here a dozen years ago to begin work on the first Green Guide to Chicago, they commented on how Chicago people talked about the Fire as if it happened yesterday. That means the historic event has a central piece of the city’s identity.

This happens everywhere. Go to Ireland and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was yesterday. Go to Atlanta and Sherman’s march ended last week. Parts of Paris are forever 1890 or 1850 and the 1770s trail through the streets of Boston. The Thais are still celebrating 200-year old victories over Burma and the Dai Viet recall a millennia-gone general who began a millennia of resistance against the Chinese. Continue Reading

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Facades

September 19, 2005 Interpretation, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments Off on Facades 181

On The Face of It: The Facadism Problem

The struggle for historic preservation is complicated when it comes to facades; what everyone sees; the public face of buildings, where the public interest lies. In historic districts, the goal is to preserve the context of a place, defined by facades. Preservation commissions rarely regulate interior spaces in districts. This leads many to assume that preservation is only about the visual exterior façade of a building, which is wrong.

I first attacked “facadism” almost 20 years ago when developers proposed relocating the façade of the 1872 McCarthy Building on Chicago’s Block 37, since only the façade had been designated a landmark. At the time, several Chicago Landmarks were “façade designations” and this encouraged developers to propose picking them up and moving them about like furniture. It is eaiser to save a thing than a place. But it reached a point of absurdity when the city proposed designating the façade of the Ludington Building, an 1891 work of William LeBaron Jenney. Jenney is famous for pioneering the steel frame skyscraper – shouldn’t the designation include the structure? The façade trend hit its peak with the Chicago Tribune Tower façade designation in 1989, and then came back with a vengeance with the 1996 deal to skin and rebuild the Art Deco McGraw Hill Building on Michigan Avenue, the most outrageous (and scarily successful) example of a period that also saw the demolition of all but 5 feet of the Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio of 1917 for the new Park Hyatt tower. Continue Reading

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What does time tell

August 30, 2005 Chicago Buildings, Economics, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 183

Time tells. That also means time counts. It means you should preserve your history and when I say it I mean the messy history of what happened not the neat history of whatever today’s ideologues need or “heritage” which is a shorthand for freebased history, an identity narcotic extracted crushed refined and distilled from real history. Real history is what happens in time and over time and that never works for systems like ideology or politics because systems are static and history is dynamic. Continue Reading

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