I like Europe. What’s not to like? Rich, gorgeous, relaxed. Yeah, gas is $6 a gallon but the next fabulous art museum, medieval castle, Baroque monastery, Roman ruin or mountainside lake is only 6 miles away. You can drive to the next country for cheap eggs or dental work and still be home before dusk. You don’t even need to drive since trains go everywhere and even small towns have bus and tram systems and bike rental. And they preserve their old buildings more often than we do.
Demolishing a historic building in Europe is harder to do than in the U.S. That wasn’t always the case – they had the same frenzy for urban renewal in the immediate post-World War II era that we did. Berlin demolished more buildings during the 1950s than were lost in the war (yes, it’s true: see the footnote.) But quickly they realized – with the help of GIs turned tourists like Arthur Frommer – that Americans liked to see the old stuff and would pay for the privilege. A combination of laws, practices and pure economics means that it is not easy to tear down an old building in Europe. Not true in America, where a powerful institution or developer can often clear a landmark standing in the way of their project. Continue Reading
There was a Commission on Chicago Landmarks hearing last week on the designation of the East Village district, and I heard one of the best ones yet. In over two decades of landmarks hearings at the Commission and before the City Council I have heard some amazing arguments against landmark designation. People claim they need 2,000 square foot additions to their rowhouse in order to raise children without hardship and if the Commission denies it they are all but abusing the children (sometimes as yet unconceived) and hindering their education. I heard a woman argue against designation of her old house because it was too close to the street and the buses, a fact which she then implicated in the deaths of both of her parents. Don’t designate this house – it is a killer.
The aldermen always get the best lines. I will never forget the 1987 City Council hearing on the possible designation of the Chicago Building when one alderman asked “Haven’t we already designated a building with Chicago windows?” My internal reply was “Isn’t there already one pyramid at Giza?” They voted designation down that day, but it made it a few years later and now the Chicago Building is an SAIC dorm! Continue Reading
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
Directing the Historic Preservation program at SAIC can be awkward – like when the School or the Museum run afoul of the historic preservation community. When Don Kalec started our degree program in 1993 AIC vetoed City landmark designation of the Sharp Building. The building was later landmarked, but only after an exterior cleaning (very good) and window replacement (bad) that our faculty failed to influence. More recently, I have been called to answer for the Museum’s demolition of the Goodman Theatre (Howard van Doren Shaw, 1925) and the School’s interest in Mesa development’s new highrise atop the Kroch’s building on Wabash.
People always are astonished that institutions whose mission is to protect and promote artistic things could propose the destruction of artistic things like landmarks. I am not astonished. This is normal in the post-1980 world. Continue Reading
I was at the National Preservation Conference in Portland, Oregon (Motto: It isn’t easy being green) last week and both the city and event impressed, even beyond the obvious Holy Grail of American microbrew. I went on a green preservation tour last Thursday through the Ecotrust building (The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center), a century-old warehouse that was the first preservation project to gain LEED gold certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is very smart among the architectural set of late. Even though the re-use of an existing building would seem to be naturally environmentally efficient, the fact is LEED, like most things, tends to be geared toward new construction, even though the plurality of landfill waste is construction debris. The Ecotrust building managed to re-use 98.6% (!!) of the existing materials by creating a huge boneyard for every removed piece of building and then finding a use for it – doors became walls, beams became chairs, boiler covers became nameplates, etc., etc. The building handles 95% of its stormwater on site through swales and a permeable parking lot, has a green roof (German 2-3 inch design so the old building could handle the loads) and even the requisite seismic reinforcement. Continue Reading
Historic Preservation advocates are always banging heads with “property rights” advocates who shun all landmark regulation as a “taking” or private property. The more principled and ideological of these opponents not only oppose landmarking, they also oppose zoning and almost any form of environmental regulation. Indeed, it is environmental laws that really chafe the drawers of property rights types.
Preservation gets thrown into this stew, even though preservation laws are remarkably more flexible than most other types of land use regulation. But most people don’t know that and think preservation is an arcane design police led by pointy-headed architectural historians who don’t know that plastic windows save you thousands in heating bills. Continue Reading
The news hit Chicago today that Marshall Field’s will become Macy’s, ending a 130-year old flagship department store name on State Street. Chicago newspapers and Chicagoans are handwringing and preparing CEO Lundgren’s exit papers, and there is plenty of reason to doubt Federated’s wisdom – after all, this is the world’s test market and the only place that has an American Girl store. Yo, Lundgren, you are giving us a New York City name. I love NY as much as anyone, but I can recall a singer at Blues Fest being booed for singing “New York, New York.”
But from a landmark perspective, we are ready – the city already began landmarking Field’s State Street complex, a collection of buildings from 1894-1914 that fill a whole city block, insuring that the trademark clocks and perhaps even the Marshall Field’s nameplates, will remain. Ditto the stained glass and mosaic domes inside. Continue Reading
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
It is sort of odd that two weeks into this blog I have not yet written about Chicago, where I am, but here is the perfect opportunity: Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois’ 2005 Chicagoland Watch List, a collection of threatened buildings and districts that LPCI is trying to save. The dire dozen includes buildings as far away as Joliet and Aurora, a superb collection of modern ranch houses in Glencoe on the preservation-challenged North Shore, and buildings throughout Chicago, from the Loop to the North, West and South sides. You can see them at www.landmarks.org.
The one they chose to highlight was the one they held the press conference at: The Cermak Road Bridge District. This is a collection of century-old industrial buildings along the Chicago River at Cermak Road (22nd Street), an old riverfront industrial area between Chinatown and Pilsen. It was a smart choice because these are real Chicago buildings, wonderfully muscular brick dreadnoughts grasping the river like a firm handshake or a clap on the shoulder. Da Buildings. Continue Reading
In the Chicago Tribune this morning architecture critic Blair Kamin made a convincing case for the rebuilding of New Orleans and several cases for historic preservation. There was the issue of the image of the city, defined by its elaborate wrought iron balconies and exuberantly ornamented houses, from the grandest to the meanest, all with a touch of celebration, a bit of show. There was the argument of the city’s unique cultural blend (choose your metaphor: gumbo, jazz, Mardi Gras) and the argument of its tourist attraction.
One of Kamin’s most interesting and astute observations was that neighborhoods built in the post-World War II era were much more easily devastated by flooding than older ones. “Time went forward, but building practices went backward” said Kamin, making one of the most convincing arguments for historic preservation there is: they don’t build them like they used to. Kamin’s argument was mostly about practices like building first floors above raised basements, but it could easily be extended to materials and construction techniques. Continue Reading