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
So much has been written about New Orleans. My brother sent a link to a Joel Garreau (Edge City) article in the Washington Post that basically says New Orleans is gone. Sure, the high ground of the Crescent City with its historic districts will still be there for tourists, but the low-lying poverty areas would likely be bulldozed. He also notes that the historic reasons for the city – the port – is no longer in the city. Garreau makes some good points and several people have expressed concern that the rebuilding of New Orleans will turn it into a theme park, or that rich people and a homeless Trent Lott will swipe up all the ocean view property at disaster prices and use FEMA and Halliburton to rebuild it and make a quick killing in real estate, leaving the former poor out of a new cleaner, safer, more boring New Orleans. Continue Reading
Katrina has devastated New Orleans, a unique American city, unprecedented and unparalleled in its cultural heritage and central to the history of historic preservation. New Orleans preserved landmarks before almost any other city in North America, and it preserved historic districts before any city here save Charleston. In its integration of architecture and culture it even suggested that preservation was about more than buildings: a blend of music and the peoples and practices of three continents stirred into an intriguing and attracting mix. Now, more of it is gone that we yet know.
Several alert historic preservation alumni sent me this clipping a couple of weeks ago. Turns out the house that Grant Wood used in his famous painting “American Gothic” is threatened with demolition, according to Harry Mount, a writer in Eldon. Not only is the little white cottage with the big Gothic window is empty, boarded-up, and being offered by the State Historical Society for $250 a month, but there is little interest. One neighbor wanted to tear it down in the 1960s but balked at the $200 purchase price. Continue Reading
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
Vince Michael from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago will soon be blogging regularly! Check back very soon!