People And Places And People

December 6, 2017 History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation Comments (0) 82

This year at PastForward, the National Preservation Conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on People Saving Places.  “People” is operative, because for many – notably wonky architectural historians like myself – it had often been about buildings. Even for those in the planning profession, it had been a technical question rather than a human one.  That is wrong.

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Historic Districts, Economics and Misconceptions

January 30, 2016 Blog, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (6) 401

Everybody loves them some locktender’s houses

One of the interesting facts about the heritage conservation field is that it does not track neatly with political persuasions.  My first day of work in 1983 saw the legislation creating the first national heritage area co-sponsored by every single member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, bar none.  Imagine. Continue Reading

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Chautauqua: Where America spoke

November 12, 2015 Economics, Sustainability, Technology Comments (1) 362

“I must protest against the dismemberment of Chautauqua.”

  • Letter to William Rainey Harper from John Heyl Vincent, 4 July 1899.

I stumbled across this nugget while researching other matters regarding George Vincent and William Rainey Harper, the first President of the University of Chicago.  Vincent’s father John Heyl Vincent was a founder of Chautauqua, which as you may know, is a place in New York state that evolved from a Sunday School into a nationwide educational movement. Continue Reading

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Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Sustainability, Technology Comments (1) 922

Last week.  Maybe next week too.

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois. Continue Reading

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Literature and Landmarks

January 17, 2015 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (1) 306

This is the building in Harlem New York where Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man.  There have been extensive alterations, some of which were there in 1947 when he wrote the book. 

This week Ray Bradbury’s classic book Fahrenheit 451 was occupying our living room couch because my daughter was reading it as a high school assignment.  As I did, as many of us did.  It is a classic about the need for books, for culture, in the face of dystopia.  At the same time, the author’s home for over 50 years was being demolished a few hundred miles to the south, in Los Angeles, by the prize-winning architect Thom Mayne.  You can see the demolition and read about it here.    People are so upset that Mayne himself said it was “a bummer,” and you know how hard it is to crack an architect’s ego.

But the larger and more interesting question is:  How do we preserve the legacy, the memory, the significance of a literary landmark?  The issue is at the heart of many of our current debates about the National Register of Historic Places and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards, both of which are geared toward architecture and are not always ideally suited to the preservation of memory, of culture, of the rich loam that nourishes books like Fahrenheit 451 and all of the students who have read it for the last half-century.  Here are a few examples I have used to illustrate literary landmarks over the years, and each of them betrays an architectural modesty, if not monstrosity.  They are significant not because of their form, but because of what happened there. Continue Reading

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Commercial and Interpretive

November 15, 2013 House Museums, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (3) 384

I was at a meeting of the National Trust and several citizen preservation groups in Monterey concerned about the future of the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a house museum in Monterey, one of the treasures of California’s Spanish capitol. I blogged about Cooper-Molera two and a half years ago here, and what I said remains true – the site has been largely shuttered due to state budget cuts, cuts which are not going to be reversed.

When the National Trust announced it was working with a developer to come up with restaurant and other commercial uses at the site, there was a fair amount of community uproar, especially among volunteers who felt the site should stay interpretive. And this debate: “Commercial versus Interpretive” was still active when I was there last month. And it is a false dichotomy. This is NOT an either-or situation. It is a both-and situation. Continue Reading

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Cultural Landscapes: The Confluence of Conservations

October 6, 2013 China Preservation, Economics, Global Heritage, Historic Districts Comments (3) 309

we could all use some of this

I have blogged previously about the differences between natural area conservation and heritage conservation, especially in terms of use-value, as I wrote about last year in this blog. The basic point was that natural area conservation is largely about preserving non-use value – a liability (or at least an externality), while heritage conservation is about preserving use-value – an asset.

That blog also delved into the 41-year history of World Heritage, which includes both cultural, natural and “mixed” sites. I detailed how we had shifted in heritage conservation from iconic and monumental singular sites to broader cultural landscapes. In recent discussions with conservation foundations, I am sensing a new confluence of heritage conservation and natural conservation as both approaches are moving into the arena of cultural landscapes. Continue Reading

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Save Prentice Movement Grows

July 27, 2012 Chicago Buildings Comments (3) 293

“But just as a patient expects his doctor to pull out all stops in search of a cure, Northwestern must pursue every avenue before daring to raze one of Chicago’s architectural and engineering treasures.

We don’t think they’re trying hard enough. Surely, there’s a solution.”

That is from an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday, one of several actions that have ramped up the pressure on Northwestern University to explain why it needs to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s pathbreaking 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital, which I have been writing about here for over two years. The first building to use computers in aid of its design, Prentice is a song, a crescendo of 45-foot concrete cantilevers twirling into a quatrefoil of cylindrical skin delicately punched with ovals, a bold sculpture on a base that makes the regular buildings around it look dull-witted.

The architecture geeks have loved this building for a while, and of course I announced its ascension to the National Trust Eleven Most Endangered List a little over a year ago. Continue Reading

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Here Eat This! House Museums and Ultimate Use II

June 20, 2012 House Museums Comments (3) 277

In the past I have written about the challenge of house museums.  See House Museums and Ultimate Use.  Almost a decade ago, the National Trust – which was basically created by Congress in the 1940s in order to receive houses and turn them into museums – started to discuss the end of the house museum as we know it.  No more velvet ropes and stilted ossified stories of wealthy Victorians and the silver service they used when the Admiral visited. Continue Reading

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False Choices and the Process of Preservation

April 12, 2012 Chicago Buildings, History, Sustainability, Vision and Style Comments (1) 225

Reportedly the largest chandelier in the United States and the 7th largest in the world. Would you hold a party under this for a 25-year old preservation planner who had been working in the field for less than three years? I will be there again tomorrow.

I am fond of saying that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is a process. It is the process whereby a community (however defined and constituted) determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The process consists of establishing context (historical, architectural, environmental, social), criteria, evaluating resources (tangible and intangible) and then determining how we want to treat those resources in the future.

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