November 8, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 1339

This view is protected – for now.

One of the reasons we preserve historical things is a desire to preserve history, which is related to a desire to learn from history. The presumption is that learning from history can positively impact our decisions about the future.

In discussing the proposed addition to the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue, most preservationists talk about the terrible precedent being set. The rear two-thirds of the building will be demolished and a two-stage glass addition will be added to the top, limited by the height of the original Madison Street addition. The precedent, of course, is that every other building on Michigan Avenue will demand to do something similar.

We had a similar precedent-setting issue regarding the Legacy, the 80-story monster being perched on top of three historic facades in the Jeweler’s Row district right next to our building. It’s precedent was the Heritage three blocks north, although not a designated landmark district. We have the horrible precedent of North Michigan Avenue’s Farwell Building, to be skinned and reclad on a new structure, just as the McGraw-Hill Building was a decade ago (setting the precedent).

I have a problem with precedent. I like to argue that preservation is a practice beyond precedent because it recognizes the particularity, singularity and uniqueness of every structure in its history and design. No decision made for one building can prefigure another because they are not equivalent buildings. Preservation denies the economists’ passion of alienating every aspect of the material world into an interchangeable commodity. There is only one other building on Michigan Avenue with an L-shaped plan that comes out on the sidestreet (and it is an individual landmark), so the Chicago Athletic Association is pretty unique. Does it merit individual landmark status that would preserve more than the first 30 or 50 feet? Of course.

Lawyers love precedent. It IS English Common Law, which is just a series of historical decisions descending from the weakness of King John in 1215. The idea of precedent is tied to the idea of equity we wrote down in the Constitution – equal rights under law, speedy trials, habeas corpus and all of that democracy stuff that was so popular during the 20th century.

Regular people like precedent too – other owners in the district will march in with their own glasstop additions if this is approved, that much is sure.

Precedent is history, and it follows that same idea that we can learn from history. Nice idea, although history does not bear it out. We don’t learn from history and everyone who tries fails at predicting the future. As a student of history, I find it much more anarchic. I love history not because of its patterns or its predictability but because of its particularity, singularity, uniqueness and anarchy.

The question for you is – do you want anarchy on Michigan Avenue or predictability? Because that is the question that has created most historic districts in this country and the overwhelming answer, the democratic answer, is predictability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *