August 3, 2008 Chicago Buildings, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1272

August already in Chicago, normally time for some landmarks shenanigans by the powers that be. At least, that used to be the tradition in the 1980s – announce a big historic-building-damaging project in August when the goo-goos were off in Saugatuck or Door County and couldn’t mount public opposition. That may be less true in the Internet age, because you can get the internet next to the pool in Rowley’s Bay. We shall see if down time dog days produce anything this year, but in the meantime I need to catch up on landmarks news in Illinois…

The big news at Landmarks Illinois is the selection of Jim Peters as the new President of Landmarks Illinois. Peters brings excellent credentials, being an award-winning faculty member of our SAIC Master’s program in historic preservation for seven years, a former Director of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, and a certified planner with a preservation degree. Jim also knows everyone and knows how to get things done, which is the LI way. I can proudly say I was on the Search Committee that unanimously chose Jim.
Budget cuts everywhere. The DysState of Illinois has halved its staff budget at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency which has cut the hours at historic sites and has already suffered a decade of budget cuts. Hello? What is the state’s biggest industry? Tourism, you say? Well, then, let’s shut down all of the tourist sites! These state pols couldn’t find out which side their bread buns were buttered on with both hands and a flashlight.

At the National Trust budget tightening is striking as well, thanks to the faltered economy, although not nearly as draconian as Illinois. Usually a down economy means an uptick in my industry (one of the nation’s few with a positive trade balance) education, although we will have to wait until the fall class shows up to prove that one.

Jerry Mickleson of Jam Productions bought the Uptown Theater, which has been shuttered since the early 80s and despite landmark status in ’91 has continued to fall to bits because it is a massive theater with no parking in an endearingly sketchy neighborhood. Jam was the last one to use it, booking rock acts, a couple of which I saw in college, and they probably have a better sense of how to make it work than those who love the theater more.

That is one of the great conundrums at the heart of historic preservation. We save buildings because we fall in love with them, and we fall in love with them because we see them so much or learn so much about them and the more we take in each historical and artistic detail the more we want to preserve – on a pedestal – the object of our affection. But like all love objects, historic buildings should not be put on a pedestal and that is why so few can become museums. Pygmalion is an enduring human fiction.

In this regard I was chatting (electronically) with Mark Harmon, Site Director at the Gaylord Building in Lockport, about the future of that National Trust property (where I chair the Site Council). The building decided decisively NOT to be just a museum when it opened in 1987 and again 15 years later. Half of it has always been a restaurant, a paying tenant. The other half is interpretive (or interpretative if you like an extra syllable) with various galleries and visitors centers occupying its three floors over time. Half museum, so to speak, and our strategic plan a few years back basically came to the conclusion that we have to make our museum-side more commercial (we would love to have a 19th century general store there) and the restaurant side more interpretive, to better integrate the identity of the National Trust’s first adaptive re-use property. This is the goal we are working toward, as Mark sagely noted and I responded that the greatest innovation we could offer the preservation world would be leases for commercial tenants that hold them to certain interpretive goals.

It is a fine balancing act between the refined tastes of the artist and the base urges of commerce, between Pygmalion and the blow up doll. That balance is an art and it is the reality of life – as opposed to the artificiality of the pedestal and the love that smothers.

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