floods keep me busy

September 30, 2008 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1284

It felt like I was crisscrossing the northern half of the state last week, and in a sense, I was. I did two tours for the Art Institute on Wednesday and Thursday to LaSalle, to visit the incomparable Hegeler-Carus mansion, an 1874 Italianate-cum-Second Empire extravaganza that never left the family, and to ride the new historic canal boat on the I & M Canal at Lock 14. The floods of almost two weeks earlier prevented us from riding on Wednesday and curtailed our ride Thursday.

The floods also drew me out Wednesday afternoon post-tour to Plano, to see the Farnsworth House and assess the damage.

There is good news and bad news. The good news is that the electricity is working and, more importantly, so is the insurance. The bad news? The wardrobe may be a loss – an accurate 1996 replica of the original.

The end walls of primavera wood are in bad shape, and we will probably debate how much needs to be replaced. We need to investigate the structure underneath the travertine panels, and we also have water in the window wells that needs to be addressed.

We discussed strategies for opening the house on a limited basis during construction – as was done at Montpelier – so people could see the process. This was a good idea – I saw Montpelier during the process and loved it.

We also have to deal with the question: the house has been flooded or almost flooded by 3 100-year floods in 12 years – why don’t you move it? Or put it on retractable stilts or somehow get it out of the way of the floodwaters? Well, of course the first answer is we saved it 5 years ago from being moved out of state, and despite Mies’ love of “universal architecture” this was designed for a specific location and a specific client.
The second answer occurred to me as I was perusing my latest issue of ARCHAEOLOGY which described the various depredations threatening the Egyptian sites at Thebes. My first memory of National Geographic magazine is the cover in the 1960s when they moved the Ramses tomb to make way for Aswan Dam. So, why not move Farnsworth House? Well, my memory of that NG cover was how they had to hack Ramses into little pieces to move him – the same is true of Farnsworth House. Even though we are dealing with postwar building techniques, I doubt we could get those hidden spot welds on the I-beams right today. We don’t like what happened in Thebes, and now the Valley of the Kings is subject to flash floods thanks to the unintended effects of the dam, which got rid of the annual floods and siltation, which caused farmers to increase both irrigation (which increased floods) and fertilizer use (which then threatens the stone artifacts with its toxicity). So, flooding – the human-directed kind – is a huge issue in both places. But the question (To move or not to move?) must be asked and we at Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust are going to be exploring all of the options very seriously. In fact, we hope soon to welcome public suggestions for solutions and how much they would cost.

After the tour Thursday I visited with four of the veterans of our lovely Art Institute China trip this summer as the museum celebrated its tour programs. Friday I zipped out to Lockport for the Gaylord Building Site Council meeting, where we debated the budget and the upcoming opening of the Lincoln Landing – a new park in front of the building that replaces the cluttered cabin collection of Pioneer Settlement with a new sculpture celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s connection to the canal. The park design is nice and will enhance the building.

But there is a nagging Lincoln thing here. Lincoln is my favorite President and I can recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, but as a historian I am troubled by our Illinois tendency to equate Lincoln with ALL local history. The story of the I & M Canal, which straddled the continent, built Chicago and opened up the West to settlement and industry even before the railroads, is a hell of an historical story. It doesn’t need Lincoln to make it important. Fascinating historical narratives are buried in indifference, awaiting the brush of Lincoln’s sleeve to be made real. The same thing happens in architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, especially in Oak Park. A nice building is a nice building and a good design is a good design, but unless Frank Lloyd Wright sneezed on the blueprints, it isn’t really great architecture.

Anyway, I’m not done with Friday. I headed out Friday evening to the Dunham Riding Club in Wayne to give a talk for the Preservation Partners of the Tri-Cities on the National Register (I’ll be doing a similar discussion in Kenilworth in a couple of weeks). A nice audience and they were offering up a super tour weekend, including the stunning 1937 Campana Building in Batavia. It’s a great building and a stunning tower-and-wings that looks ready to soar above the farm fields on the Fox Valley. I would hazard to say it is a more impressive building that the nearby Fabyan Villa in Geneva, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Abraham Lincoln must have been involved somehow….

tomorrow? Hull House…

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