Demolition of 600 block of North Michigan Avenue, 1995
This fall for the 17th time I will teach a course called Preservation Planning. This course deals with the intersection of a host of urban planning issues: surveys, politics, law, economics, public relations, etc.; and the preservation of historic buildings. It is not about planning a preservation project, and there is also a contradiction in the title, because in a very real sense, you CAN’T plan preservation.
In my 28-plus years in the field I have been through many organizational spasms that attempt to inject regularity and predictability into the task of saving buildings and then repurposing them for the future. Invariably we say “we have to stop spending all of our time putting out brush fires,” which means that we are always REACTING to crises. We get tired of being reactive. This is a normal impulse – we want to be able to work proactively and we want to be able to plan and allocate our work more efficiently.
These are laudable goals and often the efforts are productive. But at some level they are designed to fail, because at some level the preservationist/heritage conservationist is a firefighter. A firefighter can plan ahead by having the best equipment, a comprehensive survey of the surroundings, and extensive training. But a firefighter cannot predict when and how a fire will break out.
Some organizations are formed to save a specific building, and thus their mission over time moves from firefighter to custodian, a position that can be planned and organized to a large extent. This is how, for example, historic sites operate. There are of course unexpected occurrences with sites as there are with any buildings, but you can budget your time and personnel pretty well.
I have been on the staff or Board of Landmarks Illinois for major chunks of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, and we have ALWAYS tried to get away from “putting out brush fires” but at some fundamental level, that is our job, and we can’t. Of course we are selective, and focus our efforts on certain battles based on factors like the value of the resource, the extent of local support, money and strategy. A classic example is the River Forest Women’s Club, which went from being one of Illinois’ Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites in 2005 to the Illinois Preservation Project of the Year in 2008.
Focusing efforts doesn’t mean you stop firefighting: it means you select among the brush fires those that are most likely to threaten the larger community, or most likely to result in a significant or irretrievable loss. Since this often occurs in an emergency situation, it is likened to field medic triage, but let’s stick with the firefighting metaphor for now if you don’t mind.
You can stop firefighting and do something else: The Chicago Architecture Foundation was established back in 1966 to save Glessner House, which they did, and then evolved over 30 years into an educational and tourism organization. They don’t fight fires, which is fine, because there is someone else who does. Arguably Landmarks Illinois, as it became more established, did less public firefighting, often preferring to work behind-the-scenes. Into the gap stepped Preservation Chicago, ready to protest out loud in cases when Landmarks Illinois was holding its tongue.
The real question for any group is how do you measure success? Number of buildings saved? Quality of buildings, sites or structures saved? Landmarks Illinois just released its 40 by 40 list – a collection of the most significant preservation successes in each of the 40 years LI has existed. It is a good list and you should check it out here.
But I teach Preservation Planning and I think success is more than simply buildings or sites or districts or structures. When I was on staff in ’86-’94, we often spoke of the goal of creating a “preservation ethic.” The goal was to get enough planners, developers, politicians and people in general – communities – who shared our belief that old buildings are worth ushering into the future. Then, and only then, would we be able to PLAN for preservation. Because then, and only then, would we have an effective volunteer firefighting force.