Two weeks ago I spoke during the meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation regarding the Future of the National Register of Historic Places, which will be 50 years old next year. I detailed some of the shortcomings that have emerged over that time, including a startling “Diversity Deficit.”
Less than 5% of the buildings listed on the National Register evoke the nation’s diverse history – the rest chronicle white men, who are much less than half the country. I also detailed many of the challenges in preservation practice that we inherited from an architect-driven 1960s practice, one that has a tendency to focus too much on the formal.
The photo is one of may favorite examples, from St. Nicholas Avenue in Hamilton Heights, New York, the building lacks architectural integrity. But Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man there in 1947, a book more relevant than ever today. The building is authentic but does not have integrity. The problem is not the building but our practice – we adopted the architectural concept of “integrity” in 1966 instead of the international concept of “authenticity.” Continue Reading
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
I have been Vice Chair of the Diversity Task Force for the National Trust for Historic Preservation for several years and yesterday at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis we held a Conversation Starter that represented one of the results of our work.
Exactly 20 National Preservation Conferences ago I did my first national presentation and it was part of a session on Inner-City Preservation that sought to answer the question: how do we get more minorities and inner-city dwellers involved in preservation? My answer was: Wrong Question. They are involved. I chronicled a long list of Landmarks Illinois efforts in Chicago to that date, including my experience with the North Kenwood community, which I wrote about in the Future Anterior journal in 2005. The question was more appropriately, how do we integrate our efforts with theirs? This is the same question National Trust President Stephanie Meeks has been asking – how do we reach local preservationists?
The difference twenty years later? Well, for one, the Diversity Task Force has been talking with the National Park Service about Standards and Practices and how they might be amended or altered to create and recognize more diverse historic sites. Ray Rast of Gonzaga described his challenge surveying and documenting sites associated with labor organizer Cesar Chavez. He kept running into issues of INTEGRITY, which is the word we use in the U.S., because back when we created the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, the international word “authenticity” was too scary. Continue Reading
Howard Reich had an interesting article in the Tribune the other day about the loss of three great Blues statesmen in 2011: Hubert Sumlin (age 80), David “Honeyboy” Edwards (age 96) and Pinetop Perkins (age 97). The article “Twilight of the Blues” laments the loss of a once-vibrant local cultural expression to an esoteric rarity along the lines of Gregorian chant; Appalachian folk and Bee Gees’ disco. I blog a lot about the important role that intangible heritage plays in modern heritage conservation, and how international charters over the last two decades have started to embrace this phenomenon and I recalled how in 1987 the French newspaper Le Monde celebrated Chicago’s two great contributions to world culture: the blues and architecture.
One of the National Trust Committees I serve on is the Diversity Committee, and through that work I have learned a lot about diversity as a goal, in employment, in outlook, in project development, and in society as a whole. I was thinking about another definition of diversity, the one community developer Charles Buki brought up in his speech at the National Preservation Conference in Austin when he charged that too many of our developments – city, suburb, whatever, were “monochromatic” and thus lacking diversity. This is of course a different kind of diversity than the ethnic/racial/gender diversity we so often focus on, but they can be related. A monochromatic built environment can exclude ethnic and racial diversity. The “whitebread suburb” and the “inner-city ghetto” are both monochromatic communities culturally, but what of their architecture? I remember being shocked two decades ago by the built environment of “Boyz In The Hood”, the lawns and bungalows of South Central LA. I grew up thinking that inner-city ghettos had a different built environment. But they don’t. This building could be in a suburb all fixed up, but it isn’t. Continue Reading
I do a lot of tours. I have been doing tours of architecture, geography, history, industry and all sorts since the fall of 1983 for organizations ranging from the Geographic Society of Chicago and Field Museum to the Chicago History Museum and Department of Housing and Urban Development. I have done a fair amount of tour training as well, including the Community Showcase tours Rolf Achilles and I did with Jean Guarino last year for various Chicago neighborhoods.
The last few years I have been doing a fair amount of tours for Art Institute of Chicago members – Illinois & Michigan Canal, Farnsworth House, Chicago churches (coming up March 18 and 19, 2010!), parks and boulevards. Last fall I resurrected a tour I first did in 1994 at the urging of the Geographic Society of Chicago – Literary Chicago. The tour consists of an extensive driving tour of Chicago soundtracked with the recitation of a fair amount of poetry and prose inspired by, written in and about the sites we are passing. Continue Reading
I am spending the day at the Bronzeville/Black Metropolis Heritage Area Summit II, “Owning the Change” here at The Cell. This involves the various community planning initiatives and heritage tourism initiatives that have grown out of the Black Metropolis Historic DIstrict (National Register 1986, Chicago Landmark 1996) and the Black Metropolis Convention and Visitors Bureau. I moderated a panel on “Town and Gown” with old friend Leroy Kennedy from IIT, Laura Rounce from Illinois College of Optometry, and (also old friend) Susan Campbell from U of C. We talked about the evolving relationship between universities and their neighborhoods. Both U of C and IIT spent the 1950s treating their neighborhoods like a disposable resource “land bank” and demolishing buildings at will. Indeed, one of our great ironies is that the premier landmark of IIT – Crown Hall – sits on the site of the Mecca, one of the great buildings of Bronzeville. Continue Reading
I was at a Financing workshop this morning at the Bronzeville Visitors Bureau for what is affectionately called simply “The Rosenwald.” Organized by National Trust Advisor Paula Robinson and Harold Lucas, who have been involved in South Side community preservation for a generation, the effort was the latest in an ongoing series of attempts to save a truly important building. As Harold pointed out at the outset, the building – which covers most of the block between 46th and 47th Streets, Michigan to Wabash, was significant in both the history of Bronzeville as the home of famous individuals like Quincy Jones and Joe Louis, and in the history of Chicago’s greatest philanthropist, Sears, Roebuck Chairman Julius Rosenwald. Rosenwald is known nationwide for his early 20th century empowerment efforts, building schools for African-Americans across the south. The Rosenwald was one of two predecessors to public housing in Chicago, the other being the Marshall Field Garden Apartments on the north side. Officially called Michigan Terrace Garden Apartments, Rosenwald had his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld, Jr. design the 5-story Art Deco complex for Bronzeville in 1929. It was listed on the National Register in 1981. Continue Reading