Saved By Technology II

November 1, 2007 Economics, Technology Comments (0) 954

I have taught Preservation Planning for more than a dozen years and I always include a lecture called “Churches, Theaters and Other Difficult Buildings”. These buildings are “difficult” because they are functionally obsolescent: They were designed for large public assemblies in a pre-automobile era, and nowadays assemblies don’t happen so much. Vaudeville movie theaters combined live and cinematic entertainment and we don’t do that anymore either. Movie theaters today need to have lots of screens for maybe 200 people each, and even big markets like Chicago can only support a handful of live performance venues of 4,000 seats or so. Churches become obsolescent when denominations change, as they have in Chicago neighborhoods for over 40 years, and despite the lingering religiosity of Americans, many people are in exurban superchurches or use religiosity as a wedge against preserving historical features of their buildings. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

The Sustainability of History

September 16, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments (0) 734

When I began this blog two years ago the big news was Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, so perhaps it is time for another look. My friend and fellow National Trust Trustee Jack Davis had a very good piece in the Tribune’s editorial section today about New Orleans, one of his two hometowns (the other is Chicago). It was accompanied by two excellent maps of historic 19th century New Orleans and the area that escaped flooding following Hurrican Katrina two years ago. The maps matched up perfectly: 18th and 19th century New Orleans residents, developers and leaders had built a sustainable community on the high ground safe from flooding. Most of what flooded were areas that had been expensively and artificially drained in the 20th century – basically disasters waiting to happen. Davis was weighing in on the battle to rebuild the modern areas in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they will continue to be vulnerable. Part of the challenge is racial and political, as the new areas were strongly poor and black, and part is personal and emotional – he describes lovingly restored homes in virtually abandoned neighborhoods. People forge a bond to a place that defies logic. I was reminded of my friend Myron Stachiw’s project documenting the people that returned to their homes around Chernobyl in the Ukraine following the nuclear disaster despite the fact that they were demonstrably endangering their lives by doing so. Davis also points out that the racial equation is not simple either, as New Orleans today has a sudden and significant Hispanic population it never had before (despite being briefly part of Spain). Continue Reading

Continue Reading

A Future Reverie

June 19, 2007 Blog, Chicago Buildings, China Preservation, Economics Comments Off on A Future Reverie 1084

Since the 2016 Olympics the tourists have been flocking to Chicago. Eighty percent from China and India, where the currency rates make an American tour affordable. More and more of the middle class are enjoying a journey to the other side of the world, with the hopes of finding an exotic locale, rich and authentic local experiences, the romance of century-old architecture and native peoples with colorful local dress, customs and food….

The Chicagoans under their Dear Leader Daley have festooned the downtown with modern artworks and massive landscaping programs to show off the late-19th century architecture for which the city is famous. This does not disappoint, as much of it was refurbished in the 1990-2005 period. The “Loop,” still circled by a quaint collection of elevated railroads, remains the best – and most scenic – way to travel around the inner city. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Oak Park on the Make

April 30, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments Off on Oak Park on the Make 1298

Oak Park recently elected a new Village Board that promises to get development moving again, and they have an early opportunity to allow the demolition of a very nice c.1920 commercial corner building for a parking lot with a Walgreen’s in the back. Will this demolition prove their development-friendly mettle?

One could argue that being on Madison Street, where almost every historic building is already demolished, there is no context. As Michael Moran of Preservation Chicago likes to note, this argument is like going to a dentist who says “several of your teeth are missing – why not get rid of the rest of them?” Continue Reading

Continue Reading


April 3, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments (0) 873

The Grave Dancer bought the Tribune. Appropriate, I suppose, that the billionaire collector of distressed properties, having divested himself of real estate at the tip of a century bubble, should dive into the distressed world of old media. It is even oddly encouraging for those of us who like to sit on the couch or at the kitchen table with morning coffee and read the paper. I read lots of internet news, but never on the couch or kitchen table (or toilet). Technology is additive. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

McMansion World

March 21, 2007 Economics, Historic Districts Comments Off on McMansion World 1129

Morning news: McDonalds is suing the Oxford English Dictionary over the word “McJobs,” describing low-paying menial jobs without hope of advancement. This made me wonder if the golden arch attorneys would be heading after “McMansions” next.

McMansions are what follows the teardown. They are franchised, mass-produced homes that are “mansions” in size and price only. They are McMansions because, design-wise, they are collections of signifiers, generally assembled artlessly, like the eponymous sandwiches. Palladian windows. Curving front staircases. Quoined corners. Big flat warpy windows with fake muntins that look like scotch tape because people read “divided lights” as “classy”. Balustrades, columns and pediments, the bacon, lettuce and cheese of Classical style (heavy on the cheese). They also tend to be SUPER-SIZED. Entrances tend toward the subtlety of a streetwalker, with similar effect. Like the burgers, they have all the outward signs of taste but the inside is nothing but architectural trans-fats: pressboard and PVC. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Oak Park settles down a bit

February 9, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1232

Well, from the tenor of the panel discussion in Oak Park this morning, the Fox News-style polarization of preservation has died down a bit. This is a good thing. A developer, a village president/architect, a local architect and two preservationists made up a panel that was distinguished more by how much they agreed than by the false “Preservation or Development” dichotomy that was set up.

The biggest laughs came to Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago who said the title “Historic Preservation: Too Much of a Good Thing?” reminded him of “Women’s Suffrage: Too Much of a Good Thing?” or “Child Labor Laws: Too Much of a Good Thing?”. He is right that preservation has to keep justifying itself. Continue Reading

Continue Reading


February 7, 2007 Economics, Technology Comments (0) 977

I pull out my laptop on the elevated train and begin typing this. The train follows tracks curving right, leaving the solid viaduct for steep supports in the street. I look over at the remaining tracks on the viaduct and there are open-topped coal hoppers stretching from Central Ave to Cicero, mounds of black flecked with white snow. I ponder only momentarily that long stretch of railcars full of coal and how much my computer depends on them.

Continue Reading

Certainty versus Reality

January 31, 2007 Economics, History, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1154

In the 12th century, as the French began work on Notre Dame, the Khmer king Suryavarman II constructed what is still the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat, 500 acres of walls, walks, peaks, passages and bas-reliefs. Like so many great works of architecture, Angkor Wat was full of symbolic meaning. Its measurements, from the initial approach across a bridge over the moat to the aediculated peaks of its five shikara, were determined by Hindu cosmology, and specifically by the need to prove that the current age of Suryavarman II was a return to the golden age. The sculptural program explicitly paralleled the king’s achievements with those of the Hindu pantheon, proving his devaraja (god-king) status. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Lying Liars in Oak Park

January 29, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments Off on Lying Liars in Oak Park 1134

Next week – February 9 – a business group is hosting a breakfast about preservation and development in Oak Park. They are doing their level best to prove Santayana right – namely – forget history and be condemned to repeat it.

2004: Crandall Arambula do a downtown plan for Oak Park that calls for widespread demolition. People are mad.

Spring 2005: The ruling party is voted out of office for the first time in 50 years. Because of the bad plan. Westgate (a street in downtown Oak Park) makes Landmarks Illinois’ Most Endangered List.

Fall 2005: A broad community group redoes the plan for downtown Oak Park and their “consensus plan” recommends demolition of the Colt Building (see the picture) in order to save the other buildings on Westgate. Continue Reading

Continue Reading