Sullivan’s Travails

October 5, 2006 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments Off on Sullivan’s Travails 1167

Last night we had a panel on restoring Louis Sullivan buildings over at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, also sponsored by the Chicago History Museum and Graham Foundation. I was the moderator and our featured speakers were architects Gunny Harboe, who directed the restoration of the Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. cornice, and Mary Brush, who directed facade restoration at the Gage Building. Then to make everything wonderful, Tim Samuelson agreed to join us.

Tim is often said to know everything about Chicago and everything about Louis Sullivan. It would be impossible to disprove this.

We learned a lot about Sullivan’s ornament – how he played with figure and ground to eliminate those signifiers and make ornament one with the building. We learned about the challenges of replicating the incredibly detailed elements of the Carson’s cornice from a few bad photographs and a lot of comparable. We saw how his highrise ornament was designed to be seen from below (something the designers of the Parthenon’s Panathenaic procession knew, but has oft since been forgot) and we heard how Sullivan could think in three dimensions. I reminded everyone of how much of Sullivan’s architecture was lost over the last 40 years, which is really tragic. Continue Reading

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I Don’t Believe You

July 27, 2006 Economics Comments (0) 886

Yesterday Chicago’s City Council – known primarily for outlawing multitasking (cell phones while driving, smoking while drinking, foie gras while dining) – passed a living wage ordinance for big-box stores by a veto-proof majority. There are political implications (they went against the Mayor, oh my!) and of course the Retailers Association and various big-box spokespersons predicted that the stores won’t locate in the city, depriving it of tax revenue, non-living-wage jobs, convenience, etc..

The next chapter in this story was suggested by another news item buried deeper in the paper. It seems that the Berwyn City Council has 17 offers for the re-use of the historic Berwyn Bank Building, a fact that allowed it to reject an offer from Applebee’s restaurant to rehab the building, spending $2.5 million. The Berwyn Development Corporation touted the emergence of developer interest caused by media attention and preservationist word of mouth. Continue Reading

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Home Economics

March 20, 2006 Economics, Historic Districts Comments Off on Home Economics 1169

In the last month I have read two articles both titled “Home Economics” and both might be said to be profiles of anti-landmarks persons. The first was in Chicago magazine and profiled a local lawyer who helped quash landmark designation in the Sheffield/De Paul neighborhood. Her argument was that designation would hurt property values and cause all sorts of expenses for homeowners.

The other “Home Economics” profile was of economist Ed Glaeser in the New York Times, and he said just the opposite.

On Thursday the Wall Street Journal published an article about the proliferation of local historic districts driven by residents’ desire to raise their property values. That counters our Chicago attorney-cum-economist, but it supports Glaeser. Continue Reading

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Endangered by Poverty and Wealth

March 7, 2006 Economics, Historic Districts, Vision and Style Comments Off on Endangered by Poverty and Wealth 1001

Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois released its 10 Most list last Wednesday in Springfield. That is, Ten Most Endangered Buildings in the state. The ones in Chicago are particularly evocative because of what they share: deteriorating inner-city neighborhoods. In the west side’s North Lawndale neighborhood, the “most endangered” was not a building but a bunch of buildings stretching along Douglas Boulevard, massive former synagogues and schools. The threat is basically the weight of poverty and disinvestment multiplied by years.

North Lawndale was featured in a 1987 Chicago Tribune series as the most impoverished neighborhood in the city. My wife Felicity Rich photographed the buildings for the AIA Guide to Chicago in 1992 because most of the photographers didn’t want to go there. Continue Reading

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A Deal Falls Through

February 16, 2006 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments Off on A Deal Falls Through 1007

Strange things always happen in the People’s Republic of Oak Park, a tenacious, opinionated and privileged suburb just west of Chicago – the only suburb with two CTA rapid transit lines.

The other shoe has finally fallen in the Downtown Oak Park development saga, some of which is visible at www.oakpark.us.

Oak Park was embarrassed last year when they adopted a whack plan by Portland firm Crandall-Arambula. I happened to be one of the random telephone interviews during the summer of 2004, so I know how bad their methodology was. The questioner kept asking me to choose between historic preservation and economic development. DUH! Historic preservation IS economic development I tried to say, but their script did not allow this. 250 grand wasted. Continue Reading

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The Expense of Preservation

February 9, 2006 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments Off on The Expense of Preservation 1069

Preservation is often characterized as expensive. Why? Because it is a good excuse, even for the richest.

One of the preservation tragedies we have been awaiting these last few years is the demolition of Bertrand Goldeberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, a mighty and evocative design from the 1960s, the last era of optimism. A Quatrefoil in plan, it took the stem-and-petals constructional idiom of Goldberg’s signature Marina City and evolved a powerful flower of a building, four cylindrical lobes of beautiful 60s concrete studded with rounded windows – for a guy Goldberg was pretty good at channelling the lost feminine tradition in Modernism and he was certainly an intellectual leader in recapturing that tradition from the Miesian hegemony.
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Lazy Money

January 30, 2006 Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1254

My student Dorothy Bobco wrote me a marvelous note the other day about “lazy money”. Here is a quote:

“I think I have figured out why people get so upset when they think their property values are going down. They are losing free money, lazy money. You can buy a house and do nothing and the value will probably go up. If anything happens that changes that, they lose money that they did not have to work for. That is what makes them mad, losing money they did not have to work for. It is laziness and greed that drives the real estate market. ” Continue Reading

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Historic Districts

January 29, 2006 Economics, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1078

We are starting a class on Historic Districts tomorrow – looking at how they evolved and what motivates people to designate their community as an historic district. Historic districts are a fascinating combination of two postwar movements – the broadened historic preservation movement, which was inching beyond associative and architectural history to start looking at the state of cities, towns and rural places in a bigger way; and the community planning movement, which was trying to wrest control over development decision-making from the urban experts who began to radically refashion cities after World War II.

We will be looking at a lot of different cities and districts and I hope that the students help me to understand the whys of the historic district, especially why people choose it – or fight it. For those ideological free market types, historic districts are a bit more fair than traditional individual landmarks, because they put a whole area – or “market” – under the same set of rules, as opposed to individual landmarks, which are seen to be at a development disadvantage from their neighbors. Yet historic districts are also mechanisms for community empowerment, allowing a group to control the form of its environment in a manner more precise – and perhaps less predictable – than zoning, which regulates use and density. Continue Reading

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Sprawl

November 9, 2005 Economics, Historic Districts, Sustainability Comments Off on Sprawl 1108

UIC Professor Robert Bruegmann’s new book: Sprawl: A Compact History (U of C Press) is out, and it is a stunner. Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago alerted me to its imminent appearance, although having worked with Bruegmann as my dissertation advisor over the last few years I knew it was on the way.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has made sprawl a celebrated cause for preservationists for the last decade. Sprawl hurts historic communities and must be stopped. It is something everyone seems to agree on.

Bruegmann’s new book has his typically contrarian take on popular progressive issues: He seems to like sprawl and believes that most people like it in practice, even if they dislike the idea of it.

Heresy! How can I read such filth! Continue Reading

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Landmarks Can Kill You

October 17, 2005 Chicago Buildings, Economics Comments Off on Landmarks Can Kill You 1046

There was a Commission on Chicago Landmarks hearing last week on the designation of the East Village district, and I heard one of the best ones yet. In over two decades of landmarks hearings at the Commission and before the City Council I have heard some amazing arguments against landmark designation. People claim they need 2,000 square foot additions to their rowhouse in order to raise children without hardship and if the Commission denies it they are all but abusing the children (sometimes as yet unconceived) and hindering their education. I heard a woman argue against designation of her old house because it was too close to the street and the buses, a fact which she then implicated in the deaths of both of her parents. Don’t designate this house – it is a killer.

The aldermen always get the best lines. I will never forget the 1987 City Council hearing on the possible designation of the Chicago Building when one alderman asked “Haven’t we already designated a building with Chicago windows?” My internal reply was “Isn’t there already one pyramid at Giza?” They voted designation down that day, but it made it a few years later and now the Chicago Building is an SAIC dorm! Continue Reading

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