President Lincoln’s Cottage

May 19, 2010 History, House Museums, Interpretation, Sustainability Comments (0) 1624

We held the retirement party for longtime National Trust President Richard Moe at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., one of the newest National Trust historic sites and a fitting place to pay tribute to a leader who helped transform the preservation movement into a vital, relevant force for how people decide the future of their communities in this country. Dick Moe took a collection of mansions and made it a representation of our multiple cultures, from Acoma Sky Pueblo to the East Side Tenement Museum, from Tuoro Synagogue to the Gaylord Building, from the Farnsworth House to the Hotel De Paris. He ushered the fight against sprawl and the struggle for sustainability into the heart of the preservation movement. You can’t posit a more transformative leader. Moe will remain involved at Lincoln Cottage, an 1840s Victorian cottage where the 16th President spent a full quarter of his Presidency.

I was intrigued by the interpretation of the Lincoln Cottage. First, a separate historic building, a lovely tile-roofed Renaissance Revival building from 1905 serves as the Robert H. Smith Visitors Center. This was one of the first LEED certified Gold historic rehabs, fulfilling the sustainability mission Moe set out for the Trust three years ago. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

SAH in Chicago!

April 19, 2010 Chicago Buildings, History Comments (0) 1165

Well, it is finally here after years of planning. The Society of Architectural Historians, an international organization promoting the study of the built environment, is having its 63rd Annual Meeting in Chicago this week. I have the honor of being Local Chair and I am excited to welcome so many friends and colleagues to a city whose architecture has always been central to its identity.

Over 500 architectural historians from everywhere will be here, and many are taking tours of every kind of local landmark from the Gold Coast to the Farnsworth House; from Oak Park to Hyde Park; from the Reliance and Rookery and Marquette and Monadbock Buildings of the Loop to the grand mansions of the North Shore. I have Terry Tatum to thank for coordinating a dizzing array of tours led by local experts, and Sally Kalmbach for coordinating a medium-sized army of volunteers manning all of the scholarly paper sessions on Thursday through Saturday, as well as tours and special events. THANK YOU!

Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Pleasant Home

March 25, 2010 Chicago Buildings, History, House Museums, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1583

I have been involved with the Pleasant Home Foundation in some fashion almost since it was set up in the early 90s by a group that included former SAIC President Tony Jones. I moved to Oak Park in the later 90s and had a regular gig talking to groups there every May, offering insights into the relationship of Pleasant Home’s architect, George Washington Maher, and his more famous contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright. Maher designed Pleasant Home in 1897 and you could argue he achieved many aspects of the Prairie School idiom a year or two before Wright. (The name comes from the streets – Pleasant and Home – whose intersection it occupies.)

The house has the broad eaves, overhanging hipped roof and decidedly horizontal massing of the Prairie School. It also has urns flanking the entrance and is centered on the hearth/fireplace, a device Wright also used.

Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Traditional Modernity II

March 4, 2010 History, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1443

Nearly five years ago I wrote about a fantastic debate on the architecture of additions to historic buildings and infill in historic districts between Steve Semes and Paul Byard. You can see the old blog here.

Paul Byard sadly passed away but Steve Semes has finally put many of his ideas about the value of traditional architecture for new construction in and around historic buildings into a new book, The Future of the Past (Norton, 2009) and he spoke and led a discussion today at SAIC. It was fascinating and stimulating and I can’t shut up about it. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Chicago’s Black Literary Renaissance

February 11, 2010 Chicago Buildings, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 1150

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

Continue Reading

Creative Destruction

January 30, 2010 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (2) 1152

I got a question about Creative Destruction at my lecture at the Chicago History Guild a couple of weeks ago and my first response was: “that is the hottest thing in preservation scholarship.” It has been for over decade, actually, from Max Page’s Creative Destruction of Manhattan and Michael Holleran’s Boston’s Changeful Times to the recent release of Randall Mason’s Once and Future New York. Dan Bluestone has also contributed to this scholarship, as have many of the pieces in Future Anterior and other journals.

I think many people confuse creative destruction with the concept of creativity and the tabula rasa, and thus come to the curious conclusion that preservation stifles creativity. This noxious notion doesn’t pass the sniff test: any child can draw on a blank canvas – it takes real creative skill to express yourself in context. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Dolkart’s Row House Reborn

January 13, 2010 Historic Districts, History, Vision and Style Comments (1) 1812

Near Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village. Photo copyright Felicity Rich 2006.

I just finished reading Andrew Dolkart’s new book “The Row-House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908-1929” (Johns Hopkins 2009) and I loved it. Dolkart tells a story that is fascinating from several perspectives in the history of building conservation, and he tells it very well. The book springs from a simple fact: people started rehabbing rowhouses in New York (and elsewhere) in the early 20th century. Sometimes these rehabs respected the original exterior of the buildings, essentially following current preservation practice for locally designated historic districts. Sometimes they heavily altered the exterior, following emergent fashions for “Colonial” or Mediterranean renaissance stylings. This involved chopping off no-longer fashionable stoops and window surrounds and other extraneous Victorianisms.

Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Capitalism and Socialism

November 21, 2009 Economics, History Comments (0) 1014

There is a lot of loose talk about socialism lately from the American minority, who started throwing the word around last year during the election. As in much political debate, it is an epithet not a definable thing, a signifier of something BAD. And since a full 20 years have passed since the demise of the Communist Party in Eastern Europe, there are many fewer checks and balances on the use of such terminology.

Ironically, the most socialist thing that ever happened in U.S. history was going on at the same time – virtual nationalization of the banking system, and it was undertaken by President George W. Bush, the epitome of the 25-year-long conservative free-market ascendancy in American politics. The same Bush administration added bananas, chocolate sauce and sprinkles to the ice cream sundae of Medicare. Medicare itself was described as socialism during its creation 45 years ago, and indeed all of the opposition arguments today match those leveled in 1964 and indeed a dozen years before when Truman first proposed national health care. Eliding this history, the word is still being bandied about as an unexamined epithet by opponents of President Obama and health care. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

Heritage Conservation, not Historic Preservation

October 17, 2009 Historic Districts, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (7) 1656

The final event at the National Preservation Conference in Nashville was a lunch featuring speaker Donovan Rypkema, a longtime preservation contributor whose specialty is the economics of historic preservation. Don always has numerous inspiring insights, and this presentation was no exception. His focus was preservation in 50 years, and it was a call to action that called for significant change. I agree with 99 percent of it, and here is why.

First, Don talked about the recent and virally successful “This Place Matters” photo contest which the National Trust held on its website (link on the right). The event was standard 21st century user interface: people print out “This Place Matters” signs from the Trust, and photograph them in front of places that mattered to them. Then people voted on their favorites. It was an exercise in the democracy of the built environment, and it was a revelation.

It was a revelation because, as Don pointed out, almost all of the finalists were NOT monumental buildings in the traditional sense of historic preservation. They weren’t outstanding architectural landmarks or the homes of famous people. The winner was a Humble Oil station in San Antonio, second place was a boathouse in Door County, Wisconsin and third place was a graveyard with a sailor holding the sign near a gravestone. But the effort was a huge success, because PEOPLE were deciding what PLACES mattered to them. Continue Reading

Continue Reading

A Better Plan

August 18, 2009 Blog, Chicago Buildings, History, Vision and Style Comments (2) 1320

One of the things that has made Landmarks Illinois an effective preservation organization has been its ability to transcend the primal impulse of many preservationists – the “Just Say No” response – and provide a more intelligent way to proceed. When a developer/institution/politician/agency says “This is what we want to do” the preservationist in all of us just wants to shout “no!”. But that is neither effective nor even a complete response. Much, much better to say: here is the better plan that achieves your goals and saves historic buildings.

This is what Landmarks Illinois did this week with their new plan for the 2016 Olympic Village on Chicago’s lakefront – they picked the best Gropius buildings – not all of them – and came up with a more intelligent and sustainable plan – you can see it at or click at the link on the right. Continue Reading

Continue Reading