Heritage Conservation, not Historic Preservation

October 17, 2009 Historic Districts, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (7) 1678

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

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A Better Plan

August 18, 2009 Blog, Chicago Buildings, History, Vision and Style Comments (2) 1333

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 www.landmarks.org or click at the link on the right. Continue Reading

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Kansas City, and of course Barry Byrne

May 19, 2009 History, Vision and Style Comments (0) 1490

We had our National Trust Board meeting in Kansas City last week, showcasing a city where preservation has made a palpable difference, notably in the downtown Library District. Chair Emeritus Jonathan Kemper led the effort to convert a former bank into a library – taking advantage of the fact that both banks and libraries in the early 20th century relied on the Classical Revival. Continue Reading

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Quincy, Illinois

May 14, 2009 Historic Districts, History, Interpretation Comments (2) 1659

Last week I had the good fortune to be the invited speaker for Preservation Week in Quincy, Illinois, which has always been a preservation mecca. Why is it such a great town for preservation? One reason is evident in the dinner where I spoke – the Mayor, John Spring was there, along with 90 people or so. Another reason is historical – Quincy was a prosperous Mississippi river town that grew up during the high tide of Victorian and early 20th century architecture that was not overcome by late 20th century urban renewal and demolition mania. Another piece is proactive – an active and invested citizenry who saved important old landmarks like the Dr. Richard Eels House, a rare documented Underground Railroad site, Continue Reading

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the new modernity

October 12, 2008 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 958

The great American modernist architect Barry Byrne commiserated with his Bauhaus colleague Lyonel Feininger in 1926 that the term “modern” was inaccurate and unfortunate. Within a decade the “modern” revolt against style had itself become a style and Byrne and Feininger were proved right. What does “modern” mean when the word connotes the latest thing but has been used to describe such trends for a century? We can use the word “contemporary” to distinguish between current design trends and the “modern” movement of the 20th century, but the problem with both terms is that they slide over time – they are fancy ways of saying “now” and thus are awkward when we make them mean “then.”

Historic preservation is one result of the collision between tradition and modernity. As traditions and traditional things become obsolete, we desire to preserve them. It is an impulse with expressions as diverse as Mount Vernon and Farm Aid. The advent of “globalization” in the 1990s caused much hand-wringing, although historians and economists might argue that globalization is contemporaneous with modern capitalism, dating to the late 18th century creation of the joint-stock corporation. Preservation has similar roots and a similar timeline – it is a product of the Enlightenment. Continue Reading

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February 22, 2008 History, Interpretation Comments (0) 1064

Time is not really linear, but it appears to be, and so history appears to be arithmetic, at least to us Post-Enlightenment modern types. Of course, the ancient Khmer and many others saw time as circular and even last month my colleagues in India talked about time as helical. But we tend to the linear and arithmetic, as I noted in my previous blog about how people assume older buildings and building components are more worn out or replaceable, when in fact a 100-year old building is generally much more resilient and well built than a 40 year old building.

A few other examples. The first time I went to India in 1986 I took a very nice bus tour of Mysore and the guide noted that the United States had only 300 years of history while India had more than 3000. Now, if this was arithmetic, the solution would be: The history of India is 10 times greater than the history of America. It is certainly 10 times longer. But what if you add the variable of population? There are more people alive today than in all of human history – is the history that happened to 50 or 100 million people between 0 AD and 1000 AD more or less important than the history that happened to 10 billion people between 1900 and 2000? It took Paris almost two hundred years to become a city of a million inhabitants and it only took Chicago 50 years. If an historic event is experienced by a million people is it twice as important as one experienced by half a million people? Is a person who lives to be 100 twice as important as one that dies at 50? When Martin Luther King Jr was my age he had been dead for 8 years and already had a Nobel Peace Prize. And just because I have been around for a number of years doesn’t make me twice as smart as I was when I was half my age. That is definitely false. Continue Reading

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Catching Up and Staying Warm

February 4, 2008 Chicago Buildings, History, Technology Comments (0) 1248

Photo is copyright Felicity Rich, which explains its quality compared to most of the ones I post….

Okay, three weeks on the road plus the pressures of moving both our program studios and my home left me a little winded and even ill late last week so the blogs are a little behind, hence a few brief bits of catch-up:

All that air travel tempts one, despite good upbringing, to read airline magazines and one had a listing of wacky tourist attractions like the largest ball of twine and guess what – two Illinois sites which Landmarks Illinois has supported, were pictured! The Collinsville Ketchup bottle water tower, which we gave a grant to a while back, and the Berwyn Car Spindle, which is now threatened… Continue Reading

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Heritage Areas

November 24, 2007 Economics, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 1099

The AP posted a story today about heritage areas, because Congress approved ten last year, bringing the total to 37 with six more on the way. I was fortunate enough to get my career started working on the very first, the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor and I was in the room when President Reagan signed it into law in August 1984. The picture is the Gaylord Building in the heart of the I & M Canal at Lockport, where I still serve as Chair of the Site Council.

So anyway, I have some experience in this business. The necessarily condensed article from the Associated Press is quite good, although it is always intriguing to see how “news” is made. The curiosity here is the conflict, which every good story needs, but is hard to come by in something as broad-based as heritage areas. Still, thanks to some “budget hawks and property-rights advocates” a record number of “no” votes were recorded on the latest round of heritage areas. Continue Reading

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November 8, 2007 Chicago Buildings, Historic Districts, History Comments (0) 1290

This view is protected – for now.

One of the reasons we preserve historical things is a desire to preserve history, which is related to a desire to learn from history. The presumption is that learning from history can positively impact our decisions about the future.

In discussing the proposed addition to the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue, most preservationists talk about the terrible precedent being set. The rear two-thirds of the building will be demolished and a two-stage glass addition will be added to the top, limited by the height of the original Madison Street addition. The precedent, of course, is that every other building on Michigan Avenue will demand to do something similar. Continue Reading

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New Seven Wonders of the World

March 15, 2007 History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on New Seven Wonders of the World 1140

So, there is this international vote-on-the-web for the NEW seven wonders of the world. I have this memory from childhood that this was all decided some time ago, but that was probably by white European men so it is time to do it again. Egypt got its knickers in a bunch because the Pyramids at Giza (only surviving site from the Ancient Seven Wonders) were going to be subject to voting rather than an automatic.

I haven’t seen any criteria beyond “humankind’s heritage,’ so that is what I will use as I give you my take on each candidate.

Colosseum, Rome: Iconic, recognized, and pretty awe-inspiring in real life. Thanks to Pope Clement, there is enough of it left to get the original idea, and thanks to Mussolini every road leads to it. I give it a 7. Continue Reading

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