I was coming into O’Hare from New York Saturday night and I saw the headlines – Landmark Church destroyed by Fire. I looked and a wave of anguish sucked my guts. It was Pilgrim Baptist Church, a landmark in so many ways you don’t know where to begin.
The birthplace of gospel music. That would be enough.
A rare surviving masterpiece by Louis Sullivan, who invented modern architecture. That would be enough.
A centerpiece of African American culture, not only for Chicago. That would be enough.
An acoustical marvel decorated with ornament by Sullivan and murals by Scott that witnessed the premier of Mahalia Jackson. That would be enough. Continue Reading
You have to know how the enemy works.
I always tell my students how to demolish a beloved landmark, and I always use a particular example of one of the oldest buildings in the Loop and one of its beloved icons.
The example became true today, but in truth it has been obvious for years. Berghoff’s announced they were closing February 28 after 107 years, mostly in the little 1872 buildings on West Adams. They did not announce they will try to demolish the landmark buildings – but they will. In about two years.
The ploy is obvious. To demolish one of only two cast-iron Italianates in Chicago and a rare surviving post-Fire building, the first thing you do is get rid of the beloved icon – the restaurant with its traditions. The daughter, Carlyn Berghoff, is reopening the bar under a new name and using the restaurant space for her catering business. For about two years. Continue Reading
One of the impulses and gifts of Postmodernity in architecture was that it successfully questioned the universalizing, problem-solving and ultimately dictatorial proscriptiveness of Modernity. One only has to think of LeCorbusier’s Modulor or type-needs, the Existenzminimum of the Bauhaus or the ranting of planner Edmund Bacon in the recent film My Architect. Modernism, like its political cohort Progressivism, wanted to solve the world’s problems – a noble goal – but it wanted to do it from above, by the fiat of experts. Like the old Second City routine where the college kid shushes the urban resident with a condescending: “I’m an Urban Affairs major at Northwestern University. I think I know a little bit more about your problems than you do?!”
Postmodernism trashed those assumptions, which was just as well. The Modulor wouldn’t stop evolving and radio and television did the same to the Existenzminimum and every NIMBY quick citizen took a page from Jane Jacobs and told Ed Bacon where to stick his plans. You can’t be a problem solver when problems don’t stand still. PostModernism, like Punk, reveled in nihilism, safe in its conclusion that Progress was a big joke. Continue Reading
First a quick note about New Orleans, where many preservationists are hard at work trying to save the homes of this historic city. Last week, Associated Press reported on a survey of 114,127 damaged buildings in New Orleans. Of these, 31,662 had no structural damage, 79,325 had partial damage and 3,140 were tagged red, which meant they should be razed.
Two comments: 1. That is less than 3 percent. 2. The AP report notes that the majority of the red-tagged buildings were brick ranch houses built since 1940.
Score one for the old buildings! Continue Reading
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I suppose “Truth in advertising” is as oxymoronic as “sport utility.” Fact is that replacement windows are the most successful home improvement marketing scheme of the 21st century. More buildings have had their windows replaced in the last five years than ever – not because more buildings NEEDED their windows replaced – it is simply super successful marketing, the kind that crawls under your skin and populates your dreams and becomes entirely reflexive.
The Problem With Your Eyes
Art school attunes you to the power of visual arts – our wonderful Visual and Critical Studies program uses that power with other liberal arts. The importance of the visual in historic preservation is obvious – we are talking about landmarks, and we are trying to keep them – or bring them back – to the way they looked historically. Historic preservation practice is heavily defined by architectural appearance.
This project can be problematic, because the visual is so powerful it has a tendency to overrun our other critical faculties. People look at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 or the city’s Burnham Plan of 1909 and see the epitome of City Beautiful style. Arguably the first event was about technological progress and the second was really about sewers, transportation and business efficiency. But all you remember are the pictures. Louis Sullivan recalled the 1893 Fair as setting back architectural evolution with its reliance on Beaux-Arts style, his memory likely overrun by the visuals. Continue Reading
Next year is the 40th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Like much progressive legislation, the Act not only codified historic preservation practice – it pushed it forward. Suddenly we cared about properties of local significance (despite the fact that it was a national act) and historic districts. Much of preservation history had focused on individual sites and architectural significance. In 1966 preservation moved to the community level and embraced social history.
Forty years is a long time for a movement, and it has changed. I was speaking yesterday with Judy Hayward about next Spring’s Traditional Building conference in Chicago, where we are having a panel on “When preservation involves demolition.” Judy opined that this shows how the movement is maturing, looking at issues with a balanced eye. The same is true in preservation education and scholarship. The last two years have witnessed a spate of publications revisiting and revising the traditional view of preservation.
Forty years gives a movement enough self-confidence to be able to look critically at itself. Until 1978 preservationists weren’t even sure that their activities were constitutional. Well into the 1980s both legislation and public support seemed very thin. By the 1990s most people felt preservation was legal and desirable, and a new criticality began to emerge. Continue Reading
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
I had a morning meeting of the Steering Committee for the Farnsworth House, the stunning glass house built in Plano, Illinois by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1951. (You can see it on the LPCI website link at right) The house was famously sold at a Sotheby’s auction in December 2003. LPCI and the National Trust hooked up and bought it for over $7 million, saving it from a potential move out of state.
The house is a marvel. Yes, its style is modernist, its materials glass and steel, its entire perimeter floor-to-ceiling glass, but the emotional effect on the visitor is a Greek temple. It is mathematical perfection sitting in the natural perfection of the Fox River floodplain, a perfect little symphony of white I-beams, travertine and spartan, sculptural furnishings. Neither too many notes nor too few. No wonder it was auctioned off like a work of art- that is what it is. Continue Reading