The Problem With Your Eyes II

September 13, 2006 Vision and Style Comments (0) 868

When was this building built? 1910? 2003?

More likely the latter, if your eyes are trained by looking at lots of buildings. But for many people. including a surprising number of urban planners, they either don’t know or don’t care.

Historic preservation was more difficult in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was easier to see. Modern was blocky with continuous surfaces and historic was fussy and detailed. Now it can be the opposite: 1950s houses are landmarks and brand new buildings have as many fussy details as a Charles Addams haunted Second Empire manse. Continue Reading

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Oh Carson’s

August 27, 2006 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 1054

Chicago is beset by losses of its iconic industries of late. It seems Millenium Park has opened the door to the future and that door is slamming the back of the city’s identity. Marshall Field’s is stooping to become Macy’s as we speak, the Berghoff closed in February in a transparent ruse to demolish a landmark building, and now Carson Pirie Scott is leaving its State Street flagship store, designed over a century ago by Louis Sullivan.

The building of course, is one of the city’s first protected landmarks and was just restored to its original glory – its cornice has reappeared. The upper floors are already offices – even our new Architecture Interior Architecture Designed Objects program at SAIC is occupying the 12th floor with its character-defining column capitals – students arrive this week. Continue Reading

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Don’t Believe Your Eyes

August 9, 2006 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 914

One of the great conundrums of modern historic preservation is the split between the goal – preserving history – and the means – architectural control. This is why unknowing persons sometimes dismiss preservation commissions as “beauty contests” and equally why unschooled developers propose storybook design details to make things more “historic”. Which brings us to the great façade problem, which is getting a deliciously perverse twist in Chicago right now.

Right next to me, in the Chicago Landmark Jewelers Row district, two landmark buildings are being structurally demolished for a new highrise. Their facades will be propped up and restored. A fairly felicitous version of this project happened a couple of years ago to the north and the results look good. Thanks to the elevated tracks, the new setback tower reads as a separate building. But those weren’t landmarks, and Jeweler’s Row was – the Landmarks Commission approved it – like a beauty pageant. Continue Reading

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August 2, 2006 Technology Comments (0) 1010

The heat index is 110 and it is another ozone alert day, when you are supposed to drive less. Of course the traffic is always worse on these days and the overheating AC is spiking emissions no end.

It’s 8 AM and I have to take the kids two miles to day camp, then I need to travel nine miles downtown to my office, then later go to a meeting that is eight miles in another direction from my office, go back to my office, then back home, then go pick up the kids, take them home, then run to the grocery store and the hardware store.

There was a day a year ago when I was sitting in my house in Oak Park at 2 PM trying to figure out how I could go take a picture of Robie House in Hyde Park (16 miles away), stop downtown (8 miles) to do some paperwork, and then pick up supplies at a store in Bucktown about 3 miles northwest of downtown, and then get back to Oak Park (10 miles) by 5 PM. Continue Reading

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I Don’t Believe You

July 27, 2006 Economics Comments (0) 960

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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Chicago Olympics

July 17, 2006 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 1364

Chicago revealed its bid for the 2016 Olympic Games last week, with plans for an Olympic Village on the near south lakefront and events in Soldier Field and McCormick Place as well as a new temporary track and field stadium next to Soldier Field. Chicago officials proposed an opening ceremony where athletes would march from the temporary stadium into Soldier Field.

As Blair Kamin noted in Sunday’s Tribune, this was a “boneheaded” plan to sell more seats and get more revenue from the opening and closing ceremonies. But for me the real “Duh” moment of the Olympics proposal was the new temporary stadium.

Chicago realized it needed an 80,000 seat track-and-field stadium in order to host the Olympics. They looked around, didn’t see one, and decided to build a “temporary” one next to Soldier Field. Continue Reading

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River Forest

July 14, 2006 Chicago Buildings, Historic Districts Comments (0) 1063

I guess River Forest hasn’t had enough teardowns yet because the Trustees are pretty uncomfortable with the idea of a preservation ordinance. The proposed ordinance is the typical weenie milquetoast kind that places like Kenilworth or River Forest propose. While it allows designation of landmarks, it requires owner consent, which sort of defeats the purpose. The owners who would consent are not the ones causing the trouble.

What River Forest leaders fear is the idea of a preservation ordinance, not the reality of one. Reality is much more everyday, like the familiar experiences of thousands of communities that have had such ordinances for decades.

You also hear a lot about private property rights. This is an idea too, with no foothold in reality. It is a Karl Rove issue: sounds good; seems important; has absolutely no impact on your daily life. Continue Reading

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Sullivan at 150

July 11, 2006 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 1414

Louis Henri Sullivan, the architect who transformed the modern world with his prescient designs and philosophy of the skyscraper, who made Chicago the first city of American architecture and inspired the Chicago preservation movement, was born 150 years ago. How are we celebrating this most important of native sons?

By tearing down one of his few remaining houses, on Stratford Place on the North Side. For reasons inexplicable, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is not moving to designate the house, nor even to act on Marty Tangora’s very reasonable approach that would allow a builder to erect something on part of the lot in order to save the house. Even the Alderman, Helen Shiller, not known as a preservationist, is interested in saving it. Why would the Commission on Chicago Landmarks be the last one out of the gate? Continue Reading

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The problem and beauty of China

June 21, 2006 China Preservation Comments (0) 1359

The problem and beauty of China is that nothing stays the same. This is why it is the middle kingdom, the sensibility and experience of all humanity.

We are just back from a 3-week preservation trip to China. We go to Weishan, one of the few communities there with a true commitment to preservation. It is in far southwest Yunnan province, in the Mekong Delta, and it shares many cultural groups with southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Burma. It is a beautiful place, but also very real and everyday. The food is better than anywhere. They have 50 kinds of mushrooms. We ate three meals a day and each meal was 10-12 dishes and it took the better part of a week before we saw a dish repeated. Nothing the same, but always good. We had enough clout to get two formal dinners with Mayor Zhang of Weishan, which consists of a lot of toasting with rice wine and gifts and the best food. Continue Reading

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Through a Glass Darkly

May 22, 2006 China Preservation Comments (0) 1321

What rant shall I leave you with as I head to China? How about the past and the future….

Twenty years ago, I spent the better part of a year backpacking around South Asia. My goal was India, and I had this idea that I could see the past – steam locomotives, teeming early Industrial metropoli, a populace caught between agrarianism and urbanism like Chicago in 1880.

Today, of course, we go to China to see the future, skyscrapers flashing bright video skins and a billion people taking capitalism to the next step.

I am going there on an historic preservation student study trip, so I guess we are looking to the past. We go to Weishan, an old Southern Silk Road town in Yunnan province 75 clicks south of Dali. Founding city of the T’ang era Nanzhao state some 1300 years ago. Weibaoshan (mountain) hosts 22 Tao and Buddhist temples. Almost no Westerners go there – it barely registers on Google. Weishan is also one of the few places in China practicing historic preservation – most of Beijing and Shanghai are developing so fast they make 1880s Chicago look like a backwater. Everything is new and everything old is being plowed under. Continue Reading

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