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
Well, the Chicago White Sox are on the brink of Chicago’s first World Series victory since 1917, which is certainly historic. They are also doing it with typical gritty grubby work and everyday players rather than superstars, and they are managing to make it compelling drama as well. It seems like every game is being one by a home run off the bat of someone who never hit a home run before. It’s like a kid’s backyard fantasy come true.
What does historic preservation have to do with this? Well, the Sox play at a new stadium built in 1988-90. I was involved in the effort to save the old Comiskey Park in the late 1980s. It was the oldest park in baseball at that time, dating to 1910, two years older than Fenway and four years older than Wrigley. We failed of course, because the owners were holding the city and state hostage as they always do, looking for a handout which they got in the form of a publically financed stadium. Continue Reading
Heresy and Apostasy
I am getting beaten up about a position I took along with Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois regarding a collection of buildings in Oak Park. We joined a Steering Committee process and while we did not advocate demolishing any buildings, we signed onto a consensus plan that recommended demolishing two buildings in order to save five buildings. See www.oakpark.us and look under the downtown development plan.
So we are now accused of preservation heresy and apostasy.
Is historic preservation a religion? Can you excommunicate preservationists?
In the last blog I talked about the American tendency toward puritanical monasticism – a phrase that conflates Protestant and Catholic traditions. To be fair, let’s throw the Orthodox in there and talk about holy hermits of preservation. These are the ultra-radicals, the Provo-preservationists who are not afraid of personal ad hominem attacks on developers, architects and… even fellow preservationists. Continue Reading
Europe, America and monasticism
I like Europe. What’s not to like? Rich, gorgeous, relaxed. Yeah, gas is $6 a gallon but the next fabulous art museum, medieval castle, Baroque monastery, Roman ruin or mountainside lake is only 6 miles away. You can drive to the next country for cheap eggs or dental work and still be home before dusk. You don’t even need to drive since trains go everywhere and even small towns have bus and tram systems and bike rental. And they preserve their old buildings more often than we do.
Demolishing a historic building in Europe is harder to do than in the U.S. That wasn’t always the case – they had the same frenzy for urban renewal in the immediate post-World War II era that we did. Berlin demolished more buildings during the 1950s than were lost in the war (yes, it’s true: see the footnote.) But quickly they realized – with the help of GIs turned tourists like Arthur Frommer – that Americans liked to see the old stuff and would pay for the privilege. A combination of laws, practices and pure economics means that it is not easy to tear down an old building in Europe. Not true in America, where a powerful institution or developer can often clear a landmark standing in the way of their project. Continue Reading
Landmarks Can Kill You
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
This weekend I led the Chicago Fire tour for the Chicago Historical Society as I have for the last four or five years. We follow the 4-mile long path of the fire, hearing eyewitness accounts and describing how it spread and what it destroyed.
The Fire is a central event to the civic identity of Chicago – it is one of the four stars on the city’s flag. When my Michelin editors came here a dozen years ago to begin work on the first Green Guide to Chicago, they commented on how Chicago people talked about the Fire as if it happened yesterday. That means the historic event has a central piece of the city’s identity.
This happens everywhere. Go to Ireland and the 1690 Battle of the Boyne was yesterday. Go to Atlanta and Sherman’s march ended last week. Parts of Paris are forever 1890 or 1850 and the 1770s trail through the streets of Boston. The Thais are still celebrating 200-year old victories over Burma and the Dai Viet recall a millennia-gone general who began a millennia of resistance against the Chinese. Continue Reading
When Charities Demolish
Directing the Historic Preservation program at SAIC can be awkward – like when the School or the Museum run afoul of the historic preservation community. When Don Kalec started our degree program in 1993 AIC vetoed City landmark designation of the Sharp Building. The building was later landmarked, but only after an exterior cleaning (very good) and window replacement (bad) that our faculty failed to influence. More recently, I have been called to answer for the Museum’s demolition of the Goodman Theatre (Howard van Doren Shaw, 1925) and the School’s interest in Mesa development’s new highrise atop the Kroch’s building on Wabash.
People always are astonished that institutions whose mission is to protect and promote artistic things could propose the destruction of artistic things like landmarks. I am not astonished. This is normal in the post-1980 world. Continue Reading
I was at the National Preservation Conference in Portland, Oregon (Motto: It isn’t easy being green) last week and both the city and event impressed, even beyond the obvious Holy Grail of American microbrew. I went on a green preservation tour last Thursday through the Ecotrust building (The Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center), a century-old warehouse that was the first preservation project to gain LEED gold certification. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and is very smart among the architectural set of late. Even though the re-use of an existing building would seem to be naturally environmentally efficient, the fact is LEED, like most things, tends to be geared toward new construction, even though the plurality of landfill waste is construction debris. The Ecotrust building managed to re-use 98.6% (!!) of the existing materials by creating a huge boneyard for every removed piece of building and then finding a use for it – doors became walls, beams became chairs, boiler covers became nameplates, etc., etc. The building handles 95% of its stormwater on site through swales and a permeable parking lot, has a green roof (German 2-3 inch design so the old building could handle the loads) and even the requisite seismic reinforcement. Continue Reading
Property Rights and Values
Historic Preservation advocates are always banging heads with “property rights” advocates who shun all landmark regulation as a “taking” or private property. The more principled and ideological of these opponents not only oppose landmarking, they also oppose zoning and almost any form of environmental regulation. Indeed, it is environmental laws that really chafe the drawers of property rights types.
Preservation gets thrown into this stew, even though preservation laws are remarkably more flexible than most other types of land use regulation. But most people don’t know that and think preservation is an arcane design police led by pointy-headed architectural historians who don’t know that plastic windows save you thousands in heating bills. Continue Reading
The news hit Chicago today that Marshall Field’s will become Macy’s, ending a 130-year old flagship department store name on State Street. Chicago newspapers and Chicagoans are handwringing and preparing CEO Lundgren’s exit papers, and there is plenty of reason to doubt Federated’s wisdom – after all, this is the world’s test market and the only place that has an American Girl store. Yo, Lundgren, you are giving us a New York City name. I love NY as much as anyone, but I can recall a singer at Blues Fest being booed for singing “New York, New York.”
But from a landmark perspective, we are ready – the city already began landmarking Field’s State Street complex, a collection of buildings from 1894-1914 that fill a whole city block, insuring that the trademark clocks and perhaps even the Marshall Field’s nameplates, will remain. Ditto the stained glass and mosaic domes inside. Continue Reading