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
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
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
On The Face of It: The Facadism Problem
The struggle for historic preservation is complicated when it comes to facades; what everyone sees; the public face of buildings, where the public interest lies. In historic districts, the goal is to preserve the context of a place, defined by facades. Preservation commissions rarely regulate interior spaces in districts. This leads many to assume that preservation is only about the visual exterior façade of a building, which is wrong.
I first attacked “facadism” almost 20 years ago when developers proposed relocating the façade of the 1872 McCarthy Building on Chicago’s Block 37, since only the façade had been designated a landmark. At the time, several Chicago Landmarks were “façade designations” and this encouraged developers to propose picking them up and moving them about like furniture. It is eaiser to save a thing than a place. But it reached a point of absurdity when the city proposed designating the façade of the Ludington Building, an 1891 work of William LeBaron Jenney. Jenney is famous for pioneering the steel frame skyscraper – shouldn’t the designation include the structure? The façade trend hit its peak with the Chicago Tribune Tower façade designation in 1989, and then came back with a vengeance with the 1996 deal to skin and rebuild the Art Deco McGraw Hill Building on Michigan Avenue, the most outrageous (and scarily successful) example of a period that also saw the demolition of all but 5 feet of the Perkins, Fellows and Hamilton Studio of 1917 for the new Park Hyatt tower. Continue Reading
Several alert historic preservation alumni sent me this clipping a couple of weeks ago. Turns out the house that Grant Wood used in his famous painting “American Gothic” is threatened with demolition, according to Harry Mount, a writer in Eldon. Not only is the little white cottage with the big Gothic window is empty, boarded-up, and being offered by the State Historical Society for $250 a month, but there is little interest. One neighbor wanted to tear it down in the 1960s but balked at the $200 purchase price. Continue Reading
Time tells. That also means time counts. It means you should preserve your history and when I say it I mean the messy history of what happened not the neat history of whatever today’s ideologues need or “heritage” which is a shorthand for freebased history, an identity narcotic extracted crushed refined and distilled from real history. Real history is what happens in time and over time and that never works for systems like ideology or politics because systems are static and history is dynamic. Continue Reading