Heritage Narratives

April 30, 2024 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments (0) 52

Thanks to the intergalactic webernet, we live in a time of narratives. Stories. Mostly these are short form: Reels and memes and Tik Toks and brief videos, but narratives nevertheless. Stories. A good story does not need to be true or follow rules of evidence like court cases or history books, i.e., they don’t have to be real. They are arguably better stories if they aren’t real. Humans are inherently story tellers and probably inherently fabulists. When friends and colleagues express frustration at the preponderance of blatantly untrue narratives, I try to explain that the solution cannot be provided by evidence. You need a narrative. But that does not mean you have to be a fabulist and fabricate.

History is rife with examples of massacres and conquests carried out in the name of unproveable religious or ideological narratives. Sure, those narratives may have been window dressing for underlying economic or political realities, but they worked their fabulism on the participants.

What does that have to do with heritage conservation? Well, in her important new report The Relevancy Guidebook, Bonnie McDonald of Landmarks Illinois talks about preservationists as storytellers. One of factors limiting preservation’s appeal and constituency has been an inherited focus on architecture. This has exacerbated the diversity deficit as I have written about here and here and elsewhere. Preservationists need to focus less on architecture and more on story.

Architecture became a default mechanism for preservation for a number of reasons. First, the earliest preservation laws coincided with the advent of architectural history in the early 20th century. Second, the introduction of historic preservation tax incentives brought in a slew of real estate developers who wanted their preservation as mechanistic as possible. Not the squishy world of stories. Third, we trained a generation of practitioners and bureaucrats on jalousie windows and jerkinhead roofs and like any profession, there is a frisson associated with the forced erudition of a secret language.

Just another duostyle Doric portico in antes

And this is already happening. When I did one of my early National Register nominations in the 1980s of the Kenwood United Church of Christ, I had all of this fascinating information about the important people who attended the church, including the famous poet Edgar Lee Masters. The State Historic Preservation Office made it clear that I could leave that information in, but it would have no bearing on the significance of a Romanesque church of Maryland granite by the city’s first professional architect.

In contrast, when our National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building went to the State Review Board in January, they specifically asked for more pictures with people in them! A formalist focus will appeal to some, but people and their stories appeal to everyone.

That’s my photo – Guilty of formalism!

Narrative is especially important if you are trying to conserve heritages that: 1. Did not or could not express their identity in architecture; 2. Had important historic things happen in everyday buildings without architectural integrity; or 3. Were actively erased by the dominant power structure. In these cases you need to gather the stories first, before you ever go out looking at buildings.

The Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building is a case in point – the only downtown building by a Mexican American architect (Willie Peña). San Antonio’s Mexican-American history is defined more by erasure than preservation, as I illustrated recently.

So many of the histories we are capturing in the 21st century are those of groups who were either erased, like the indigenous and ethnic/racial minorities; or hidden, like the LGBTQ community. In the dozen years I have been working on improving the diversity of the National Register of Historic Places, we have seen significant improvements in how to deal with these properties, and a bevy of historic context statements that have done a lot to uncover, rescue and record these formerly secreted histories. Today the National Register is actively working on updating guidance to capture more stories and to reflect the full spectrum of American history.

But much more needs to be done. One could say that the mainstream historians of the past overlooked these secret histories. “Secret histories” – now there is some branding that could spark the required frisson – the dopamine kick – that “insiders” get when they follow a fabulist narrative. But, like the work the National Register and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and us local preservationists – it would have evidence. Do you think it would work?

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Farnsworth House 2015

June 21, 2015 Chicago Buildings, House Museums, Sustainability, Technology Comments (1) 2845

Last week.  Maybe next week too.

It has been 13 months since I last blogged about the Farnsworth House (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1951).  In that blog I detailed the various options that had been studied to try to conserve the house despite the increased flooding of the Fox River at its location near Plano, Illinois. Continue Reading

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Save Prentice Movement Grows

July 27, 2012 Chicago Buildings Comments (3) 1648

“But just as a patient expects his doctor to pull out all stops in search of a cure, Northwestern must pursue every avenue before daring to raze one of Chicago’s architectural and engineering treasures.

We don’t think they’re trying hard enough. Surely, there’s a solution.”

That is from an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times yesterday, one of several actions that have ramped up the pressure on Northwestern University to explain why it needs to demolish Bertrand Goldberg’s pathbreaking 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital, which I have been writing about here for over two years. The first building to use computers in aid of its design, Prentice is a song, a crescendo of 45-foot concrete cantilevers twirling into a quatrefoil of cylindrical skin delicately punched with ovals, a bold sculpture on a base that makes the regular buildings around it look dull-witted.

The architecture geeks have loved this building for a while, and of course I announced its ascension to the National Trust Eleven Most Endangered List a little over a year ago. Continue Reading

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Farnsworth House 2011

September 24, 2011 Chicago Buildings, House Museums Comments (3) 3000

There it is. My perfect Greek temple, the ultimate expression of art in nature, of architecture. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House. Great art and great architecture work like this: you can visit it a hundred times and you see something new, learn something new, feel something new every single time. I discover it every time at Unity Temple and every time at the Farnsworth House. In the video we show visitors, John Bryan says there is no building more important in modern architecture. Dirk Lohan calls it a poem. It is a beautiful and perfect chord, a wonderful harmony of steel and glass and white and light wood and it floats above its site, resting loosely on the world, ready to rise like sound. Continue Reading

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Planning for Preservation?

August 8, 2011 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 1408

Demolition of 600 block of North Michigan Avenue, 1995

This fall for the 17th time I will teach a course called Preservation Planning. This course deals with the intersection of a host of urban planning issues: surveys, politics, law, economics, public relations, etc.; and the preservation of historic buildings. It is not about planning a preservation project, and there is also a contradiction in the title, because in a very real sense, you CAN’T plan preservation.

In my 28-plus years in the field I have been through many organizational spasms that attempt to inject regularity and predictability into the task of saving buildings and then repurposing them for the future. Invariably we say “we have to stop spending all of our time putting out brush fires,” which means that we are always REACTING to crises. We get tired of being reactive. This is a normal impulse – we want to be able to work proactively and we want to be able to plan and allocate our work more efficiently.

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Crunch Time on Prentice

June 1, 2011 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability Comments (2) 1640

Tomorrow, June 2, 2011, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks will consider preliminary designation of Prentice Women’s Hospital as a Chicago Landmark. This is the result of a joint efforts by Landmarks Illinois, Preservation Chicago and the National Trust for Historic Preservation (which used a photo of Prentice on its new Financial Assistance publication!) to give the building its day in court, or in the words of Landmarks Illinois Advocacy Director Lisa DiChiera “This building is just too high-profile to let it slip away without a thorough, transparent review of its landmark eligibility.” Continue Reading

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The Changing Future of Preservation

May 17, 2011 Sustainability, Technology Comments (4) 1910

Within the last week I have been involved in strategic planning exercises as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Board of the Landmarks Illinois, and besides being reminded of the facilitation and SWOT analysis I first experienced 26 years ago in a Joliet hotel (yes, that sounds odd, but trust me, it isn’t) I was also struck by some of the challenges facing both non-profit membership organizations and the heritage conservation/historic preservation field as a whole.

One of those challenges is in the realm of membership. Membership has dropped at both organizations, and it has aged. It seems the 19th and 20th century pattern of the membership organization is being either eclipsed or remodeled. There was a lot of talk in both board retreats about reaching out to younger generations and wondering whether younger generations will join as members or simply be affiliated and affinitized (not a word) via social media and social networks, depriving the old membership organizations of a fundamental pillar of their existence. Continue Reading

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Prentice Women’s Hospital April 2011

April 11, 2011 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability Comments (3) 1772

The most significant preservation battle in Chicago for some time has been the effort to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a pioneering 1975 design by Bertrand Goldberg. It’s four-lobed curving concrete form is being imitated by the NEWEST hospital building in Chicago and I called it perhaps the first acknowledgement of the feminine in architecture. My colleague Anthea Hartig said “The forms at Prentice are in the same instant structural and sculptural. This is truly the unity of art and function, the continuing discourse of artistic and engineering expressions.” The building’s seamless integration of art and science is manifest in concrete cantilevers that pushed the lobes 45 feet beyond their base, a feat that took one of the FIRST applications of computers to aid in an architectural design. And it’s gorgeous. Continue Reading

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Prentice Women’s Hospital, Chicago

September 30, 2010 Chicago Buildings, Sustainability Comments (3) 2287

The next great new building in Chicago is Perkins and Will’s new hospital building for the Rush-Prebyterian St. Luke’s Hospital complex on the Near West Side. The new building features a multi-lobed design rising above a square base, looming over the Eisenhower Expressway and expressing with its insistent curving form a humanism central to the successful medical relationship. It is new and exciting. Continue Reading

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Great Chicago Churches

June 11, 2010 Chicago Buildings Comments (0) 2263

Twenty years ago when I worked at Landmarks Illinois, we did a survey and planning study of historic houses of worship in Chicago. This was one of many preservation responses to a crisis in church preservation spurred on by the 1987 closing of two huge Catholic churches that were imposing neighborhood landmarks, Holy Family Church (1857) on Roosevelt Road, and St. Mary of the Angels Church (1920) in Bucktown. Continue Reading

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