Old Buildings, New Tricks: Permastoned

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Perma-Stone, Formstone, faux stone, Rostone.  John Waters once called this ubiquitous simulated masonry the “polyester of brick.”  From the 1930s through the 1950s, companies all over the United States were pitching faux stone siding to homeowners as a modern update to the exteriors of late 19th century buildings.  Made of shale, lime and water, the unbaked permastone slurry would be pressed into stone shaped molds and heated, creating a stone-like “cracker” that could be applied to the exterior of a building.  Permastone came in an array of colors, textures and stone types, and sometimes mica would be added for extra sparkle.  Widely toted as maintainance free, permastone could be easily adhered anywhere on your building by anchoring it with chicken wire lath, or simply adhering the permastone panels with cement directly to the façade.

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The 3400 and 3500 blocks of Le Moyne Street, between Homan and Central Park Avenue in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, have some superior examples of permastone in nearly every color and texture, from taupe roman bricks to rusticated course stone so red it resembles raw meat.  Here is a windshield survey of permastone types seen within these two blocks:

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Historic Preservation is Dead

“Some people say it’s bold. Some people say I’m saying what they wanna say.  Some people don’t agree.  Some people are outraged.  To me, hip-hop’s been dead for years.  We all should know that, come on.”-Nas, 2006.


Pour out a little liquor, because historic preservation is dead.  Even our folkloric martyr Richard Nickel, gone 44 years now, would agree, but then Richard never really liked historic preservation in the first place.  In 2016, historic preservation as we know it, has reached a point of biological aging.  Like the buildings we fail to save, deterioration and neglect has allowed historic preservation an opportunity to return to the earth.  Announcing the figurative death of historic preservation is tendentious, for sure, but the main purpose of this declaration is to accept that times have changed and we desperately need to readjust ourselves.  Give it a good jazz funeral and cut the body loose.  Historic preservation is dead!

In Keeping Time: The History and Theory of Preservation in America, William J. Murtaugh writes, “The first thing anyone interested in preservation must know is how to talk about the subject.  Certain terminology has been established by use and common consent, even though confusion and differences of opinion over exact meaning still tend to persist in the public mind.”  This statement, located in one of the first pages of Keeping Time, a seminal textbook in any historic preservation graduate curriculum, sums up one of the first teachable moments for students as the following: historic preservation is for Historic Preservationists, and we are not going to bother with how unclear what we do is to the public.  The term “historic preservation” carries a specific meaning, yet historic preservation, or simply preservation, has a general meaning, as in the Historic Preservation Movement (you will find that many use historic preservation and preservation intermittently, including here in this essay.) Historic preservation seeks to preserve buildings of historical significance, but it also serves as an umbrella term, covering the acts of restoring, preserving, conserving and reconstructing buildings.  There are also Historic Preservationists, as in the people that make historic preservation happen.  Are you confused yet?  You should be.

Historic preservation’s core values are far more impactful than its shitty nomenclature lets on, leaving us extremely stifled by “historic preservation” as an umbrella term. We desperately need to change the words we use when we interface with the public.  In the simplest sense-we save buildings that have value-yet the words we use to describe this make no reference to saving buildings, or architecture at all, just a vague yet formal sounding notion of preserving the past that sounds more like the Queen’s English than a planning endeavor.  In talking to the public about saving buildings that have human value, we should be using more descriptive adjectives, like cultural, and better nouns, like heritage.  Perhaps preservation is a better term to describe fruit canned for long-term storage, or arranging dead butterflies than it is for buildings.

We serve the public’s interest through how they relate to architecture, because buildings do not relate to themselves.  Architectural significance is worth nothing without understanding that buildings are built for people to work, shit, fuck and love in them; with love being the most important noun.  We cannot make a true case to save a building or buildings if the community cannot ultimately see the value in our fight.

What if, instead of using professionals to establish what is and isn’t “historic,” we allowed living resources (i.e., the public) to decide?  The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “This Place Matters” campaign has encouraged people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them, but what if we took this concept further and removed the federal, state and local governments, non-profits and neighborhood preservation organizations from making this decision?  This is a terrifying thought, not because we are giving the public full reign, but that these results may be dramatically different from our current ones.

How do we process our failures?  Bold and innovative architecture along with an aggressive campaign by historic preservationists couldn’t save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital from demolition.  A star-studded array of professionals and architects spoke about the buildings shape, the engineering techniques, and its unique provenance, yet there were almost no voices celebrating the building as a place where thousands of babies were born, or where families began, or where relationships flourished or friends were made.  These narratives were missing from the case made to save Prentice.  It is unknown as to whether the addition of this type of public support would have tilted the scales, but it is worth considering.  The answer to the question “why is this building important?” can’t be because preservationists or historians say so.  We can no longer live in a world where good architecture is the only thing.

Historic preservation chooses to dodge the subject that seeing a significant building at its ugliest has an effect beyond the decay of the physical fabric, and that this ignorance erodes how communities see what we do. “Preservation by neglect,” is a term used to describe the way an old building is preserved by disrepair, thus the building’s original or historic features aren’t marred by a building owner that looks to make changes to an old building that are perceived as insensitive.  We have created a culture where seeing a building we like with condition and safety issues is far better than seeing a building with changes that relate to livability or modernization.  Taking an “us” (the individuals that wish to see a historic building being properly stewarded) versus “them” (building owners that do not respect historic buildings) approach is too black and white, yet we continue to allow the use of the same old tired cliché both internally and externally that “they should do something about that.”  Who establishes what the “they” “something” and “that” are?  These pronouns are vague, and are part of a useless declarative statement.

Use of the term “blight”, whether it’s used to describe a singular building or a community, is complex and nuanced.  Blight is a visual manifestation of failure, and to be absolutely clear once and for all, ruin porn is hedonistic pleasure, not historic preservation.  There is no place for the exploitation of dilapidated buildings when it yields no results.  In most cases, the psychological and physical distance that an individual may have from these buildings makes these buildings artful and poetic, but how do people feel about vacant or blighted buildings when they are right next door?  Vacant buildings are more prevalent in communities with higher numbers of drug, property and violent crimes.  A physical environment that communicates a less watchful eye encourages delinquency.  Imagine being a child walking to school every day past the same vacant building, or maintaining your yard up to the lot line of a decrepit structure.

It is unfair to ask, or in the worst cases, have a historic preservation organization “tell” a community that they must accept a decrepit building because it has architectural significance. They don’t see a building with great architecture, or “good old bones” or great potential.  They see a piece of shit.

Perhaps the most famous piece of shit historic building is the Michigan Central Station in Detroit. Built in 1913, the building’s life as a train station ended in 1988 with the termination of both passenger and freight service.  That’s a 75-year history of use, and a 28-year history of uncertainty; a lifetime.  The Michigan Central Station isn’t known as a mystic Midwest twin to New York’s Grand Central Terminal, or for its soaring vaults, resembling a Roman bathhouse, or as a testament to what we built in relation to how we traveled in the early 20th century.  Michigan Central Station is known as a salient example of how Detroit went awry.  Restoration projects have been proposed as far back as 1992, but none have materialized, leading to decades of disappointment that this building may have a second life.  Meanwhile, the building continues to be oversexed in its ruinous state by photographers, urban spelunkers, and as a place for apocalyptic showdowns between superheroes and anthropomorphic semi-trailer trucks.

Whether in or out of a historic district, preservationists are lightning quick to become incensed by what they consider to be insensitive changes to neighborhood buildings by homeowners. A recent hashtag campaign to “Stop the Pop” has been implemented by the Historic Chicago Bungalow Association and centers on discouraging the practice of removing the sloped roof of a bungalow and adding a squared off second floor.  Words like “hideous” and “ugly” are used to describe these rehabs, and while it’s difficult not to agree when you are familiar with a bungalow’s design elements, we are treating people with mortgage payments, families and barbeque grills with the same overzealous vehemence we use to treat multi-million dollar commercial developers.  We encourage being seen as elitists because we approach our challenges from the same aggressive vantage point every time.

Choosing where to buy a home is a nuanced process and unless you are a preservationist, you’re not going to have “contributing to a historic district” as a line item that factors in to where you decide to make that investment. What you may consider is the beauty of existing buildings, the degree to which your potential new neighbors are keeping up their properties, the potential resale value, and the safety and aesthetics of the streetscape.  All of these items are tangible, and have a symbiotic relationship to being inside a historic district.  We already know this, preservation.  We’ve known this since forever, really.  So please, please, stop paying the same professionals thousands of dollars to come to conferences and to write about historic district designations increasing property values, or that historic preservation is, in and of itself, sustainable development.  We are wasting our money to tell ourselves what we already fucking know.

In order to be considered eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, a building generally needs to reach 50 before we can property access it’s significance. Historic preservation as a culture follows these same unspoken age requirements within it.  The value of our thought leaders comes solely from their seniority.  We allow the bulk of our voices and ideas to come from professionals at the absolute brink of retirement.  Many historic preservationists would be hard pressed to identify a building built recently that they would fight for in thirty years, establishing that there is nothing left to save.  If we are not identifying who the thought leaders in historic preservation are right now, or identifying and encouraging new potential, we aren’t accepting the dictum that “Preservation is Dead” in order to work on our postscript with it, we are killing it off ourselves!

We base the worth and knowledge of others on their gray hairs, not the quality of their work or the inertia of their ideas. Young people don’t have careers or jobs in historic preservation, they grow their lives around it.  Youth brings in an understanding of the relationship between the built environment and culture, and an understanding of technology as both a supportive tool and as a meaningful way to communicate.  We have fallen into a rut where introducing anything new threatens the importance of the old, and we are missing out.

Historic preservation is no longer charged with just saving places where George Washington pissed or slept.  As our story has become more culturally complex, the landmarks we have designated as important have begun to reflect who we were and who we wish to be.  The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, The Stonewall Inn in New York City and the Moslem Temple, also known as the Mother Mosque of America, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa have all become officially designated historic landmarks, but this is only a small sliver of buildings, less than 10%, that chronical our nation’s diverse history.  There is a deficit of younger people as arbiters or tastemakers for sure, but the greater issue is the overwhelming number of white, and predominantly male authorities in the field that unfortunately reflect the large portion of recognized historic resources that reflect a white and predominately male built history.

Now that historic preservation is dead, we no longer feel beholden to how we interpreted or related to the past in the past. We are free to forge a more meaningful relationship with the built environment by collaborating with other disciplines, and most importantly genuinely listening to the people that we serve, and why buildings are important to them.  This is how we ensure our successes are bigger, increase our allies, and ensure our cultural relevance beyond our obituary.  RIP, historic preservation.  You won’t be missed.

The Division Street Newsstand


For a few hours each weekday morning, Ronan cracks open the padlock on his forest green wooden newsstand on Division Street between Milwaukee and Ashland, maintaining an urban tradition that has almost completely disappeared.  Hailing from a family that made their living off of newsstands, Ronan now operates the newsstand for pleasure, as he makes the argument that “what else is an old blind Polack to do?”  Ronan is in fact, blind.  He has lost his central vision, but is still able to see people and objects peripherally.  This handicap is completely undetectable, as Ronan maintains eye contact as he speaks.  His eyes are a shocking neon blue.  He’s been operating the newsstand for twenty years, but the newsstand itself has been around for fifty, if not longer.  Ronan sells the New York Times, Crain’s, and Barron’s Investment News, but not much else.  A rack of Chicago Readers and New York Times Magazines hang off the door of the newsstand, all free items meticulously organized beside a broom and a cart.  Every aspect of the newsstand has a reactionary feel.  The reflective strips on the door seem to suggest that at some point during the newsstand’s existence, a driver veered too close to the newsstand, knocking the door off.  An analog clock, a long ago freebee from USA Today, hangs above an air conditioning unit covered in reflective orange tape.  Locks in various conditions suggest multiple lifetimes of securing.  Observing the newsstand closed, it resembles a ramshackle stronghold.

The interior of the newsstand is full of Ronan’s personal effects, Beanie Babies, a nest of tangled electrical cords and packages of Rice Crispy Treats.  The Rice Crispy Treats are not for Ronan to eat, but to feed the pigeons that come up to window when Ronan is alone in the newsstand.  They hold court vigilantly atop the tarred roof when customers approach.  There are so few things to buy that the concept of customer seems odd here, as every bus driver, construction worker and Busha seem to know Ronan, but no one is buying anything.  They ask how he is.  They bring him Makowiec and Perogi.  They chat about the weather.  These casual relationships at the newsstand are small, but critical.  This is why Ronan is here.

It is estimated that the City of Chicago Department of Transportation regulates fewer than 40 independent free standing newsstands like Ronan’s.  They have disappeared without advocates, being of a pale vernacular that modern life has hushed, like a lost language.


The Mysterious Architecture of Fraternal Organizations

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Masonic Lodge #272, Camp Douglas, Wisconsin

Knights of Pythias, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Knights of the Maccabees, the Fraternal Order of the Free and Accepted Masons.  These American fraternal organizations, many with unfamiliar and almost Medieval sounding names, had memberships in the millions at the beginning of the 20th century, and had a ubiquitous presence in the social life of people across the country.  In urban areas, they served as an anchor for neighborhoods, and in small American towns, they operated as community centers for families and business owners, as well as gathering places along Main Street, hosting fish frys, rummage sales and bingo nights.  Membership in a fraternal organization was the original social network.

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Tripoli Shrine Temple, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The architecture of American fraternal organizations is one of classicism, mystery and allegory, with an occasional splash of Revivalism that brings a Mughal influence to Milwaukee and the rustic features of a Mayan temple to Aurora, Illinois.  The buildings themselves are covered in symbols and emblems, but many are meant to symbols themselves, a testament to the morality, timelessness, and brotherhood that membership in these organizations represented.  Their dedication to the intellectual development of members is obvious in their inspiration from high classical architecture, in the same way that houses of worship use the design language and iconography of antiquity to inspire the praise of a higher power.  Complex rituals and rites dictated the interior design of these buildings, and many are filled with ante-rooms and chambers for confidential communication.  In Masonic lodges, rooms had entrances for different degrees of membership, whether one was an apprentice or Master Mason, with spaces designated specifically for business, ritual or committee.

Plan for an entered apprenticeship, from Duncan’s Ritual and Monitor of Freemasonry, 1866.

In communities where vernacular buildings were the norm, fraternal organization buildings were the true stunners.  Even some of the simplest temples, housed in common two-story buildings may feature decorative columns flanking the entrance, or a hand-painted annunciator lamp covered in depictions of squares and compasses, five-pointed stars or the letter “G”, representing the role that every act is governed by geometry as well as the “Great Architect of the Universe.”

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Annunciator Lamp, Masonic Temple, Pekin, Illinois


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Aurora Elks Lodge No. 705, Aurora, Illinois
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Louisville Scottish Rite Temple, Louisville, Illinois
Knights of Pythias Grand Lodge 191, Jackson, Ohio

Many temples, shrines and lodges of fraternal organizations have experienced the same problems that have befallen houses of worship in the mid and late 20th century.  With membership declining and stewardship the responsibility of an aging population, large-scale temples, like the South Side Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, no longer made sense for the Masons to continue to operate.  Constructed in 1921 and designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the South Side Masonic Temple was used as an auditorium and clubhouse through the 1950s until its ownership was transferred to the Department of Human Services.  The temple’s second life continued to serve the community until the 1980s, when the Department of Human Services relocated.  While redevelopment plans have been presented, the South Side Masonic Temple has slowly deteriorated over its thirty year period of uncertainty, leaving the physical fabric exposed to the elements and leading to numerous building code violations.  The South Side Masonic Temple was featured on Landmarks Illinois statewide endangered list in 2015 and Preservation Chicago’s “Chicago 7” most threatened buildings in 2004.

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South Side Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois

While the current state of the South Side Masonic Temple is a worse case scenario, the Logan Square Masonic Temple in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood has fared far better.  Constructed in 1923 and also designed by Clarence Hatzfield, the Logan Square Masonic Temple was sold and converted to a house of worship in the 1960s.  The Armitage Baptist Church purchased the building in 1982 and has remained there ever since.

Former Logan Square Masonic Temple, Chicago, Illinois, (Armitage Baptist Church)

Large urban areas have a greater percentage of adaptively reused temples and shrines, while many fraternal organizations in rural areas and small towns are still running out of buildings constructed for their exclusive use.  The role that these organizations play within a cultural landscape is largely determined by the size of the population that it serves.

The exclusivity of these organizations has made a sweeping contribution to their decreasing impact.  Women are not permitted to join most Masonic lodges, and until the 1970s, the Fraternal Order of Eagles required all members to be Caucasian.  While the architectural character of the buildings that fraternal organizations built gives them a reason to be celebrated, their legacy of selectivity and discrimination decreases the emotional significance of these buildings as they were originally intended.  A second life as a residential development, event space or house of worship allows them to serve a greater percentage of people in a community, and in many cases makes them not only viable, but neutral.

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Former Knights Templar Hall, Chicago, Illinois, now operating as a mixed-use event space.


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Former Masonic Temple, East Lansing Michigan, converted to a residential development.


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The former Eagles Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, now a concert venue.




Eligible as Fuck: The Gold Pyramid

Tucked into the northernmost corner of Illinois, Lake County is where Chicagoland thins out. Highways widen, development becomes sparser, and strip malls give way to midcentury ranch homes on acre lots.  Small farms are still spread along the Tri-State Tollway, with silos and barns peeking above the treeline during the winter.  The rollercoasters of Six Flags Great America sit tight and quiet, awaiting another thrilling season.

Along with an optic white, 55 foot statue of Ramses II.

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Am I high?

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This is the home of Jim and Linda Onan, who would serve as collaborators throughout the design and construction of the six-story Gold Pyramid and its spectacularly bizarre and exciting 10 acre grounds.  Assisted by their son Rocko, and inspired by the pseudoscience behind Pyramid Power in the 1970s, Jim acted as de-facto gentleman architect, designing and building a replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza that is 1/9th the size of the original in Egypt.  While President Thomas Jefferson found inspiration in Italian villas, Jim Onan, a concrete contractor by trade, looked to the ancient world.  That’s right.  This is a house like no other.  The only pyramid shaped house in the world.


The Gold Pyramid in Wadsworth is proportionally perfect to its sister structure at Giza, and set along the same true north directional axis. This alignment was so important to Onan that when it was discovered that an original foundation wall was off of this axis during construction in 1977, the existing work had to be scrapped and the wall realigned.  This axis, along with the natural spring located below the pyramid, is believed to give the pyramid supernatural powers.  However one may feel about this claim, the spring allows the pyramid to be heated and cooled through a geothermal system that Jim Onan designed himself.  Construction was ripe with the Onan’s trying different techniques to solve complex engineering problems.  The Onan’s don’t claim to be architects, fans of high architecture, kitsch or postmodernism.  This is their home, and a physical manifestation of their love of all things Egyptian.  This is a family obsessed over generations, and that dedication shows in the objects and the stories behind them.

The exterior of the Gold Pyramid is simple and harmonious. Currently clad in gold paint (the Pyramid was originally covered in 24 karat gold plates) the pyramid’s front door is barely visible up a set of stairs within a rectangular recess.  Windows are mullionless plate glass set in a haphazard but functional rhythm.

It could easily be believed that Michael Graves travelled to remote Lake County to build a structure that had all of the promise and fun of his renderings, designing a series of workhorse front-facing gables that worked so hard they mighty-morphed into a pyramid. Jim Onan found inspiration in his own interpretation of Egyptian visual language, an approach vastly different than the architects of the lotus flower capitals and cavetto cornices of the Reebie Storage Warehouse in Chicago (George Kingsley, 1922) or the First Presbyterian Church in Nashville (William Strickland, 1848).  Is there a precedent for Egyptian Revival Postmodern Outsider Architecture?  There is now.



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For all of the simplistic elements of the exterior, the interior is very busy-part family home, and part gallery, where Egyptian objets d’art and collectables live freely among pastel Chintz upholstery and billowing white window valances. The ultimate result is a lovingly curated space, where obsession and domestic ease work joyfully together.  This is Linda’s contribution as interior designer.  Family portraits, suggesting the life of an atypical Midwest family growing up in the 1980s, surround a tapestry of Ramses in the living room, collaboration between Linda and Rocko.  The dining room, designed in the shape of a cartouche and located at the absolute center of the pyramid, is filled with real gold objects.  A needlepoint portrait of Nefertiti, a gift from a family friend, is displayed beside 16th century Shawabtys, given to the family by the Egyptian government, with whom the Onan’s have enjoyed a fruitful relationship across decades.  The home is full of Rocco’s ambitious adolescent projects, including a detailed medallion nearly four feet in circumference, and a 24 karat gold leaf front door.  Walls throughout are covered in bright, beautifully stylized depictions of life in ancient Egypt, and done over the course of three years by a sign painter from Zion, Illinois.

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Through the 1980s and 1990s the Onans raised their five children, while continuing to add elements to their Post Egyptian estate. The site now includes a four car garage in the form of three small pyramids, a moat, and an exact replica of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings that includes a model of Tut’s mummy and sarcophagus.  After the Onan’s opened up the pyramid to tour groups, they filled a gift shop with Cleopatra beach towels and replica brick-a-brac, and the long strip of pavement leading up to the house was flanked with repeating Bull Mastiff-sized Sphinx figures.  After some interference from Lake County zoning officials, a 55 foot, 2,000 ton statue of Ramses II was constructed at the end of the driveway.  Beats the hell out of a concrete goose wearing a Blackhawks jersey, doesn’t it?


Perhaps what’s more outstanding than the pyramid itself is the desire by the Onan family to be a part of an official conversation about cultural heritage, and there should absolutely be a seat for them at the table. The Onan’s have come to their interest in being designated as a landmark because they recognize and celebrate their own work and dedication to a level of creativity.  This lies at the core of why we want to preserve what is special about our built environment, and the type of people that heritage conservation should want to please.  They wish to see the Gold Pyramid included on local and national lists of landmarks, and have come to this conclusion on their own, without any prodding or outside influence from state agencies or historians.

Truth be told, we desperately need the Onan’s on our team. Recent legislation challenging local landmarks districts in the nearby states of Michigan and Wisconsin have put the field on the hard defensive.  Detractors have called foul on the process and its restrictions on everything from property rights to the replacement of siding and wood windows.  While we fight to keep these ordinances intact and local commissions from making sound decisions, people wince.  This has created a major public relations problem.  Landmarking anything, whether local or national, has come to be seen as prohibitive

This is the type of progressive thinking about cultural heritage, the type that comes naturally to the folks at the Gold Pyramid, that we need to encourage in order to survive-the type that people-not preservation, pushes on its own. Perhaps it’s magical thinking to envision a world where we don’t need historic districts, local landmarks designations, or demolition delay to keep great buildings around to serve our future, but maybe this is a start.  Could we realign ourselves with a message that in preserving our architectural heritage, we provide a place where memories can live forever?  Could we put ourselves in the frame of thinking that realms of kitsch and roadside attractions have the potential to transform over time into an acknowledgement that history takes peculiar and miraculous terms, and that the word “historic” belongs not to the historian, but to the drive-ins, movie theatres and pyramid houses that are given historic status by the people that love them?  Perhaps the deepest question is “how do we get historic preservation to happen without historic preservation”?  The answer might be Jim, Linda and Rocko Onan, as well as a bit of our own pyramid power.

Drawing Home

I’ve drawn all of the places I’ve lived.  These drawings, all done informally in ball point pen and within a small Moleskine notebook, were partially inspired by the small-scale architectural models placed in tombs of the Incas, Aztecs and their predicessors in ancient Mexico.   Their materials, just like the buildings they portray, are simple.  Buried alongside jewelry and ritual objects, these models are vital in their telling of the ordinary, everyday lives of these ancient civilizations.

This exercise also came out of a need for me to see the raw architectural data of each place that I’ve lived, and compare the design, age and typology of each.  All of the places I drew I lived for three months or longer.  These are the buildings of my ordinary life, all through the filter of my brain and hand.

I have lived in a total mixed bag of buildings, from a contemporary ranch in suburban Detroit, to a modernist highrise in Honolulu, to the ultra vernacular Chicago graystone.  These structures range greatly in age.  Many are older with a scatterbrained sense of integrity.  They have missing cornices, or cheap new windows.  Many have design features specific to their location, like the tall concrete wall surrounding the house I lived in when I worked in New Delhi, India, or the attached garage on the house in Troy.

What (and where) we call home inevitably shapes us, but architectural significance has no role in making these structures iconic.  I have borrowed time in many buildings but have possessed none of them, and my occupation of each is only a sliver of a story that spans across decades.

The most surprising revelation is poignant and timely.  These buildings display an element of undeniable privelidge, as I have always had the means to live where I have wanted.  Millions of people are not in a position to ever make that choice for themselves.

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That’s the Power of Love (Architecture) : The James R. Thompson Center

The James R. Thompson Center (formerly the State of Illinois Center), Helmut Jahn, 1985.
The James R. Thompson Center (formerly the State of Illinois Center), Helmut Jahn, 1985.

On October 13, 2015, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner held a news conference in Chicago, presenting an aggressive, but perhaps not surprising plan to sell the Helmut Jahn-designed James R. Thompson Center, constructed in 1985. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, it is proposed that the building be sold for cash at a public auction, the over 2,000 state workers moved elsewhere, and demolished, making way for the same-old same-old high-density, mixed use, regrettable architecture.

Rauner had this to say:

“This building is ineffective.  For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy.  It’s hard to meet with your colleagues.  It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices”

A lot of people hate this building, but not for its architecture. Taxpayers in Illinois famously hissed over its $172 million dollar price tag, nearly twice its original budget, and a part of history that rings in the ears of people across the state as Springfield continues its own budget deadlock.  Helmut Jahn, irresponsible Starchitect and GQ cover subject was so obsessed with the building’s aesthetics that he neglected to develop a way to cool the interior properly, leaving state employees sweating it out for years.

Historic architecture in Chicago’s Loop has been serving the same non-offensive menu year after year, expertly taste-tested by historians, tourists and Chicagoans. Daniel Burnham is clearly the meat course, with Louis Sullivan and his curvilinear forms the vegetables.  The starch course is the Rookery, the Railway Exchange Building, and the Reliance Building, with Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe acting as dessert, which many pass on for the swags and acanthus patterns that remain snug and safe along with everything else we have spoiled our appetite with.  It’s an outdated bill of fare.  It comes as no surprise that the Thompson Center as great architecture was a hard sell as new architecture in 1985, and a hard sell thirty years later as we look forward.

Visit the Thompson Center at noon, and it’s easy to find another reason to hate it. It’s the food smell capital of the Loop.  Pizza, Dunkaccinos, Chinese food and Popeye’s all hotboxing inside the steel and glass rotunda.  It’s filled with the anxious energy of coworkers in khakis with key cards, camping out at tables downstairs and chewing on the last cubes of ice from their fountain drinks before heading back to their cubicles.  Businesses like GNC and the curiously placed Amerinka’s Native Arts & Craft feel as if they are just loitering, and there is certainly a lot of that.  People are everywhere, and they are their own system within the building.  It’s a frenzy of modern urban life.  Chicago is filing for licenses, paying fees, and getting off the train. Then there is the fatal attraction of the building’s spiraling marble floor, a target for nearly a half a dozen jumpers since the building opened thirty years ago.

There is no way to deny the psychological effect of having to go to the DMV, which is another reason the Thompson Center is lauded. Put people in a building where it is expected they will have to wait, experience terrible customer service and inevitably not have the correct form or piece of documentation and it’s impossible to get them to even notice the muted Post-modern color palate as anything more than “puke pink and ugly blue.”  It’s like hating U2 because Bono is a pompous ass, and not because every album they’ve put out since 2000 has been crappy.

Thompson 6

With a reported $100 million in deferred maintenance, the building has seen better days. The granite panels that served to provide drama to the pedestrian arcade surrounding the building, and as a corral for Jean Dubuffet’s striking Monument with Standing Beast (aka “Snoopy in a Blender”) have been removed.  Interior surfaces are rusty, HVAC grates have been kicked in, and there are multiple areas of water damage and spall.  But perhaps nothing is as blatantly obvious as the dinginess of the building’s exterior glass panels.  It looks dirty from across the street, from above, and from the sky.  It’s embarrassing.

This neglect, along with the sub-par tenants and failed driving tests, has given the building a messy reputation, and serves to toxify discussions about the building’s architectural merit. But the new school of cultural heritage preservationists are undaunted, and encouraged by the opportunity to sit on a precipice of sorts, both with the opportunity to preserve postmodern heritage, some of which is just as old as the people in the movement; and aligning that with new ways to talk about how to preserve the architecture of the places that matter.  As we move towards a future of cultural resources management where we look at time as more fluid in determining significance, and reject a traditional attitude towards what we consider historic, the sooner we will realize we can serve buildings better, be better stewards and most importantly; serve people by saving beautiful places.  And the James R. Thompson Center is a beautiful place.

Thompson interior big

It’s that magic formula of brains, beauty and fun that makes the Thompson Center a stone cold stunner.  Its overstated  rotunda is a winking reference to nearly every state capital or county building constructed in the 19th century.  Encompassing an entire city block, the primary entrance is set back and tilted towards Chicago City Hall and the Richard J. Daley Center, indicating that the building’s relationship with its surrounding area is a public one.

The colonnade hugging the buildings rounded primary façade is supersized Ancient Rome, and made a conscious decision to ignore all of the architecture afterword until Jahn hit the drawing board in the early 1980s.

Inside, the ceiling soars and the materials are glossy and reflective, while the buildings’ expressed structure focuses and projects.

Light standards are not on the sidewalk outside, but within.   And the stairways and escalators have been pulled out from the center core of the building, and placed on the walls of the soaring cavity of the atrium, like fully functioning organs pulled outside of the body.  It’s a living organism, a human sized, breathing ant farm.  The movement is constant.

The dusty cobalt and creamy tomato soup color palate is America Lite, a political statement that lives comfortably with the Thompson Center as a governmental building. The basic pleasure of the colors and their placement in strong geometric fields appeal to the LEGO builder in you.  This is not your father’s Modernism.  This is a world where we were imagining the future of buildings, the future of government, and the future of us.  On Hoverboards.  Even the idealized future is an authentic part of our past, and helps us determine what we build.

Like a song made better as a cover, perhaps the Thompson Center could be improved upon and reimagined using the same care applied to the restoration of other significant; but more mainline, historic Chicago buildings. The cost of repairing the building’s originally failed systems would pale in comparison to the millions of dollars spent to repair Frank Lloyd Wright buildings that were built without downspouts, because Wright didn’t like the way they looked on his vertical line-challenged designs.  While each restoration project is unique, Wright’s buildings are a dime a dozen, and Jahn’s is truly one of a kind.  Buildings with great stewards like the ones responsible for the brilliant restoration of the Chicago Athletic Association into the Loop’s most creative new/old hangout should be inspiration enough that the nearly impossible is possible (and profitable, too!)  Giving the James R. Thompson Center a more creative second life would have a substantial halo effect, both in terms of the preservation of Postmodern buildings, and in Chicago.  A significant building worthy of a future we curate and create.

Looking, Learning, Explaining