2018 found historic preservation (or heritage conservation for the more progressive) in the U.S. broadening its vision as a movement but also branching out to take on a radical sense of what landmarks are, both in terms of age (the established “45 year or older” rule seems to no longer culturally apply) and historic significance (preserving structures with a social and vernacular history over those designed by a famous architect). The year reflected the volatility of our political climate on both sides of the argument, from the slow beginnings of a shift from tenured older voices and their architecture with a capital “A” priorities to radical young ones who brought in late-20th-century postmodernism and social equity as aspects of the built environment in desperate need of attention and focus. Primarily, 2018 was a year where we learned that with enough patience (like 30-years-worth for Detroit’s Michigan Central Station), preservation efforts pay off.
The James R. Thompson Center got drag queens and the Jahn treatment, but its fate was ultimately tabled for 2020
After the debut of Starship Chicago: A Building on the Brink, Chicago seemed amped up to fight for the hyperactive postmodern gem at the beginning of the year, with a showing of the film and a corresponding panel discussion on the building’s future in January. Landmarks Illinois included it in its annual list of statewide endangered buildings in the spring, concurrently releasing a series of rendered proposals by JAHN Architects that show an added super tower in the southwest corner of the building that would maximize its potential as an adaptive re-use property. With support from Preservation Chicago, advocates for the structure rallied in September to solicit interest in making the structure a Chicago Landmark, including a performance by Shea Coulee of RuPaul’s Drag Race and plenty of old school picketing. The Thompson Center would ultimately be signed up for another year in service to the people of Illinois, as the state removed the sale of the structure from the list of revenue sources in 2019. The future of the structure is now on the hook of Illinois’s governor-elect J.B. Pritzker, and Chicago’s next mayor.
Preservation rolls back and takes a Trumpian spin
Rollbacks of regulations also affected preservation at the local level. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission rolled back some of the most controversial elements of its application review and permitting process after claims in March that the proposed changes cut neighbors, community boards, and elected officials out of the process. After claims that the rollback was too generous to developers and landlords, Landmarks Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan stepped down in May.
Preservation battles on both sides took on an ominously familiar Trumpian rhetorical tone, pointing fingers, relying on loose aesthetic judgments, and intent on creating crises where there were none. In Chicago’s Old Town Triangle Historic District, a family’s desire to add a garage to their home in order to accommodate their wheelchair-bound daughter was approved by the Chicago Landmarks Division but was met with a rash of vitriolic criticism by those looking to preserve architectural integrity at all costs. Neighbors in opposition chastised the family for not thinking of their daughter’s needs by moving to a neighborhood that wasn’t more flexible for her disability. They spoke openly about the garage’s aesthetics and the dramatic precedent-setting nature of the project (i.e., “horrible” and “it’s game over for preservation”) and threatened to build their own garages out of spite.
Despite the work of many to cast out exclusionist “not-in-my-backyard” rhetoric from historic preservation, it still reared its ugly head in 2018. In Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood, the opposition of a new affordable development had members of the Pullman National Monument Preservation Society (PNMPS) banding together under multiple claims that a federal level review of the project was botched, dragging federal agencies and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and shaming developers and architects involved with the project on social media.
In May, an Evanston alderman introduced a proposal by a group of undisclosed funders, known as the Evanston Lakehouse Dunes, to pledge $400,000 to demolish the historic Harley Clarke Mansion, a local landmark with deferred maintenance issues that formerly housed the Evanston Art Center. These funders claimed that the demolition of the mansion would “restore” open vistas of the Grosse Point Lighthouse and lakefront but brought speculation that the group included area homeowners looking to block private use for the mansion and were seeking demolition to provide themselves with views of Lake Michigan. With the funders unwilling to reveal themselves and increased public pressure to find an alternative to demolition, Evanston’s city council voted in December to spare the structure, and the pledged money was returned.
This was the year that the some of the Midwest’s perennially imperiled historic buildings came out of threatened status, many after decades of vacancy and failed starts. In December 2018, construction officially began on the restoration of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. After speculation of the building’s redevelopment in March, it was announced that the $350 million-dollar project would put the 105-year-old train depot at the center of the new Ford Motor Company campus in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Michigan Central saw its last train depart in December 1988 and has been the subject of a regular stream of stalled adaptive re-use plans, including schemes for a casino and police headquarters.
The Chicago historic preservation cognoscenti received a boost with the announcement of the resurrection of the old Cook County Hospital in June. Empty for 16 years, the National Register of Historic Places–listed property will receive $24 million in federal historic tax credits, curbing the $145 million needed to transform the structure into two new hotels, medical offices, and a small museum dedicated to the building’s influence on healthcare.
After 37 years of Chicago’s harsh freeze-thaw cycles, including a 30-foot-tall icicle that grew in the basement in 2014, the historic Uptown Theatre is poised for a $75 million-dollar restoration, slated to begin next summer. With the restoration long championed by outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel, the new 5,800 capacity entertainment venue will revive a beloved community anchor, shuttered since it’s last concert by the J. Geils band on December 19, 1981.
Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building is threatened, altered, then landmarked
After the announcement in October 2017 that Philip Johnson’s iconic AT&T Headquarters Building would be reimagined by Snøhetta in the coming year, amputating the first two stories of the iconic postmodern structure from its pink granite clad upper stories and filling the street level with glass, preservationists pushed to secure local landmark status for the structure’s façade and lobby. While the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission would eventually add the 1984 work by Philip Johnson and John Burgee to its official roster of historic buildings in July, it decided that the interior was too compromised to be protected, citing a 1993 renovation that significantly altered its design and thus making it ineligible. As the story broke in January, scaffolding was present inside the lobby and the paper covering the windows, work performed in part to execute a plan to reorient the structure by creating a large enclosed garden and seating area and opening up sight lines in the lobby. Snøhetta returned at the end of the year with a more sensitive update to New York’s newest and youngest landmark, preserving the 110-foot-tall arch at the street level per the stipulations of the designation, which protects the “exterior facades of the office tower and the annex, and the exterior facades of the enclosed covered passageway.”
Venturi, Wright and Neutra under the radar demolitions face atonement
Less than two hours after a full-price offer by the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy to purchase the Lockridge Medical Clinic was rejected by the building’s owner, the 1958 National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) listed structure was demolished overnight on January 10, the first of FLW’s buildings to be demolished in over 40 years. Just as NRHP status does not protect structures from demolition, the reduction of the structure to rubble (the owners provided no opportunity to salvage any significant elements) does not keep residents of Whitefish, Montana from boycotting the future structure. A wordy billboard appeared in March, calling out the developer by name and calling the demolition a “national tragedy.”
In San Francisco in December, a judge ordered the former owner of the Largent House, a 1935 home designed by Richard Neutra, to rebuild an exact replica of the home, including a plaque detailing the building’s history. The structure, one of five designed by Neutra in the city, was illegally demolished, the permit application retroactively filed months after the building had been destroyed a year earlier. The 5-0 vote by the Planning Commission occurred in hopes that the penalization will curb illegal demolitions and work in tandem with the proposed Housing Preservation and Expansion Reform Act. The owner intended to replace the 1,300 square foot Largent house with a 4,000-foot structure.
In Pittsburg, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s 1979 Abrams House was put up for sale, purchased and demolished over the course of the summer, leaving the Pittsburg History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) with a limited window to drum up attention to the demolition, establish a dialogue with the owner, and draft a landmark nomination before the structure was lost.
Robert Venturi, who extolled the virtues of bridging the gap between old and new, died on September 19, adding to the growing concern that architecture and historic preservation has not done enough to protect the structures or ideas of the pioneers of postmodernism, many of whom are advancing in age without seeing their structures advance to a level of accepted historic significance.