Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Urgent Issues in American Heritage Conservation

Climate Change

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The remains of the Balinese Room, Galveston, Texas (balineseroom.net)

Cultural resources across the United States are already experiencing the decimating effects of human-influenced climate change.  The resulting rising sea levels, increasing intensity of rainfall, hurricanes and wildfires have become a threat to our built environment, growing in power and frequency each year.  Here are some examples of how climate change has affected historic places:

  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, has been inundated by flooding by the neighboring Fox River numerous times in the last 20 years, causing thousands of dollars in water damage that the buildings’ stilt-like columns were designed to prevent.  A technical advisory review panel found that the most promising choice to mitigate future flooding was to integrate a permanent hydraulic system into the building’s foundation that can be mechanically lifted as the Fox River rises.  Preservationists have cried foul over this plan, as well as others to move the house to higher ground, as a compromise of integrity.
  • The 1920 Balinese Room, a Galveston, Texas nightclub designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Rapp and Rapp, hosted entertainers like the Marx Brothers and Frank Sinatra.  Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Balinese Room was completely destroyed as Hurricane Ike barreled through Galveston Bay on September 12, 2008.  Only a few wooden dock posts remain.
  • Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, the tourist economy boomed in Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding encouragement to the frequently repeated argument that historic preservation makes economic sense.  While the 16th and 17th century buildings in Old San Juan sustained minimal damage, nearly 60 percent of the island is still without power, and thousands of Puerto Ricans struggle daily with housing and economic uncertainty.  Justifying the funds and assistance to replace windows and streetlights in a historic district is nearly impossible when the island faces an unknown future.

While heritage conservation cannot control an Act of God, we need to put a complete stop to asking the question: “is climate change relevant to preservation?” and instead head towards a prompt sense of urgency for present and future cultural resources to plan and implement hazard mitigation at the local, state and national levels.  This conversation must happen in tandem with advocacy, landmarks listing and rehabilitation, as every dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation prevents four dollars in average losses.

Monuments

General Robert E. Lee Memorial, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2015.  The statue of Lee was removed in 2017.

In August 2017, a 1924 statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia was used as a symbolic rallying point for a “Unite The Right” event, drawing hundreds of white nationalists, including Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute and known white supremacist, and David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The City of Charlottesville had voted in February to remove the statue, following suit with other American cities like New Orleans, rejecting the early 20th century narrative of Confederate monuments as innocuous representations of a noble, old cause and embracing their frightening reality as objects constructed to manipulate the historical interpretation of the Civil War to stave off the impending threat of equal rights for people of color.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred in America, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

There is a broad range of solutions suggested for Confederate monuments.  Those who are passionate about retaining the statues in situ without additional context often cite personal or familial connections to the Confederacy.  Many preservationists consider these monuments from a static historical viewpoint, for their artistic quality, connection with a significant craftsperson or designer, or material composition.  Others advocate for removing Confederate monuments from the public sphere, and placing them in the private hands of the organizations that erected them, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Monuments could perhaps be properly contextualized in museums.  Others believe the best way to equitably address Confederate monuments is to destroy them, yet even those that may denounce white supremacy may object to the removal of Confederate monuments, likening it to European attempts to erase Soviet-era history by destroying them.

As terrorists of all types continue to radicalize American symbols to deadly effect, the public looks to historic preservation for guidance as the proclaimed stewards of built heritage and saving places.  From the nation’s governmental bodies to non-profits to educational institutions, historic preservation’s overall dialogue lacks conviction, and brings about the old adage that we “cannot and should not erase our history.”  Historic preservation has remained largely silent in the public sphere, adding to the idea that the field is archaic and bends to the whim of the old and the privileged.  Our weak stance on this issue is antithetical to the core values of the original movement as one that responds to social issues via addressing how they relate to the built environment.  In all of the ways historic preservation takes irrational stances on architectural significance over community health or property rights, it is unable to take a strong stance on the removal of Confederate monuments.  We have an opportunity to directly influence the course of a vital and timely national topic that we are not taking.

Historic Tax Credits

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The Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, Michigan.  The hotel was renovated in 2008 using the Federal Historic Tax Credit.

With decades of bipartisan support since its inception in 1976, the Federal Historic Tax Credit is the most powerful tool available to encourage saving historic buildings.  Once an income producing building is certified as a historic structure by the National Park Service, the owner may apply for a 20% credit on their income tax.  A 10% tax credit is available for the rehabilitation of non-historic buildings constructed prior to 1936.  These federal credits can be used in tandem with state historic tax credits, creating enormous financial incentives that stimulate private investment, particularly in older cities, small towns and neighborhoods where disinvestment has occurred.

Underutilized schools, churches, factories and theaters have been transformed into apartments, offices, retail stores and hotels.  In 2016, 57% of completed projects using the HTC included housing, with a third of those units made affordable.  Here are some examples of rehabilitation projects that have taken advantage of historic tax credits:

  • The former Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota ceased brewing operations in the early 2000s.  With generous use of the federal historic tax credit, it now houses 247 lofts, all with household income limits.
  • Long a fixture of the decline of Detroit’s downtown, the Book-Cadillac Hotel underwent a renovation in 2008 using tax credits, creating a halo effect on the surrounding area.
  • The Trump Organization received a $40 million tax credit towards the rehabilitation of the 1899 Old Post Office and Clock Tower in Washington D.C., adaptively re-using the former office building into a hotel.
  • New Orleans has one of the highest number of completed rehabilitation projects using tax credits in the country, with over 560 projects completed in the last two decades.

With two versions of tax reform in the works, the House version eliminates the historic tax credit completely, and the Senate Finance Committee version retains the 20% tax credit, but eliminates the 10% tax credit.  Eliminating or diminishing these financial incentives will make renovating historic buildings across the country financially unjustifiable, leading to increased numbers of underutilized and vacant buildings, as well as teardowns.  As important as developing a cultural or social case for saving historic buildings is, terminating these incentives jeopardizes the ability for old buildings to net a benefit for developers and owners.

Postmodernism

The postmodern James R. Thompson Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Threatened postmodern architecture is national news.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art plans to demolish a 1986 postmodern addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer.  A dramatic alteration to the granite archway of Philip Johnson’s 1984 AT&T Building in Manhattan has been proposed by Snohetta, threatening its integrity.  Helmut Jahn’s 1985 James R. Thompson Center in Chicago is the victim of decades worth of willful neglect at the hand of the State of Illinois.  Applying traditional eligibility status to these buildings can be tricky as they hover near the 30-year mark; too old to be considered serviceable but too young to be historic.  Preservationists have fought hard and uphill time and time again to convince the public of the value of everything from Mount Vernon to the French Quarter to Prentice Hospital, yet the threat to postmodern architecture seems to have come on faster than threats to any other architectural style in American history.

The relative newness of postmodernism, coupled with its reputation as ugly and loathsome makes it difficult for some to recognize its place within the fluidity of history.  Yet ‘ugly’ is too subjective of an adjective to use in the case of postmodern buildings, as it is just as rational to believe that the molded cornices and mansard roofs of Second Empire are ugly, as they once were considered to be.

At the forefront of advocacy for postmodern architecture are a robust group who are building the case for saving these buildings by pulling from the cultural value of the buildings, and their connections to core events in the history of the historic preservation movement.  While these arguments aren’t perfect, they are worlds away from past demands that buildings are important because professionals in architecture say they are.  Advocates for retaining the integrity of the AT&T Building have used a combination of traditional protest, yielding signs that proclaim, “Hands off my Johnson” and social media exposure, inspired by the advocacy to save Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s.  At the heart of the effort to save the Thompson Center is the original objective of Helmut Jahn’s design to express the need for governmental transparency through architecture, and how the treatment of the building over time is in direct contradiction with the buildings’ intention.

Not engaging in or supporting these advocacy efforts presents the message to the public that historic preservation and heritage conservation feels that no buildings are worth saving that haven’t already been researched, advocated for or listed as landmarks.  Without critically considering future historic buildings, historic preservation will die.  Lead primarily by young people, the charge to save postmodern architectural heritage is the future of the field in body and spirit.

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Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee Sculpture and our Heritage of Hate

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Newspaper clipping from The Daily Progress, May 21st, 1924 (University of Virginia Library)

Once upon a time, American monuments felt innocuous.  They sat quietly in parks and squares, repositories for bird droppings and cans of cheap beer.  Their stone bases worn from the sandblasting of cheapjack graffiti and chipped from years of nicks from riding lawnmowers.  Noses of erstwhile political figures were playfully burnished.  That time of unknowledgeable innocence is gone.

Like ideas and people, monuments too, can be radicalized.  It is expected that the meaning behind symbols changes with the times, yet it is easy to forget when our lives have been lived among them, whether in blissful ignorance or somber reverence.  Many Americans view monuments as parts of history we should not and can not change, particularly in terms of altering or removing statues and memorials to fallen Confederate soldiers, battles, or military generals and political leaders.  Monuments of architectural significance have been venerated locally and nationally, as well as celebrated culturally, yet it took a series of catastrophic tragedies to put into focus that their context was always incorrect.

The General Robert Edward Lee Statue is located in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park), bounded by Market Street, Jefferson Street, 1st Street and 2nd Street, in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The statue is one of four works commissioned from members of the National Sculpture Society by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire, located on parks McIntire gave to the City of Charlottesville during the years 1919 to 1924.  According to the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the monument, McIntire “wished to make a place worthy of the likeness of the most distinguished Confederate general.”

The monument, cast in bronze, was conceived by American sculptor Henry Shrady and executed by Leo Lentelli after Shrady’s death.  It depicts Lee astride on his horse Traveller.  The National Register of Historic Places nomination, written in 1996, depicts the statue as such:

“Lentelli has made a large and important Traveller.  The horse is depicted at a brisk walk with his proper left front leg extended forward and his proper right hind leg elevated.  His regal tail is arched out behind his body to show his impatience while Lee reins him in.  Lee has Traveller well in hand, but the horses neck is overbent and his mouth is open as he pulls against the bit.”

A small number of living confederate veterans as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy were present for the May 21st, 1924 unveiling of the statue.  Three-year-old Mary Walker Lee, the great-granddaughter of General Lee, pulled the Confederate flag draped over the sculpture away, triggering cheers from the crowd.  The National Register nomination continues:

“Thus, the Robert Edward Lee sculpture remains undisturbed in its original location.  Sentiment in Charlottesville will undoubtedly keep it there, for the monument is a unique memorial to the most eminent Confederate hero of all and an outstanding example of the figurative outdoor sculpture of the late City Beautiful movement.”

The Robert E. Lee sculpture was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997 after its addition to the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1996.  The narrative presented in the National Register nomination gives scant information on Lee, but it does tilt towards the idea that the Confederate cause was a noble one.

Most historical descriptions of Confederate monuments in official documents, like a National Register nomination, present their significance in neutral terms, as art works by significant sculptors or components of a landscape or planning movement, having no interaction with the cultural context the monument was constructed in or the cultural context that existed when the monument was written.  Narratives keep in line with the established period of significance of a historic resource, but this timeline will never be finite.  Context changes over time as cultural changes occur, and as we learn.

That noble cause in 1861, at the succession of the Confederacy from the rest of the United States, included the unlawful abolition of slavery and the prohibition of voting rights for anyone born outside of the Confederacy.  How do these provisions, taken directly from the Confederate Constitution, relate to a contemporary perspective to keep Confederate culture intact?  How do organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans or the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the Friends of Charlottesville Monuments, who are at the center of a court case fighting against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue with the City of Charlottesville, balance a culture with a core of oppression against the realities of a future of inclusion?

The majority of monuments to the Confederate cause were not erected during the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, but well after, into the 20th century, when even the oldest, healthiest Confederate veterans were rare.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

In an attempt to stave off the impending threat of equal rights, work was done to control the historical interpretation of the Civil War and present it as a noble cause and to push the Confederacy as a cultural concept while presenting Confederate icons as an honorable ideal.

Out of these eras of recognition of the bravery of the Southern cause came monuments to Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others as celebrations of valor and faith.  Confederate generals were exalted as intellectuals and sages, depicted nobly atop their horses and at parade rest, cast in bronze beside compassionate angels.  These monuments were placed in town squares and city parks, and presented as objects of remembrance towards a cause that was lost, but also noble.  Those that nostalgized the old days of Dixie now had the iconography to remind them that while the Civil War, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights had politically stifled their ideas of a single race state, it could never be culturally stifled.  Black people were not so subtly reminded that they had their place.

Although a public park, the landscape surrounding the Lee sculpture retained a reputation as segregated for decades, consistent with Paul Goodloe McIntire’s terms of deed for other racially segregated parks he donated to Charlottesville.  Along with their support for the Lee statue, the United Daughters of the Confederacy campaigned to build a monument to the myth of the nurturing, benevolent Southern mammy.  The monument was authorized by the U.S. Senate in 1923 but died in Congress after months of protests, including the women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the main Union veteran’s organization, which called it a “sickly sentimental proposition.”

Confederate monuments were never innocent, never static and never simply material objects.  They were always symbols of intimidation, manipulated as cultural heritage and works of art, and silently used to perpetuate the myth that 20th and 21st century Confederalism is cultural and familial, and not innately discriminatory.  They are propaganda, not cultural heritage, and they have served, for decades, to provide something to hide behind that has more decorum than a white robe.

 

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?

pyramid exterior

Probably.

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.

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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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gold more stuff

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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signs

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?

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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.

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.

Happy Birthday Richard Nickel!

May is National Historic Preservation Month. Preservation organizations at the neighborhood on up to the state level proclaimed “This Place Matters” on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by holding up a printable sign emblazoned with the phrase and a train of hashtags after it. For many in the field here in Chicago and elsewhere, Preservation Month was business as usual. National Register nominations were drafted, letters to legislators were sent, buildings were researched and photographed, conferences were held and lectures were given. A whole month of work and public reflection that concluded on May 31st, the birthday of Chicago preservationist and photographer Richard Nickel. He would have been 87.

A cake was baked and decorated. Candles were lit. Happy Birthday was sung.

As a student at the Institute of Design in 1954, Richard Nickel was given an assignment in a photography class taught by Aaron Siskind to document works by Chicago School Architect Louis Sullivan. Nickel’s interest in Sullivan’s work metastasized to the point of obsession after the class concluded. Growing up in Logan Square, Nickel was smart but solitary, and had served as a paratrooper and photographer in the US Army but had no defined direction. As Richard J. Daley’s plans for slum clearance surged, demolishing over 6,000 buildings between 1957 and 1960, Richard Nickel was finding purpose in the overlooked work of Sullivan. Documenting and identifying extant buildings designed by Louis Sullivan became Richard Nickel’s life’s work. As wrecking crews approached and a building prepared to meet its fate, Nickel would intervene on behalf of Sullivan’s busy and organic ornament, salvaging what he could and using his parent’s garage in Park Ridge, Illinois to store bits of elaborate stonework and column capitals. Before the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, before the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Action, before Heartbombs, rightsizing and blexting, Richard Nickel was the only person in Chicago “doing” preservation. He had no language for it. He had no architectural history courses under his belt. He had a Chevrolet, a camera, and a whole lot of fucking soul.

Richard Nickel, undated photograph (image courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive)
Richard Nickel, undated photograph (image courtesy of the Richard Nickel Archive)

This year, as Chicago’s snow melted and gave way to spring a surge of change began. Demolition permits were filed, and approved. Bulldozers lined up at the ready. Demolition Season has begun, and is surging forward in a way that seems to want to make up for lost time. Good and even great buildings long-mothballed and unoccupied; seemingly waiting for their next chapter since before the financial crisis have been knocked down flat, a blank canvas for new developments with names like “West Town Crossing,” “South Loop Station” or “The Lofts at Roosevelt Village.” Just as often, buildings are demolished without any plan. Coming Soon: Nothing! Chicago’s Landmark Ordinance and demolition delay process is showing its age, seemingly meant for historic architecture with a capital “H” and a capital “A”, and unable to forecast a future where cast iron storefronts had gone from being ubiquitous to rare.

May was also pocked with terror on the regulatory front in Chicagoland, as Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner pushed to dramatically restructure the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, jeopardizing programs such as the admistration of federal historic tax credits and regulatory compliance review. Promoting economic development while preserving the past is a slippery slope, and while the Illinois house approved a measure creating two state agencies for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, alleviating some pressure on the issue and allowing the IHPA to remain, it’s still pretty bad news. State Historic Preservation Offices across the country are struggling to maintain functionality under cuts and while this measure is a compromise (the Illinois Legislature will still have to vote) it leaves our SHPO vulnerable, and allows Governor Rauner to appoint a new historic preservation director with senate approval. The state of Illinois’s top job in preservation could be offered up to the gods of cronyism. Bozo the Clown could be the next head of the Illinois SHPO.

Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital is now a sodded lot in Streeterville. The vernacular fabric of our neighborhoods are under attack, and the demand for newer, glassier, taller and denser jeopardizes what’s existing. Historic Preservation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but a lot of practitioners seem to want to keep it in the hands of the gray-haired, bow-tied and time-tested academic, the public sector employee that clocks out of work and out of preservation at 3:30 p.m., or the historian that insists that architectural history stopped after Art Moderne. And we are all still kind of shaking our coffee cans, emblazoned with SAVE THE CLOCK TOWER in front of all those necking teenagers and wondering why no one drops a quarter in. In 2015, there seems to be a breach in connection between historic preservation, determination, appreciation of the works of art that great buildings are and most importantly, inclusion.

It shatters me that we tear down these obvious works of art. I’ll fight the goddamn system till the bitter end, like Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do Not Go Gently Into The Night”-Richard Nickel

It was not enough for Richard Nickel to take photographs. On June 8th, 1960, Nickel turned from salvager to activist, leading the charge on Randolph Street to save the 1892 Garrick Theatre from demolition. The outcome was a sadly familiar one in the 1960s as well as today, the Garrick was ultimately demolished for a parking garage.

Documenting a building and salvaging its ornament is always a sad sort of consolation prize, but, like Richard Nickel, we cannot let the bitterness over demolition affect our idealism. Like the rebar, wires and other types of building guts revealed as a building is dismantled, letting our determination falter exposes us to the elements and weakens us.

As Richard Nickel understood it, visiting and revisiting Sullivan buildings; watching as they went from being full of life, to becoming unoccupied, documentation was often the last line of defense, and the last chance for a building to ever be known.

Nickel’s work is eyes-straight ahead documentary photography. People are used for scale, and the presence of objects such as light standards and automobiles seem to have been framed so as to purposefully establish time. Architectural photography in Chicago carries the immense weight of this body of work within it. Natural curiousity and thoughtfulness governs each of Richard Nickel’s images. Like piece of double exposed film, almost every photo of an old building takes on a bit of this life.

Great Architecture has only two natural enemies, water and stupid men.- Richard Nickel

Richard Nickel, date unknown (Image via The Richard Nickel Archive)
Richard Nickel, date unknown (Image via The Richard Nickel Archive)

Ten years after the loss of the Garrick in a move that seems exponentially stupider then it did at the time, Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building was slated for demolition. Advocacy efforts to save the 1894 Stock Exchange proved ineffective, but would ultimately lead to the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, now Landmarks Illinois. The City of Chicago recognized the importance of the building’s ornament, and paid to have much of it salvaged. The Art Institute of Chicago was to dismantle and recreate the entire Trading Room within one of the museum’s wings. All the while, Richard Nickel photographed the building’s deconstruction, and continued to pull ornament from the site. The Stock Exchange Building was so heavily salvaged and documented that the sum of its exalted existing pieces not so subtly negates the need for it to be demolished in the first place. And for what? Not a parking garage, but the building that replaced it has all the character of one.

When demolition to a building is eminent, it’s popular to state that “Preservationists have lost the battle.” In truth, when a great building is demolished, it’s a battle that we have lost collectively.

On Thursday, April 13th, 1972, Richard Nickel had left home early to salvage inside the Stock Exchange. He was working alone amidst the active demolition around him. It had been unseasonably warm in Chicago that month. Perhaps it was sunny, and the sunshine lit up the dust particles and debris in the air, making it sparkle. That old building smell; damp and warm and made of wood and metal and stone and carpet and everything else, filled the dismantled spaces. Polyester double-knit jacquard shorts were on sale at Carson Pirie Scott & Company, only blocks away. The Stanley Cup-bound Chicago Blackhawks were threatening to strike. US forces were still committed in South Vietnam. Nickel was in love, and recently engaged. It was Richard’s last day on earth.

Demolition halted after Richard Nickel didn’t return home, and friends and family searched frantically for him for a week. Almost a month after his briefcase and hardhat were found in the rubble and demolition resumed, a worker spotted what looked like a human shoulder, two floors beneath the Trading Room, in the Stock Exchange’s sub-basement. Richard Nickel had been crushed to death, but his body had remained intact. Debris and rubble, along with cold water seeping into the building had kept decomposition at bay. An autopsy later revealed that Richard Nickel had suffered from pulmonary emphysema and chronic bronchitis, a result of breathing in 20 years of dust and airborne debris from salvage sites and old buildings.

Demolition has a strange way of preserving a building forever, but in time only. The Chicago Stock Exchange never got the opportunity to work through the shift in technology of the 1980s. It never had its mortar joints filled inappropriately, and then lovingly corrected as the culture to physically restore a building continued to mature. It never had the opportunity for its coffee shop to turn into a Currency Exchange, and then to be re-imagined as an Intelligentsia. It will never be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, or be given the opportunity for someone to stealth cellular antennas on the roof.

Richard Nickel is often called a martyr for historic preservation, his death somehow akin to the tragic fate of the source of his obsession, Louis Sullivan. But perhaps canonization throws the bar too far out for us to grasp back onto. Richard was determined and driven by an impetuous passion, remained intellectually curious, and understood the rapid pace of change. These are important characteristics for anyone that practices preservation. Nickel lived for old buildings, and he died for them; but the most important thing to remember is that he really lived, and for something he loved.

At 87, Richard Nickel would have had a wide view of what architectural heritage is today, and it’s doubtful after advocating for the work of Louis Sullivan 50 years after Sullivan’s time it wouldn’t be difficult for Nickel to understand that butterfly roofs are as radical as some of the Chicago School Architecture he was trying to save in the 1960s. He would have championed the shift in ideas of slum clearance and urban renewal to the assets of neighborhoods and Chicago’s vernacular architecture. Perhaps his most recent project would have been documenting the insensitive changes made to C.F. Murphy and Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, built in 1985.

Not gently into the night, but loudly expressing his convictions.

Happy Birthday, Richard!