Central West End Chicago Historic Preservation Hospitals Mid-Century Modern The Ville

Diagnosing the Future: Modernism, Medicine and Historic Preservation

by Michael R. Allen

Prentice Women’s Hospital, ready for demolition.

Last week, the Chicago Commission on Landmarks for the second time unanimously voted to rescind the landmark designation for Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital (completed in 1975). The vote essentially dooms the innovative concrete-shell modernist hospital building to demolition whenever owner Northwestern University decided to tear it down. Additionally, the vote is an odd smack-down of preservationist pragmatism. Preservationists were not insensitive to the programmatic needs of Northwestern University, and did not hold fast to a you-can’t-touch-this absolutism, but instead started embracing the defiant modern design of our time. Alas, what might have been an outstanding moment for solving a tough preservation problem is now just fodder for preservation theory books. Chicago will not be building on precedents that include an unfairly understudied example from St. Louis, where the Washington University School of Medicine demonstrated how important architectural modernism could be preserved amid shifting programmatic needs.


The Chicago School of Architecture in Less Than 90 Seconds

by Michael R. Allen

I found this neat little video in which inimitable Tim Samuelson explains the design principles of the Chicago School in under 90 seconds, using Chicago’s Marquette Building (1895, Holabird & Roche) as an example.

The video is part of a series produced by the MacArthur Foundation in 2009 that celebrate the restoration of the Marquette Building — work that included reconstruction of the lost cornice. Watch the videos here.

Best Practices Chicago Illinois

Chicago Mayoral Preservation Survey

by Michael R. Allen

Preservation organizations can be afraid of engaging electoral politics, but avoidance is not the best action. Leadership is needed on preservation policy, and it need not involve endorsement or direct participation in an election cycle.

Landmarks Illinois shows us the way with its just-released Chicago Mayoral Preservation Survey. The state-wide advocacy group posed direct questions on historic preservation, the Chicago landmark ordinance, recent past preservation, church landmark designation and sustainability to all candidates for mayor. Landmarks Illinois collected the results and published them, without comment, for all voters to see.

Belleville, Illinois Best Practices Chicago Illinois

Two Wayfinding Ideas from Illinois

by Michael R. Allen

On a recent trip to Chicago, I came across the wonderful “Dearborn Avenue Cultural Walk.”  The “walk” is a self-guided architectural and cultural tour with information placed on illustrated signs along Dearborn.

Each sign contains information and historic photographs about the architecture and history of buildings on that block. Dearborn is one of Chicago’s most storied streets, so there is plenty of information. The photographs make it clear which building is which and what buildings looked like at other times (or what lost buildings looked like).

The elaborate sign boards could not have been cheap, but they are an excellent amenity. They are as easy to use for those seeking to take the whole “tour” as for someone just walking to work. The signs bring out more color from a very colorful street. St. Louis could stand to implement something similar. Downtown’s Olive Street would be a good test, because it is largely intact and still very densely built up. Washington Avenue would also be a good choice. Of course, both (and more) would be a good first choice, but cost certainly is a factor. Anyone interested?

Closer to home, Belleville, Illinois has placed steel signs at the boundaries of the downtown area historic districts that read simply “National Register Historic District.”  The brown signs are placed near other road signs and thus underscore their recognition of what is an official status.

The Belleville signs do not include the historic district name or any other information, but they are a relatively economical, easy way of marking the special status of the city’s historic districts. These signs won’t guide tourists, but they do impress upon passers-by that there is something special about the neighborhood. Perhaps the signs instill some neighborhood pride in the status, too. Again, St. Louis might do well to grab this idea in some way. Anything that draws attention to our rich architectural heritage is good for cultural tourism and economic development — and we could use more of both.

Chicago Public Policy

Chicago Landmark Ordinance Case Returns to Circuit Court

by Michael R. Allen

The legal battle to to overturn Chicago’s 42-year-old landmark ordinance continues, with a chilling effect on designation in Chicago and cautious attention elsewhere. Two property owners in local historic districts sued the city a few years ago on the grounds that the ordinance was an “arbitrary and capricious” exercise of city police power. Last year, after the plaintiffs appealed a Circuit Court ruling against them, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled that the ordinance was indeed unconstitutional due to vague wording. The City of Chicago appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which denied the appeal and remanded the case to Circuit Court.

This week Chicago Tribune critic Blair Kamin reported that the case is headed for a hearing on August 27. There is a possibly hopeful twist: the circuit judge has split the case into two parts, one on the ordinance and one on the enabling ordinances for the two districts themselves. The August 27 hearing is on that second part only.  The judge has placed the challenge to the Chicago landmark ordinance on hold.

Chicago Downtown

Blair Kamin in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin turns his Cityscapes blog toward St. Louis. Today’s introductory post includes this provocative assessment of Busch Stadium: “a retro ballpark that is too competent and context-driven to hate, but too bloated to love.” Stay tuned for more.

Chicago Illinois Public Policy

Illinois Historic Tax Credit Bill Not Down or Out

by Michael R. Allen

Illinois may yet pass a state historic rehabilitation tax credit this year. On March 18, the Illinois Senate passed SB 2559, which is now heading through the House committee process in the final days of this year’s legislative session.

Apparently Governor Pat Quinn (D) is favorable to the bill. Supporters wisely have crafted a substitute that lowers the per-county cap from $25 million to $5 million, requires each project pass a “but for” test and subjects projects to a per-project issuance cap. These are provisions that make the bill — and the dream that downstate communities like East St. Louis and Alton gain a powerful tool for neighborhood development — alive. There may be one particular county that generated the per-county cap, and the per-project cap as well, but those are excellent ideas to ensure that the credit gets used where it is most needed — where development actually needs a stimulus.

Update: The Illinois House never took up the bill before adjourning in May 2010.

Adaptive Reuse Chicago Historic Preservation

"Saving" a Chicago Church

by Michael R. Allen

Over at ArchitectureChicago PLUS, Lynn Becker has posted renderings of a bizarre plan to “save” Chicago’s St. Boniface Church by retaining the front elevation and the street face of the crossing, demolishing the rest and constructing a massive six-story apartment building for senior citizens. This has to be one of the ugliest designs that I’ve seen lately.

There is some grace in retaining parts of a neighborhood landmark on site where those whose lives connected with the church can still have a physical connection. that could be better than total demolition or relocation. The Buffalo, New York archdiocese is preparing to relocate an entire historic church to suburban Atlanta — another form of preservation that robs the church of a meaningful historic site. Many Buffalo residents oppose the move. The plan for St. Boniface in Chicago seems to be an odd compromise, and one that mocks the parts of the church that will remain.

Who do you think?

Architects Chicago Louis Sullivan

An Update on the Louis Sullivan Film

by Michael R. Allen

Two years ago, Mark Richard Smith began filming Louis Sullivan: The Struggle for American Architecture. He visited St. Louis that year, shooting in the city at and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and I spent some time with him talking about the Union Trust Building.

Mark is a remarkably driven first-time filmmaker who spent twenty years as a graphic designer before switching paths. Wanting to make films that visualize history, Mark enrolled in the graduate history program at Loyola University Chicago. In Chicago, Mark saw the photographs of Richard Nickel and their poetic grace drew him to the subject matter of his first film.

Last year, Mark posted a trailer on YouTube.

Then, one month ago, an unfinished scene about the Trading Room of Sullivan’s Chicago Stock Exchange.

Chicago Demolition Mid-Century Modern

Chicago Still Destroying Gropius’ Work

by Michael R. Allen

St. Louis has a long way to go to catch up to Chicago. While our Archdiocese senselessly demolished a motel by Charles Colbert this year, Chicago city government has been working to demolish the Michael Reese Hospital campus planned and co-designed by Walter Gropius. This week, the city’s wreckers demolished the power plant shown above, which was completed in 1953 and designed by Gropius’ The Architects Collaborative. Only five buildings associated with Gropius remain out of the eight that stood earlier this year, and the landscape is ruined.

The Michael Reese campus was Gropius’ only work in Chicago. In Chicago during the twentieth century, American eyes gazed upon some of the finest modern architecture in the history of the world, from Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright to Mies van der Rohe to Walter Gropius. As we know, the Windy City’s regard for the work of Sullivan has been spotty at best. Gropius’ work at least enjoys good company in its flagrant disregard.

While the city of Chicago is now bound by its contract with the demolition company, one wonders why the city even rushed to get into such an arrangement not knowing the outcome of its Olympics bid. Why did Alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle deign to play architectural historian and dispute the well-documented role of Gropius? Why did Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, the supposed “Green Mayor,” rush to throw away irreplaceable, internationally significant modern architecture and already-built building stock? Don’t ask. Irrational acts of destruction lack any rational explanation.