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.

Illinois Peoria Public Policy

Illinois Tries a Pilot Historic Rehab Tax Credit, for One Project

by Michael R. Allen

Although last year’s effort to pass an Illinois state historic rehabilitation tax credit did not pass the legislature, a very specific pilot program did pass and receive Governor Pat Quinn’s signature. Senate Bill 2534 created a one-time 25% tax credit against the income of the owners of the historic Pere Marquette Hotel in Peoria (1927). The $40 million rehabilitation project that the owners have started must follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Rehabilitation in order to receive credits.

Yesterday the Peoria Journal Star published the article “Preservationists watching hotel pilot project in Peoria”, a good analysis of the pilot program and the larger effort to pass a statewide tax credit. There are obvious questions. Is the tax credit “pilot” really a pilot if the legislature does not pass the statewide credit? Why choose one $40 million project in a larger city instead of several smaller projects totaling $40 million across the state? Did the owners of the hotel make political headway that other owners will never make?

The “pilot” project is a good one, but there are so many others across the state equally worthy of the state’s consideration. All will create jobs and generate local sales and income tax revenues. The legislature should pass a credit open to all. If Illinois cannot afford a 25% credit, the legislature should look at a different figure that the state can. Missouri’s tax credit program is the model used by Illinois legislatures that crafted last year’s bill. One of the reasons the tax credit is a model is because it is open to all who qualify and the application process is not subject to approval by or the influence of elected officials. Illinois’ first attempt to create a historic tax credit greatly underscores that fact.

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.

Historic Preservation Illinois Southern Illinois

2010 Illinois Ten Most Endangered Places

Today Landmarks Illinois announced its 2010 Ten Most Endangered Historic Places. More information is online here.

The list includes:

1. Bass-Mollett House — Greenville
2. Chanute Headquarters and Mess Hall – Rantoul
3. Illinois Main Street Program
4. Manske-Niemann Farm – Litchfield
5. Massac Theater – Metropolis
6. North Pullman – Chicago
7. Prentice Women’s Hospital – Chicago
8. Red Cliff – Moline
9. St. Laurence Complex – Chicago
10. Uptown Theatre – Chicago

This is an assortment indicative of the state’s current preservation problems: there’s a mid-century modern building (Prentice Women’s Hospital), a farm, two theaters and a large church (always hard to adapt) and a popular state preservation program.

I previously wrote about the plight of the Massac Theater: “Massac Theater Crumbles in Metropolis, Illinois” (November 13, 2007).

Illinois Public Policy

Illinois Legislators Trying to Create a Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit

by Michael R. Allen

On February 11, Illinois State Senator Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) introduced SB 2559, a bill that would create a state historic rehabilitation tax credit modeled on Missouri’s.

Since then, the bill has gained two co-sponsors, Senators Dale Risinger (D-Springfield) and Michael Noland (D-Springfield). However, the Senate Commerce Committee has postponed a hearing of the bill.

Meanwhile, a similar bill introduced last year by Representative Greg Harris (D-Chicago) in the Illinois House of Representatives (HB 586), has attained five co-sponsors but has yet to receive a committee hearing.

Adaptive Reuse Illinois

Old KFCs Are Buildings Too

by Michael R. Allen

My wish for the New Year is simple: Let no vital structure go vacant or get demolished.

Shown above is one of the countless road side examples of the infinite adaptability of even the ugliest American buildings. The La Gondola Restaurant at 2855 North Water Street in Decatur, Illinois is located in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. La Gondola’s rehab of the iconic fast food building consisted of new signage and repainting. Removal of the bucket of chicken was not on the agenda, and thus La Gondola has what may be the nation’s only bucket of spaghetti sign.

I write “may” because the excellent website Not Fooling Anybody shows us that La Gondola’s rehab of an old KFC is in the middle of fast food conversions, which range from inconspicuous total cover-up to oddities like the chiropractic office that retains a KFC bucket sign.

La Gondola is no stranger to converting fast food buildings: the La Gondola Restaurant in Galesburg is located in a converted Mr. Quick Hamburgers restaurant. La Gondola is a central Illinois chain that makes use of the cast-offs of another chain. That practice makes perfect sense, since smaller chains don’t have the capital that a mega-chain like KFC does. La Gondola saves money, an old KFC doesn’t sit vacant or get torn down and hungry Illinoisans still have a place to get a quick bite right where they used to.

The simple model of reuse practiced by La Gondola is not glamorous, but it works economically as well as ecologically. While an old KFC is not architecturally or urbanistically high-style, it’s still a building made of shaped and processed natural resources. When reused, those resources are saved.

Abandonment Illinois Metro East


by Michael R. Allen

The Fantasyland on Illinois Route 3 in Brooklyn once held two strip club stages, many video viewing rooms and a “health spa.” In a small city whose center seems to have a church on every corner not occupied by a strip club, Fantasyland was the biggest of the non-religious operations. Then it closed at some point in the first few years of the 21st century. In 2007, there was a fire that started the damage shown above (See “Driving to Granite City”, September 30, 2007).

Two years later, surprisingly, the burned out, collapsing hulk still stands. The sign out front advertising a “health spa and rubs” is even still standing. Meanwhile, a convenience store across the street, opened in 2005, already is out of business. Once, the gigantic adult facility proclaimed the luster of roadside fantasy, but now the building and its remaining sign have a different message. The crumbling hulk is not far from the decaying remains of the National City stockyards, and the landscape in that stretch is a bit of unwanted fantasy — the dwindling traces of long-gone industrial employment, the failure of even the marginal “adult entertainment” industry and the glimmering St. Louis skyline at night showcasing the glowing Lumiere Place casino. Life out of balance, or just the reality of the tenuous state of the inner ring of metro east cities?

Demolition Edwardsville, Illinois Historic Preservation Illinois Metro East

Madison County Still Could Save Part of Poor Farm Complex

by Michael R. Allen

On Monday, wreckers from Premier Demolition of St. Louis began demolishing the two remaining buildings of the Madison County Poor Farm at 333 S. Main Street in Edwardsville, Illinois. The buildings, owned by Madison County, had recently been used as the Madison County Sheltered Care Home for developmentally disabled and mentally ill persons. There was considerable controversy when the County Board voted to close the home and move the residents to other facilities. While there seems to be reasonable doubt over the closure, there was no question that the buildings themselves are historically significant. The question was whether or not the Madison County Board had the foresight to avoid rushing to demolish a Civil War-era building and its cohort.

The demolition is hasty and regrettable for two reasons:

First, there is no plan to do anything with the large site save seeding the building footprints after the foundations are filled. The buildings were sound and in decent repair, and posed no public safety risk to residents of Edwardsville. The cost of demolition is around $70,000. The same amount could have mothballed the buildings for future use, or been spent on a more pressing county issue.

Second, the Edwardsville Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) designated the complex a city landmark in 2000 and voted to block demolition. City landmark status is a rare designation anywhere, and it denotes wide community recognition of a site being one of the most important to the identity of a city. That the HPC and its chairwoman Kathryn Hopkins fought so hard against demolition should have at least delayed the County Board’s rush to tear down an irreplaceable landmark.

Postcard view found online here.

The complex began its life as the Madison County Poor Farm in the 1860s. Originally, the site was 180 acres with additional residential buildings on site. This facility was like those found in counties and cities across America: a refuge for the indigent who could not work due to age, infirmity or other malady. (St. Louis County’s Poor Farm was located on present-day Arsenal Street west of Sublette. Two buildings remain at 59th and Arsenal, while the rest of the complex was wrecked in 1982.)

The system was sad but practical. People who could not afford to live elsewhere came to the farm. Some had small jobs working on the grounds or in the food plots that fed the residents. Others were idle, living out their days in the institution. When residents died, they were buried in a cemetery behind the Poor Farm, where to this day 600 unmarked graves and one general monument remain.

The historic view above shows the two extant buildings. The two-story Italianate-style building at left was the Superintendent’s Building, built in 1865. Architecturally, the building was designed in the rustic strain of the Italianate style, which made use of asymmetry, a central design feature like a tower, projecting bay or cupola and tall, arched windows. This style was prevalant in American residential, institutional and commercial design from 1855 through around 1885.

The Superintendent’s Building is a refined work in the style. The building has quoins running up each corner, masonry arches over each window rather than the common cast iron hood-molds and fine decorative brackets under the roof overhang placed at the corners.

The projecting central bay has a defining fornt gable and some rather striking tall, narrow windows.
As these photographs show, the Superindent’s Building is not currently under demolition. In fact, the interior has barely been touched. However, workers have removed historic window sash from behind the storm windows. Has the sash been destroyed?

The residential hall, built in 1900, has not escaped death. While the front elevation of the building looks intact, displaying a simple Italianate-inspired design that harmonizes with the earlier neighbor, the back reveals that demolition has removed nearly half of the building mass.

Alas, the residential hall is lost. However, the Superindent’s Building is largely intact, structurally sound and not affected by demolition of the surrounding building fabric. The Madison County Board could still intervene to stop its destruction. While removal of the residential hall diminishes the context of the Superintendent’s Building, it does not impact the architectural integrity of the remaining building. There is still a chance to preserve part of the landmark Poor Farm.

One possibility would be to complete demolition of the surrounding buildings, mothball the Superintendent’s Building and issue a Request for Proposals for the site from developers who might wish to renovate the building. The County could end up breaking even on the old Poor Farm.

Perhaps a word to Madison County Board Chairman Alan Dunstan could stop total destruction:

Honorable Alan J. Dunstan
Madison County Administration Building
157 N. Main Street
Suite 165
Edwardsville, IL 62025-1963
(618) 296-4341

Illinois Mid-Century Modern Southern Illinois

Trenton City Hall

by Michael R. Allen

A night ride back from the Clinton County Fair in Carlyle, Illinois took us through Trenton, Illinois over the weekend. Trenton is a small town with a small City Hall, but their City Hall is no cookie-cutter box or faux colonial meeting hall. No, Trenton has a cool modernist building that was probably inexpensive to build — again, small town with small city hall probably has small budget — but is a delight to behold.

The entire front wall consists of patterned glass blocks (specifically, the Intaglio Glass Wall Unit) laid in between black-painted steel piers. these glass blocks are laid in a neat pattern. At center is a simple, common metal door with a delightfully curved handle. Across the top is the name of the building on a backlit plastic board (paging Robert Venturi). While the plastic board is a little out of synch with the simple, smart design below, the composition works. Trenton’s leaders settled on distilling the importance of municipal government into as direct an architectural statement as possible.

While many towns across Illinois opt for allusions to classical architecture, or headquarter their government in plain-ugly, workable buildings, Trenton chose modern. Oh, I hope that their future leaders recognize and cherish the small wonder of City Hall!