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Behind the Scenes: How to Preserve a Landmark Building

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 28, 2006 9:47PM

dexterwirt.jpgFor the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, the answer is simple: put down the blowtorch. This year, two high-profile historic buildings have been destroyed by torch-related accidents. The Pilgrim Baptist Church, a centenarian Adler and Sullivan beauty, smoldered in January, and just a few weeks ago, scrap workers accidentally torched the Wirt Dexter Building using the same tool. The LPC calls for new laws restricting such cutting and welding operations at historic sites.

Beyond these precautionary measures, the answers are not so cut and dry. Debates over what constitutes a landmark and whether it is worth saving are renewed whenever a government or a developer wishes to transform a community or when an aging building falls into disrepair. Organizations like Preservation Chicago rightly brag that maintaining our city’s rich architectural heritage boosts its economy, but how much money has been sunk rejuvenating the Uptown Theater?

To their credit, Chicago mayors from Richard J. to Richard M. Daley have made preservation a priority and, since its inception, the mayorally appointed Commission on Chicago Landmarks has helped to preserve hundreds of buildings. This nine-person board will consider granting landmark status to any building that meets at least two of the following criteria: a critical part of Chicago's heritage, site of a significant historic event, identification with a “significant person,” demonstrating important architectural style, demonstrating the work of an important architect, part of a distinctive district, or possessing a unique visual feature. The Commission reviews these applications and holds public meetings to discuss and debate (sometimes ad nauseum) the merits of each structure.

But a bureaucracy as large as City government is vulnerable to miscommunication and basic human error. In 2002, the Buildings Department issued a permit for the Merc building’s demolition without consulting the Landmarks Commission. The error made headlines, and in signing a “demolition-delay” ordinance the following year, Daley promised it wouldn’t happen again. But last winter it did, as DePaul University's Hayes-Healy Athletic Center met the wrecking ball sans proper review.

eastvillagerow.jpgChicago’s architectural significance is well-known, but asking people who aren’t architecture buffs to rally around a particular building or district is a constant challenge. In architecture, as in much of life, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It wasn’t until entire blocks of West Town and East Village cottages were discarded for shiny, boxy condos that activists could properly mobilize to preserve what remained. Keeping Chicago connected to its history is why local preservationists go to work each morning. As the Reader’s architectural critic Lynn Becker notes in a review of Richard Nickel’s “lost Chicago” architectural photos:

It may be true that “nothing stays the same but change,” but architecture provides us with continuity. Classic buildings allow us to inhabit the world of those who came before us and learn from how they still speak to us today.

rookerynickel.jpgEffective preservation starts with basic education campaigns, laden with ideas but free of jargon. It succeeds when creative ideas to accommodate modern infrastructure (from air conditioning to high-tech rail) can develop alongside the most creative ideas from the past few centuries.

Related Links:
Richard Nickel Committee and Archive
The City’s latest Demolition Hold list

Images via geekgrrl, rachelleb, and the Richard Nickel Archive