Interview: Johnathan Fine, Preservation Chicago

By Karl Klockars in News on May 22, 2008 4:26PM

preservationchicago052208.gifAlmost daily, buildings that have stood for decades, some even for a century, are destroyed. For example, the buildings that made up the Cabrini Green housing project get a little bit smaller every day. Other famed architecture like the two Adler & Sullivan buildings that went up in flames (the Pilgrim Baptist Church and Wirt-Dexter building) in one year have also been lost to the ages.

Since 2001, Preservation Chicago has fought to keep the buildings and structures that make up Chicago's history alive and standing for years to come, and executive director Johnathan Fine has been fighting to save buildings that otherwise might have been overlooked. And since Mayor Daley announced his plan to move the Chicago Children's Museum to under Grant Park, Fine has been leading the charge against the mayor's plan.

More on disappearing buildings, Grant Park, Mayor Daley, those Magikist lips, and what could go into Navy Pier after the jump.

Chicagoist: How did you get into the Preservation Chicago movement?

Johnathan Fine: It was totally by accident. I was called by a friend of mine who said there’s a building in your neighborhood that’s threatened with demolition, and some of your neighbors are getting people to come out – would you like to do that? I didn’t even think about it, I drove past the building and I looked at the building – it was the Goldblatt’s building on Chicago Avenue – and I say, "Oh yeah, they can’t tear that building down. It would be a crime to tear that building down!" So I went to the picket rally, we picketed our alderman, and I had a tremendous sense of empowerment.

stbonifacechurch052208.jpgAnd it just sort of blossomed into a position on the community group, on the board of directors, then I became the president of my community group. Then the next issue that I had to contend with was the St. Boniface Church in my neighborhood. We took the lessons that we learned from the Goldblatt’s building to trying to save St. Boniface Church, and it just sort of took on a life of its own. Thus, a couple years later, Preservation Chicago was born.

C: On your website, you have a list of what’s being threatened and what’s been lost - do you have a running list of things you have saved?

JF: That’s a really good idea – lots of people have asked us, “can we have a list of everything you’ve saved?” There are things that we have saved that we don’t even know that we’ve saved just because we’ve put the fear of repercussions into… in other words, there’s such an awareness of the preservation of historic buildings, that I think there have been many buildings that were not even attempted to be demolished because of fear of repercussions from the preservation movement.

But there are scores of buildings. The Metropolitan Community Church. Certainly the Cook County Hospital. The Pine Grove landmark district. Arlington House. The entire Arlington Demming neighborhood where it is the 8-900 blocks of west Newport were saved because of our actions. On and on. 444 N. Lasalle street was saved because of our advocacy. The New York Life building was landmarked. There have just been many many success stories. Robert Temple Church of God & Christ was landmarked because of our efforts.

C: Out of all the lost buildings over the course of the years, is there any one you particularly miss?

JF: Well, yeah, and it just went down last month. It was Westinghouse High School, but it was originally built as the Bunte Brothers Candy factory, and that was the building that never should have gone down. And a building that we had listed about 3-4 years ago on our 7 Most Endangered list as part of a larger district called “Chicago’s Threatened Warehouses and Factories.”

We identified scores of historic factories and warehouse buildings that were threatened with demolition, and the Bunte Brothers Candy factory was one of them. Unfortunately for a variety of reasons, that building was demolished. And we do regret its demolition.

C: When people find out what you do, do they ask “what happened to this place” or some other random place? Like, “what happened to those Magikist Lips on the side of the highway?”

JF: Well, it’s funny that you mention the Magikist lips, because we actually were on the verge of putting them on our 7 Most Endangered List and about 4 weeks before we voted on the final 7 for that year, they took it down.

C: That’s more than a few years ago, right?

JF: No, they haven’t been lit for a while, but the Magikist lips were standing up until about 3 years ago. And I used to drive past those all the time and I always looked at this rusting, deteriorating sign, remembering when I was a little kid growing up in the northern suburbs – when you saw the Magikist lips that’s when you knew you were into the city. And that was truly a landmark. If any sign should have been preserved, that would have been one to preserve. There were actually three of them – there was one on the south side, one on the west side, and then the one on the north side.

C: Then we must be talking about different signs – I always associated the Magikist lips on I-290 with how you knew you were getting close to Brookfield Zoo.

JF: Yes – there were three of them and they purposely put them as the three gateways to Chicago. I remember the one that was at the junction between 90/94, that just came down a couple of years ago. Yeah, but those were landmarks, and they came down, and people asked us – they were really disappointed. I think Eric Zorn wrote a column on the Magikist Lips once one day – it’s in our archives. It’s one of those things that sort of slips by that no one even pays attention to.

magikist052208.jpgAnd that’s why it’s so important for organizations like us to exist. Because so much important stuff would just slip away if we weren’t here advocating for them. And the fact is that that, really, truly, is what the definition of a landmark is. It is something that evokes a positive memory from people, and tells the story of a time and a place, and a memory and an experience. And for a lot of baby boomers, those Magikist lips were an important part of their first memories of going into Chicago. And when you were a baby boomer and you grew up in the suburbs, and your parents made the decision to get you out of the “dangerous” city so that you could have a better life in the suburbs, those times that they did venture into the city to take you to the Museum of Science and Industry…

C: …take you down to Fields for the Xmas Lights

JF: Exactly. Go to Fields and look at the windows, go downtown to the Art Institute and to the Goodman Theater to see children’s theater. So every time we went into the city it was an exciting adventure. And every time we saw those Magikist Lips we knew we had an exciting adventure in store for us.

C: When you find out that places are nearing the end of their lifespan, do you ever go do some “urban exploration” into some of these abandoned places – I think of places like the Uptown theater, where very few people have been in the past few years, and get to go in and bask in the glory of what it used to be?

uptowntheater052208.jpgJF: I was in the Uptown Theater in 1999, shortly before they closed it to the public. I actually went to a wedding there. It was quite an experience, because the creepiness added to the incredible-ness of that evening, it was really a magical evening. Part of the lure of some of this is the grittiness of it. And we do try to get in – we did get into the Cook County Hospital, we got a tour of Cook County Hospital during the ongoing battle to try to preserve that. So that was an interesting journey. The grittiness and decrepit-ness actually lended some excitement to it. Because it was basically, you saw the peeling layers of history completely embodied in that building. That’s what buildings do – they tell stories. That building told the story of the history of modern American medicine.

C: I’m reminded of a website called Detroitblog.org that used to be all about old Detroit and urban exploration of all the old buildings around there – it’s fascinating to look at old architecture and see how it reflects the time and age of its creation. I’m enthralled by things like that.

JF: The thing about the United States, which is really an amazing thing to me, is how quick we are to throw everything in the garbage can and start over. Part of that is because we are a throwaway society. We throw everything away – our paper plates, our disposable diapers, and our buildings. When you go to Europe and you see cities that have districts and neighborhoods that are 1200 years old in some cases, there’s economic factors of “why” and many times its because they didn’t have any money to tear anything down. They just had to patch it up and keep using it for century after century after century. A bad economy really is the greatest preservation movement of them all.

But with regards to public policy, you can not rely on a bad economy to do your work for you. You have to have public policy in place, so that when you do have a series of boom and bust cycles like we’ve had in the United States since our founding, you have to make sure that you are not drunk with demolition frenzy. And we did – we became drunk with demolition frenzy over the last 10 years and it’s just now coming back down. The economy and the market is now coming back to what a real normal market is.

So we’re starting to see a little bit of a wane in the amount of buildings that are being thrown in the landfill. And you have to couple in a new awareness of the Green technology movement. And we’ve been touting for years that the greenest architecture is the historic building that you rehab. Because when you’re not throwing away bricks, and when you’re not throwing away hundred-year-old, old growth forest wood that was cultivated from a 300-year-old tree, that’s the best kind of sustainability that you can have.

We’re trying to get the message out there that not destroying a building is green unto itself. And that we should be rewarding people for rehabbing rather than tearing down and starting over.

C: Your group is really at the forefront of the movement to save Grant Park. After the eternal meeting last Thursday, do you see any progress? Did it leave you feeling hopeful or is it like running into a brick wall?

JF: I think that the huge turnout – and the fact that so many people stayed, I don’t think we even got out of there til’ 10:30 at night… The fact that so many people came and showed up, signed up to speak, and then stayed hour after hour after hour after hour, showed me that we have a citizenry that has had it with the lack of planning, the lack of respect for the public good, and the lack of respect for democracy in this city! People are tired and they’re sick of it, and they’re finally starting to take action, and I think that’s what we saw on Thursday night.

C: You’re almost literally facing down the mayor – is that ever intimidating?

JF: No. No. Because he works for us. No, it’s not imtimidating at all. In fact, the only one who should be intimidated is him, because he’s got the most to lose on this. The thing is that we live in a democracy. And if you are afraid, or you feel intimidated because you’re exercising your 1st Amendment rights? Then you don’t live in a democracy, you live in a tyranny. And anyone who ever feels afraid to exercise their First Amendment right, to speak out and to challenge their elected officials, whose tax dollars pay the salary of Mayor Daley, and they feel afraid to speak out? They’d better rethink whether or not they really live in a democracy or not.

C: Why do you think the mayor is so dead-set on this plan to move the Children’s Museum?

JF:
Follow the money. It’s all about money. And the only thing that anything has ever been about has been money. So follow the money. And you can start by wondering why Jennifer Farrington keeps repeating those four criteria – my God, I wish someone would get her some new talking points. I have a feeling they gave her a notecard with four talking points, and the poor woman has got these tired old four talking points and I wish someone would write her a new script and make up some new lies for her to say.

Because we’re tired of hearing them. We’re tired of hearing about how important covered parking is when they keep talking about… Okay, look. The Grant Park garage was leased – the Mayor just leased it to somebody. And the way that lease has to remain valid is that parking garage has to be filled with cars all the time, or else why would anyone want to lease it? So how do you fill an empty parking garage with cars? You build a children’s museum so people park in it, so it’s filled all the time.

C: As someone on the other side of the argument, can you begrudgingly see any benefit whatsoever to moving the museum?

navypier052208.jpgJF: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In fact, I think the Children’s Museum has more to lose, because one of the reasons the Children’s Museum is so successful is because it is on a pier that is the largest tourist attraction in the state! Consequently, you’ve got a captive audience with water on three sides, who are trapped on Navy Pier! Of course there’s gonna be people who would not otherwise go to the Children’s Museum simply because they’re already there.

They’ve paid to park their car, they’ve got the Ferris Wheel, they’ve got the winter garden, they’ve got the food court, why wouldn’t they go to the Children’s Museum? So now they’re going to isolate it, and stick it underground, and they think the attendance is going to go up? How do they figure?

C: Has anyone floated any ideas on what would go in to that space?

JF: Again – follow the money. What could possibly go in that space? Let me throw something out – how about, hm, casino gambling?

C: Well, from the Mayors perspective, gambling is certainly far more profitable than puppets and waterflow exhibits.

JF: Right, and the thing is, just stick it underground, who cares? No, it’s to vacate the pier to get casino gambling out there. And a children’s museum and casino gambling do not go together. Well, maybe you dump your kids at the children’s museum while you gamble away your paycheck – that would be convenient.

C: Does anyone ever ask you why you want to save these old warehouses and old tenement buildings? Like, "Why do you care?"

JF: First of all, these old warehouses are better built than anything that’s being built today, and they’re more beautiful than anything that’s being built today. And they’re useful buildings. They’re made out of brick and concrete, and they have high ceilings, and some of them are made out of loft timbers, and for the most part Chicago’s been doing a pretty good job with loft conversions. And it is a challenge when you’ve got 700,000 feet of warehouse space – what do you do with it, how do you heat it, how do you cool it, how could you possibly put condominiums in it. There’s no question that these great warehouses are a challenge to rehab.

But we live in a world-class city filled with really smart world-class people who can do better than that. In other words, we can do better than demolition. Third-class cities demolish their buildings. Second class cities demolish their buildings and build garbage. World cities don’t destroy their greatness. They don’t destroy their urban fabric. And we have to do better. We have to be more creative. We have to find more innovative ways to save these buildings. Because it’s really what gives us our soul. A city without great architecture is a city without a soul. And the reason we do what we do and the reason that we fight so hard for what we are doing is because we believe that Chicago does have a heart, and a soul, and part of that heart and part of that soul is our historic buildings.

Photos courtesy of Landmarks.org, MissTracyJo.com, UptownTheater.com, and Chicago Traveler.