Saturday, February 09, 2008

Watching the watch lists

Like many things on this blog, this won't be the persuasive, informed essay I'd like it to be, but a few personal notes about something I care about. (I'm saving up my energy for the post about a Certain Holiday coming up next week, but that post won't be too personal except for some of my history with going to Dating for Nerds, and if you're free Tuesday the 12th, you should join me at their next big event [a party at The Spot, in Uptown, for all orientations and relationship statuses.]) But I went to the press conference recently to announce Preservation Chicago's Chicago 7 list for 2008. On the way in they asked if I was "press" or not. I said no, but I should have asked for a press packet anyway. I did take notes.

There are five specific buildings on the list (three risk demolition, two risk alteration). I took another look around the American Book Company building near McCormick place last week; it's got a walkway connecting it to a rehabbed, in-use building. I know the two neighborhoods (Norwood Park and Devon Street) listed as endangered; with Devon, they said there are many historic buildings at risk due to poor maintenance and possible development, but made no specific reference to the ones actually lost last year--a huge commercial building that burned down on Thanksgiving 2006 (torn down months later), and the former Nortown theater (which they did cover in their newsletter, at least).

The plan to move the Children's Museum from Navy Pier to Grant Park, and to dramatically alter the Chicago Athletic Association building, are challenged on the watch list for the precedents they would set: the cherished idea of keeping Chicago's lakefront "forever open, clear, and free," and how the Landmarks Ordinance may save only a building's facade, leaving most of the actual building vulnerable. Both these inclusions seem reasonable enough, though I can't help but think the Grant Park controversy has gotten tons of press already; why not give the space to an obscure building? But that's just my selfish wish, ever since I started using these watch lists as shopping lists for urban exploration.

In fact, I went to the similar event held by Landmarks Illinois last fall, announcing their Chicagoland Watch List, shortly before I began exploring abandoned buildings. I just checked the archives for their lists and Preservation Chicago's, and noted I've been in two of PC's (as well as "factories and warehouses;" they often list types of buildings rather than specific ones) and six of LI's (they tend to list more schools and hospitals); there's some overlap between the groups.

People I talk to who know about these things say the lists don't do much, and it seems they're right. It was far too depressing to actually total up what percentage of the buildings listed by both groups have since been demolished, compared to the number saved. The majority are "still threatened," which means they're at least still there to photograph, outside and possibly inside. I feel that's about all I can do; I feel so helpless otherwise.

I first became aware of Preservation Chicago through their many mentions in Chicago Journal (especially the West Town edition). Both editions of this paper/website frequently cover controversies over historic buildings and development. I went on the tours they offered in 2006 and 2007 as part of the amazing Great Places/Great Spaces weekend of free tours. After 2006's, I introduced myself to Preservation Chicago's Jonathan Fine (and talked his ear off). These photos are from the 2007 tour (on a much nicer day). I think everything pictured in this post was discussed on the tour (except the hot dog stand, that's just my obsession). I don't know why they don't offer this tour several times throughout the year as a fundraiser; it was very popular.

I've gone to other preservation lectures when I can. Of course, I've read Lost Chicago. I'm inspired by Unexpected Chicagoland and Richard Nickel’s Chicago, and I finally got around to reading the Richard Nickel biography They All Fall Down and was unexpectedly moved by it. Of course I knew it was about the destruction of great architecture, especially in Chicago, and his tragic death, but I didn't expect it to hit me so hard. I guess it just left me feeling so...half-assed about the photography and writing I'm doing, wanting to make much more of a real effort.

I joined Preservation Chicago at the end of 2006, and got my friend Mike a membership as a gift, too. (He tends to bring up Richard Nickel at every possible occasion when I'm talking about my abandoned/demolished building adventures...he's not my only friend who does!) I sent along an old photo I'd taken of the Wirt Dexter building (early Sullivan on S. Wabash that burned down in 2006; I'd attended Columbia, across the street, for years without knowing that was a Sullivan building. But then, I didn't actually get into architecture until after my many years there) and a rambling note. I don't know if I used my street address or my now-shuttered PO Box, but I know I didn't get their (very nice quarterly) newsletter in the mail; I didn't even know they had one until I found them on the shelf at Mercury Cafe in West Town.

I feel I should join both these preservation groups because I support their goals, but I'm so frustrated at how little opportunity there seems to be for interaction, for publicizing other buildings that deserve attention, for getting updates on the status of buildings they've put on the lists. All or part of several of the buildings Landmarks Illinois has listed (Washburne and Westinghouse schools; Cook County Hospital) have been getting demolished in the months since I've started really seriously trying to photograph threatened buildings (including the insides, of course), but there's little to indicate this on their website. As far as I know, I broke the story of Westinghouse's demolition online, which I don't mean to say in a bragging way, but in a "why me?" way. Why not the group that put that school on their list in three separate years?

It'd require so little cost and staff time to have interactive blogs, social network pages, and Flickr groups where people could talk about/post photos of what's threatened in their neighborhoods, or anywhere else, and alert others once demolition has started. Any time I see "For Sale" or scaffolds or fencing, I know something's happening, and I get photos. Obviously the groups can't fight to save every building, and not everything I photograph may be worth saving, but I have to document what's disappearing.

It's my great shame of my years in Chicago that I didn't document the unbelievable transformation of the Division Street part of West Town, or Maxwell Street (at least many people documented the latter). And that I let so many "hmm, that's an interesting building, wonder what's happening to it?" buildings disappear. I can't believe how many times I've seen a vacant lot, one on a street that I've passed dozens or hundreds of times, and been unable to recall what that building was. They aren't all irreplaceable losses, and there are even a few old buildings I could admit are eyesores (though they rarely started out that way), but I hate this feeling of forgetting. My tiny stand against this is a Flickr set I started months ago, 1001 Buildings to See Before They Die. Many are gone since I posted them there.

The "...Squander" show that just opened at the Chicago Architecture Foundation looks pretty good, though I didn't get the best look at it; happily, there was a huge turnout Thursday night. I couldn't resist a pose next to Richard Nickel (and I wasn't the only one); this is by a new Flickr friend. Noah stopped by; you should check out his blog post on the Preservation Chicago list. And so did the aforementioned Mike (who's somewhat responsible for me becoming a CAF volunteer back in 2006).


Eric Allix Rogers said...

I want to go see that exhibit at CAF, too. I've never actually been to the ArchiCenter. I ought to try to do that sometime, since the weather is too awful to brave doing anything much outside lately. I've not read all the books about Nickel, but I too found him to be a moving figure for me (who also makes the things I do feel inadequate).

Is the building pictured above with the rounded corner, with the McDonald's sign on it (I think it's on State Street) of any particular significance? Until I saw this picture, I always thought it was just hideously ugly, but now I'm having doubts.

Katherine said...

Well, this show will be up until it gets warm (maybe) and the permanent exhibit is pretty cool (I volunteer in that space every other Mon. morning).

That building IS "hideously ugly" except for the rounded part, in my opinion. I really like Art Moderne and I don't think there are many examples in the Loop. That whole bunch of buildings is government-owned; INS/ICE moved out, and Pres. Chicago said there were plans for demolition. Garrett's would be kicked out. And it'd be maybe the only McDonald's I'd be sad to see torn down (besides the retro one in Des Plaines)!

Eric Allix Rogers said...

Perhaps it's just the sunlight in the picture you posted, but it actually looked a lot better as a whole building there than I thought. Probably just an illusion. I'd only be sad to see it go if they replaced it with something crappy (about a 50% chance on such a prominent street, I'd guess).

Is this picture of the Rosenwald Apartments, and have you tried to get in there? I haven't tried, but I go past it on the bus all the time now, and I really want to go in there eventually. It looks pretty secure on the 47th Street side, though.

Katherine said...

Yes, that's Rosenwald...anything else I could say about it I'd rather say in email--I didn't find yours so you can contact me at hoydenish, at hardly look at that account but I'll try to now!