Sunday, April 13, 2008

Who are the Real Preservationists?

posted by Peter Rossi

"Preservation" is a much used and much abused term. To my way of thinking, preservation of man-made objects such as buildings or engineering structures requires repair and/or restoration. One can preserve a river or forest simply by leaving it alone, but to abandon a man-made structure is not to preserve it.

The Faux Preservationists

Hyde Park is home to self-anointed "preservationists" who believe that it is only necessary to stop the bulldozers. After spooking local officials into halting change, these folks walk away to leave the structures abandoned and decaying. Examples of this breed include members of the preservation committees of the Hyde Park Historical Society and the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference.

Here are some prime examples of what these folks have "achieved."

Doctor's Hospital is an eyesore created by those who don't have any criteria as to constitutes a worthwhile building and who lack the perseverance and wherewithal to preserve the structure by finding another use for it.

Abandoned Doctor's Hospital

Shuttered Out Patient Entrance

Over several years, a major effort was made by a small group, the "Community Task Force," to stop all proposals for fixing the Point and restoring the Caldwell Landscaping. They boast of having raised more than $90,000 but have nothing to show for it.

Crumbling South Side of Point (photo by Beth Fama)

Local "preservationists" lobbied for the "preservation" of St. Stephens Church on Blackstone near 57th. They succeeded (with some help from an incompetent developer and intrusive neighbors) in creating another abandoned eyesore. Once a month or so, the dome gets daubed with a new coat of graffiti.

New Graffiti on St. Stephens

The First Unitarian Church of Hyde Park at 57th and University faced the problem of preserving the spire extending above its Gothic tower. Strapped for funds, the church was forced to tear it down which was cheaper than repairing it. Less than one half of the $90,000 raised to keep the Point from being fixed could have preserved a Hyde Park landmark.

Where's My Hat? Missing Spire on First Unitarian

The Accidental Preservationist

Hyde Park is home to one of the largest collection of theological seminaries in the nation. Seminary training is not a growth industry and many seminaries are struggling to maintain their historic quarters. Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) is one such institution. In 2006, a storm blew off limestone blocks from atop its beautiful brick and limestone tower. As luck would have it, this afforded the strapped institution the opportunity to fix their tower, thanks, in part, to an obliging insurance company.

CTS Tower Renovations

The Real Preservationist

The real preservationists in Hyde Park cannot be found in the empty street car station on Lake Park Avenue or in the back rooms of Cosimo's restaurant. The real preservationists are ensconced in the administration building at the University of Chicago.

We may all be aware of the major building program under way at the U, but few know about the huge set of preservation projects.

I provide a partial listing and some illustrations.

Rockefeller Chapel is undergoing a $21 million restoration. This sum does not include the new organ and restoration of the carillion.

Rockefeller Chapel Restoration

One of the oldest and most beautiful buildings at U of C is Ida Noyes Hall. The roof and tudor-like wooden details of this building had fallen into severe disrepair. The university is in the midst of a major effort to restore the building facade and roof.

Ida Noyes Roofing Restoration Detail

Construction of the Caesar Pelli-designed Ratner athletic center rendered the women's swimming pool at Ida Noyes obsolete. The Graduate School of Business just completed at $2.5 million reworking of this space to a study center. Preservation of buildings requires making changes in the use of the buildings without changing their character.

GSB Study Space in Old Ida Noyes Women's Swimming Pool

NIMBYs in our neighborhood frequently accuse the U of having designs on the old houses it owns along Woodlawn Avenue. Some would like to declare this an historical corridor, further frustrating any attempt to preserve these buildings.

The University has taken over 5710 S. Woodlawn and put on an addition to house the office of diversity. The NIMBYs would make this sort of change impossible and doom these houses to neglect.

Addition to 5710 S. Woodlawn Ave.

To compete against other top institutions, the Law School needed to upgrade student facilities. The Eero Saarinen Library tower posed a difficult problem - how to renovate in a manner consistent with the needs of the law school and the style of architecture? $25 million later, the Law School has created a gorgeous new space.

Law School Library Staircase

The fountain in front of the school is a distinctive landmark but also a barrier to pedestrians and contributes to a isolated feeling. The School is spending approximately $2 million to create a new zero-depth fountain that will convert into a pedestrian plaza in the winter months. In front of the fountain, a new winter garden is under construction on the Midway. Along with the new dorms at 61st and Ellis, this will go a long way to making a real South campus.

Law School Fountain Repair

This is only a partial list of the projects completed or planned by the University. The Mies van der Rohe designed SSA building will get all new windows in the summer of 2008. A $51 million gut rehab of the Searle (Chemistry) building will retain gothic symmetry on the quads but with a new interior. The University has poured over $27 million into renovations of International House. Burton-Judson is undergoing a multi-year facade and roof restoration at a cost of over $13 million.

Miesian SSA Facade

"You are being unfair, yet again," I can hear the NIMBYs chanting while carefully reading this post. The U of C is a wealthy institution, we can't possibly match the resources of a major university with a 6 billion+ endowment. The only thing we can do is scream "no."

You are wrong. First off, many local NIMBYs have the view that the University's interests are not aligned with the community, particularly on preservation. I think the facts speak otherwise. It is in the University's interest, perhaps more than any other institution in our neighborhood, to preserve their historical buildings and find ways of blending the new with the old.

Secondly, many NIMBYs actively discourage the University's preservation efforts by opposing all change and failing to recognize that there has to be a balance between preservation and change. We must be able to build great buildings, if only to have something that future generations fight to preserve.

Finally, some of our local NIMBYs have shown a remarkable commitment to the political process of opposing change. They are not much for the harder work of raising money and designing new structures to complement the old, though. Is this because they are naive and misguided or because the later is hard work that doesn't put you in the limelight?


Peter Rossi said...

It is probably a bit of hyperbole to say that a river or forest can be preserved by leaving it alone. That is probably only true for an entire eco-system.

But the idea is clear -- most of what we do with rivers and forests is reduce the effects of man's intrusions.

By definition a man-made structure will revert to dust if we don't actively preserve it.

Zig & Lou said...

Since you mentioned that $90,000 and we are tabling worthy causes, how about some love for Corpus Christi Church at 4820 South King? Corpus Christi Church, built by Irish Catholics in 1915, became the third black Catholic parish in Chicago in 1933. In addition to supporting a grammar school beginning in 1945 parishioners sent their children to Corpus Christi HS, housed in the former Sinai Temple at 4622 South King. (In 1962 an all-boys high school, Hales Franciscan opened at 4930 S. Cottage Grove, on the site of the old St. Francis Xavier College and Academy. It is one of the only black all-boys HS in America) The ornate coffered ceiling was restored in 1977 by the parish and is in need of some specific work again. If you have never been inside of Corpus Christi it is a gem in the rough and worth a visit. Incredible German stained glass and a ornate Italian marble alter are highlights.

Tom said...

Great overview of the U of C's preservation projects Peter! I think we all see the construction going on on a daily basis, but forget how much the University is investing in these jobs and what the spectacular end results will be/are. Thanks!

Elizabeth Fama said...

Great photos. You should add some of them to the Flickr site The Beauty of Scaffolds!

ScottM said...

I'm not really buying the argument.

The UofC is really just doing renovation/addition work (albeit on a much larger scale) to build "curb appeal".

Yes there is some "preservation" as they are fixing and improving several significant buildings, but in reality they are far from preservationist in their demolition of a significant patch of 57th while open/un-built space is available only a few blocks to the south.

The UofC is doing what many other developers/owners do to create profit (although, as most of us know, these profits are gauged by faculty attraction and retention, expanded research awards, student gains, and alumni contributions rather than raised rents and real estate values.)

Also this blog really tries beat a dead horse in stating that Doctors was only killed by community activists, but I always understood that one of the reasons that the developer bailed was that they were feeling significant heat from the hotel workers union and that had as much influence on Hairston to drop support for the Marriott as did community input. (Don't forget that Hairston had recently voted against the pro-labor Big Box ordinance so it makes sense she was trying to stay on the organized labor's good side (or at least out of their way) for this fight.)

The argument about St. Stephens Church is much the same as well. It’s the community’s fault for having an idiotic former developer sign away his rights. (Although in your earlier post about St. Stephens you at least mention that the former developer had a history of business "issues".) In this case why not honestly state that the developer couldn't make it work financially because he was an "Class A Moron" and let the market sort it out by having the property go through foreclosure/tax sale/etc. Its much more likely that there will be a “preservationist” outcome if the dollar value of it’s next acquisition falls to zero since its also much more likely to end up in a community group/not-for-profit hands at that price point (and much more likely to receive development / rehabilitation grants after that.)

As for the Point; I’ll leave that argument to the much more informed. But I certainly wouldn’t trust the Chicago Park District for leadership right now and I appreciate the fact that the “Save the Point” rabble have brought the “eyes” of Senator Obama and Representative Jackson to its redevelopment. I’d rather not wake up one morning and find the Point bulldozed and “X’ed in another fait accompli of this administration.

LPB said...

Even if the University isn't undertaking all these "preservation" projects exclusively for the sake of preservation, I applaud its efforts to enhance its properties that do add to the character of Hyde Park. I don't have a problem with the University building curb appeal. Hey, that's far better than simply letting things go to pot. Vacant buildings like St. Stephens and Doctors Hospital are just sitting ducks for vandalism.

Even if Hyde Park has seen its share of marginal developers (something that happens in many neighborhoods), I'd hazard a guess that a vocal NIMBY presence probably doesn't do much to make even legitimate developers feel welcome in Hyde Park. It would be interesting to get some perceptions among developers of what the Hyde Park neighborhood is like.

BTW, I believe that's Eero Saarinen who designed the library at the U of C Law School.

Respectfully, Alumna of Kingswood School Cranbrook

Peter Rossi said...


don't really follow your arguments re St Stephens. I thought I made it clear that this is a joint outcome of a bunch of incompetent actors.

There is no question that the U is spending more than 100 million on preservation projects. If you say these are just to "create curb appeal," you are a true free market theorist. Preserving the old gothic buildings of the U is in the economic interest of the institution if the buildings are worth preserving. There is nothing wrong with acting on the basis of economic motives, is there? The University is wisely investing in its capital. It has also chosen to tear down marginal buildings. There is nothing wrong or mysterious or evil here.

Doctor's Hospital is a complete abortion that is directly at the feet of local NIMBYs. They got a national labor union involved as an excuse for funding and to scare the alderman. There was also incompetence on the part of the U in presenting its case.

Not a single NIMBY has even tried to make a case that DH is architecturally significant!! All a building has to be is old.

Few dispute that a hotel would be a boon to the neighborhood stem the huge amount of business that goes downtown because there are no hotels in HP. The Slumada does not count.

Peter Rossi said...

One more. Even if you can't bring yourself to admit that the U is doing a lot of preservation, I hope you can see my point that "preservation" means more than saying "no"! You have to find funds for repair and alternative uses for the structures (if abandoned)

On the Point, Rep Jackson and Candidate Obama haven't done anything on the Point in the more than one year that they have been invovled in the process. Rep Jackson is notably full of hot air and Obama has bigger fish to fry.

There has been no progress on the Point in 7 years and there are no prospects. The blood is on the hands of these irresponsible people who don't really care about the future of the Point and who would just as soon see it slide into the lake than do something reasonable.

We could have had this whole thing fixed and a beautiful new landscaping job more than 4 years ago!

FIX THE POINT, if you love it.

If you don't care, join the Save the Pointers.

Elizabeth Fama said...

"Class A Moron." I get it, Scottm. Ten points for your hidden cultural reference. ;-)

chicago pop said...

ScottM writes: The UofC is really just doing renovation/addition work (albeit on a much larger scale) to build "curb appeal".

So what? Is preservationism some kind of cult that requires complete disinterest?

I say more power to them. If they practiced the same brand of preservation as the "Save the Point" activists, most University and neighborhood architecture would be crumbling, and they would have presided over the transition of Hyde Park into a slum.

As for the Point; I’ll leave that argument to the much more informed.

Good idea. Because Obama and Jackson are not miracle workers above the laws governing the use of federal funding and engineering standards applying to inland waterways. The Point didn't get to where it is because the Park District proposed a plan and the Point Savers rejected it; the Point Savers rejected a plan developed with community input that obeyed engineering requirements, and would have been a compromise between old and new and would have given us a safe, ADA-accessible, and durable revetment by now.

That was the plan that the Point Savers ditched at a cost of $90K. You can read all about it on at Save the Point.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit it: I think Doctor's Hospital is cool. I like the building. But considering it's sat vacant since the 1990s, it seems nobody wants to or can use it for anything. Same with St. Stephens. I like it, it's an interesting building. But it's a white elephant that nobody has any use for.

I don't enjoy seeing buildings I like sit derelict for years to eventually be razed. However, I'm MUCH more against the current "trendy" practice of preserving the facade of a building and creating a new structure around that facade. All this does is create a hideous gray mishmash of varying styles (kind of like the Washington Library, YUCK). I'm mentioning this because I seem to recall various calls from various people to preserve the doctor's hospital facade and then build new behind it.

If it comes to that, it's always better to demolish the whole building. Personally, I'd rather see a building I like removed completely than turned into a bastardized freakshow of "design by committee".

Peter Rossi said...

The idea that St. Stephens will end up in the hands of a community group and that this group will be able to raise funds to "renovate it" is laughable.

Convert it or renovate it to what? It is just a huge dome with air in it. How can that be converted to anything useful? Basketball arena for midgets?

I dont' see any evidence that any community group has ever done a good job with any project in HP. Can you name one involving more than 1 million in costs?

Peter Rossi said...

I'll answer myself- the HP Art Center.

However, this group received a "free" building from, guess who, that evil institution, the Univesrity of Chicago

chicago pop said...

The idea that St. Stephens will end up in the hands of a community group and that this group will be able to raise funds to "renovate it" is laughable.

St. Stephens is collapsing by the minute. We have illustrations of the decay here, and these photos are 5 years old. It would take millions to do anything with this structure. The only thing a community group could afford to do with this property is to demolish it.

Richard Gill said...

In the case of both St. Stephens and Doctors Hospital, the "preservationists" don't give a damn about preservation. They simply want to dictate what gets built on the site, and failing that, they'd rather see the property rot. What they really want next door to their homes is: nothing. A semi-private block.
Through the red herring of preservation, they have managed, so far, to make construction non-viable. In these cases, "preservation" is just a cynical tactic, nothing more.

ScottM said...

The funny thing about both St. Stephens and Doctors is that if there were real free market drivers behind each project then something would have been done with both.

If there was truly any significant interest in developing the Doctors Hospital site then someone frankly more capable then White (who was mostly out of the hotel business by then) would have picked up the ball, but the University WAS the "coercive" force behind the hotel plan. There simply has not been a significant "market" force to move the project forward. (Moreover hotel construction in Chicago is the only building "boom" still in effect which should make the Doctors site even more attractive.)

Same with St. Stephens, yes they had bad zoning as a coercive force, but if there was truly a market interest in the site someone who was capable of constructing or renovating something significant in its place would have been the initial purchaser, not someone who was mired in their in-experience (& don't forget the recent zoning change/aldermanic contribution series that the Trib exposed as one of the most “free market” forces that exists in Chicago.)

Of course having both Doctor's and St. Stephens sit decaying is painful and stupid, but in either case a dominate market force has not come to the fore. (Actually the UofC, given its quasi-governmental role, seems to be the most coercive force in the neighborhood so I don't understand how you can support free market forces and the UofC both so unconditionally but...)

Obviously the other part of my argument is being ignored for sake of consistency but I'm certainly glad that the University is rehabbing the Saarinen's Law Library, Mies' SAA building, etc. (I'm married to an Architectural Professor so I don't have a choice anymore about knowing and appreciating these things.) However, they've certainly not been Preservationist in their action for many of their non-core buildings such as Shoreland, the Harper theater complex, the Piccadilly Theater and Hotel, etc. Are they getting better, probably but it’s more popular now. The other standards test for preservation is to provide outreach and support and the UofC certainly has not provided any community facing leadership for preservation so far.

Now if you want to focus on all the great architectural preservation efforts of individuals and families in Hyde Park without having to cry NIMBY that would be a much more interesting and believable story.

FYI-I’m certainly no UofC hater either. I really value the UofC and all that it offers and even donate to U through the Library Society annually. (I’m also writing this staring out of my living room window at the Fieldhouse so I have a close physical and financial relationship with the University and appreciate the fact that its not a pile of decaying limestone blocks.)

PS-Don't forget Black Pearl and Muntu Dance Theatre as not-for-profits that have been able to generate significant contributions to build/renovate structures in the 5-15 million dollar range in the last few years.

Peter Rossi said...


I think you got it exactly right. There is little market value for St Stephens/DH is some restored state. But do not forget that BOTH require zoning changes which are at the personal whim of our Alderman. What the NIMBYs exploit so well is that the can block anything simply by getting the Alderman to balk, but this is irresponsible as it simply leaves the
buildings abandoned without a use.

You seem to know an awful lot about the hotel industry; perhaps, you could find a hotel/developer to build a new hotel there.

If you can't find an economic use for a building (some new use or reuse), then, if you want to preserve it, you have to raise funds for the restoration and continued maintenance. This will make the site more of a museum. I don't think anyone in HP would like to see the DH as a museum to mediocre institutional architecture so you've got to find some use for it!

chicago pop said...

I still think St. Stephens would make a awesome beer hall/disco.

Rosemary said...

Chicago Pop,
You would not say that if you lived on Blackstone. Late night police stopping gatherings behind and in the church will not be stopped by the flimsy chainlink fence on the side of the building. At the risk of repetiation, the garbage all over the place, the new graffiti for all to view, the broken windows and I'm sure, LOTS of rodents inside. St Stephens cannot come down soon enough for me.

chicago pop said...


Can we tear it down and then put in a beer garden?

I'd be willing to bet a 4th mortgage on our house that no community group will ever want or be able to do anything with that collapsing shell.

I predict that the building will be condemned by the City, and demolished. Then we'll have a huge vacant lot in the middle of the Golden Rectangle that every visitor to the neighborhood won't be able to miss. Awesome!

Stephen said...

I agree that promoting preservation without a plan for how the structure can be used is not particularly productive. Community input should be important, but the real say has to come from those with plans and resources to actually do something.

However, DH COULD be used and preserved, it would just take a creative mindset (I'm not saying it should be reused, only that it could). It is certainly environmentally preferable to reuse the structure, at least with respect to the building materials. St. Stephen's is in all probability a lost cause (although I have many pie-in-the-sky ideas of what could be cool; but, I have no money).

What has happened to the Point is another story. One day someone is going to get seriously hurt swimming off of, or walking around the crumbling limestone. By now, it could have been a beautiful place for people to enjoy, swim, and sit (not just those who don't care that it's dangerous). To say that Barack Obama or Jesse Jackson really care is laughable. I wish there were a Point my son could enjoy. Instead we'll be swimming at 57th St. Beach.

Lastly, I wish people would learn more about what prompted the bulldozed Xs at Meigs Field. The land had reverted to the Park District years earlier, and those operating the airport were essentially squaters. The city spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting frivilous lawsuits trying to take back what belonged to the city (when leases are up, you don't have to renew).

ScottM said...


Elizabeth Fama said...


Peter blows a gasket when I say it, but Doctors Hospital could be renovated into some nice condominiums. There's a lot of property behind it that would make a pretty garden and play space, too. I imagine there are a lot of spaces inside that would lend themselves to becoming common areas (pool room, screening room, exercise area, party room...).

I personally preferred the hotel idea, though. Even when the University remodels the Quadrangle Club in the next couple of years, there will be at most 17 sleeping rooms. Not enough to host the parents of incoming first years!

bornatreese said...

The U of C would not made the investment in repair to I House without pressure from community activists. Furthermore, while the U of C is preserving its prominent campus buildings, it has eaten up the housing (nice houses, even) in the southwest quadrant of Hyde Park. It's all hospital and science buildings now.

Stephen said...


Yes, the six years of litigation and PR was at the tax-payers expense. It was also to allow them to stay on the sight, even though the lease had expired and the land had reverted to the Chicago Park District.

My understanding is this deal was not "inked" as the article implies. It was contingent on the legislature endorsing O'Hare expansion and the other airport mentioned. That never came to fruition, and the agreement was not finalized. After six+ years of fighting the battle, Daley decided to close the airport and prevent another lawsuit being filed (it was filed anyway - the city won again).

Just as a disclaimer, I am the Volunteer Stewart for Northerly Island, and am clearly biased towards public parkland as opposed to private airports for the rich and famous (mostly).

ScottM said...

Yes the deal was never passed at the federal level, but it was still being considered when Daley pushed the midnight demolition without warning (which cost us taxpayers many additional thousands in fines and penalties from the FAA.)

I also am not trying to suggest Northerly Island isn't better than Meigs because it is, what I was and am more concerned with is Daley pushing a non-solution through for the Point reconstruction since he's clearly in his Emporer Richard phase.

chicago pop said...

...what I was and am more concerned with is Daley pushing a non-solution through for the Point reconstruction...

What's the "non-solution"? There is a solution. We know what it is. The waste of money is in bumping this thing into Congressional Committee where more taxpayer money will be used to determine the obvious, which is that you need steel reinforced concrete to withstand lakeshore weathering and provide adequate ADA access. That plan was approved by the relevant legal authorities.

The costs that were incurred by Daley's destruction of the Meigs runways could easily be viewed as the present value of the 25 years of operation that the airport thought it would get from the government. Sort of like how the University bought out the Co-Op to get rid of it.

The Meigs analogy pulls the rug out from under Daley's "midnight bulldozer runs" as an activist's paranoid excuse for further obstruction at The Point. Or, it suggests what you might get if you toss away perfectly reasonable compromises and make maximalist demands. I might add that in principle it's little different from what Hairston just tried to do with the bus stop move, which was used every lever in her tool kit to flex her muscle.

In the case of The Point (which has been in limbo for 7 years, as opposed to 6 -- it's a nice symmetry) I think at this "point", a similar action from the City in the public interest would be entirely justified. There is a plan that was hammered out by a community group. It meets all sorts of structural and legal requirements for safety, durability, reuse, etc. It just needs to be executed.

So maybe in the Scales of Justice, we can give neighborhood activism credit for keeping the University from doing stupid stuff with its own property and thereby negatively impinging on the neighborhood. Bravo.

But with The Point, neighborhood activists kept a public good from being maintained and improved to better serve the public, perhaps a public far larger than would ever be effected by either aforementioned building, and hail this as the Mother of all Victories. That is the real "non solution."

Zig & Lou said...

The "Golden Rectangle Beer and Apfelwein Garden". I'm in.

chicago pop said...

The "Golden Rectangle Beer and Apfelwein Garden"

Z&L, given your track record, you may be just the actor to make it happen. After Z&L is up and running, that is... (unless Jerry Kleiner beats you to it.)

Elizabeth Fama said...

C-Pop you are an awesome Point spokesperson!

Peter Rossi said...

scottm may be interested to know that Daley has been quoted as saying he "doesn't care that if the Point slides back into the lake" from neglect.

You may hate Daley because of Meigs (a far more outrageous affair is the Billion dollar millenium park) but this doesn't apply to the Point.

The City has washed their hands of the Point after spending literally 100s of thousands explaining to these fools that you can't just reproduce the old structure.

Daley himself lobbied congress for more than 150 million so that the original Army Corps plna (dump mounds of gravel along the shoreline) wouldn't be built.

Richard Gill said...

Here is my understanding of the situation re St. Stephens: To make the site more attractive to development, it was re-zoned from R5 to R6, permitting a taller structure. At the same time, a covenant was attached to the property giving a few adjacent property owners virtual veto power over any new development proposal. The covenant was negotiated, and clearly it was a bad idea. I understand that there are also issues with the developer and that the property title is getting moved around. It is a real muddle, and the Alderman may be stymied because of the covenant.

Zig & Lou said...

A little off topic, but... the Cottage Grove TIF meeting is tonight at 6:30PM at the King Center on Cottage ( SW corner of 43rd & Cottage Grove). Should be an interesting meeting, discussion of development and a new SSA that is being considered for the area.

chicago pop said...

To Z&L re: the Cottage Grove TIF, Z&L if you wind up going and are interested in jotting some notes, I'd be happy to post them here. I think lots of folks would be interested and we've often wanted to know more first-hand about what's going on in that district.