"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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?