Wednesday, December 10, 2008

NIMBY's Corner: Morsbach Keeps Apologizing; Spicer Makes Up More Stuff

posted by chicago pop

If anyone wonders why the same names keep popping up again and again on this blog, there's a simple reason: the same few names keep out-gassing in the Herald like crabby spouses, or mucking around elsewhere leaving monkey wrenches conspicuously dangling about.

It's sort of like Blagojevich: we didn't ask for his behavior, but he just keeps doing crazy stuff and getting media attention for it.

So, to come back to our long-time HPP favorite, the Janus-faced Hans Morsbach, defender of the neighborhood and of high principles.

If ever there has been reason to quote Shakespeare on the blog, it is with reference to his latest letter on the Doctors Hospital vote -- in which he defends -- one more time -- his position. Note to Hans: me thinks thou dost protest too much.

Yes, it's been over a month, and Hans is still apologizing for the dumb decision he encouraged his neighbors to take and that most of the rest of the neighborhood is ticked off about. If it really had been the right thing to do, I don't think we would have had this blizzard of propaganda in the aftermath.

Taking the best interests of the neighborhood to heart, Morsbach issues this rejoinder to White Lodging's Bruce White:

I did not know of the extent of your philanthropic intentions and how they affect me. Do you
suggest that knowing that the University Medical Center receives a large donation will make a bigger impact on my life than looking every day at an ugly building, or give you license to tear down a landmark? ... Do you think that when your employees park on Harper Avenue that I think that is the cost of progress?

[Emphasis on personal pronouns added by the editor.]

So Hans is clearly not concerned about himself, and this comes through, as it also came through the referendum.

To satisfy the literary critics among us, I'll point out that it's unclear what "ugly building" Morsbach is referring to, as the Doctors Hospital is certainly no beauty, something which Morsbach himself confessed in an earlier letter in the summer of 2007. ("I have never paid much attention to the architectural merit of the hospital..." Herald LTE, July 18, 2007).

And of course, Doctors Hospital does not have landmark status, as Morsbach claims. But when you're out-gassing to the Herald, little details like that tend to escape out the blowhole.

On the note of factual inaccuracy, especially with regard to claims of things not falling apart and it just generally being OK that entropy and the second law of thermodynamics have become the governing principles of Hyde Park development, Mr. Jack Spicer makes the claim in today's Herald that the troubled Herald Building on 53rd and Harper is "a very solid building and in very good condition." ("HPHS seeks landmark status for 53rd and Harper," Kate Hawley, Herald, Wednesday December 10, 2008).

Now, the Herald Building that fronts 53rd has been vacant since spring of 2008, but even before that we have it from a variety of sources that it was falling apart.

For example, we learn from the October 11, 2006 Herald, that the company once interested in renovating the Harper Theater ran up against the problem of the building's advanced deterioration and the costs that fixing it would have entailed.

The building and its interior also need extensive repair and renovation," [the Herald told us, going on to quote the local art house theater chain Classic Cinemas (owner of the Tivoli in Downers Grove)], "Typically when you have an existing shell, a rough number [for renovation] is about $1 million per screen." ... In 2002, renovation cost estimates for the 1,200-seat theater building and its attachments were approximately $10 million.

Repairing the Harper Theater, in 2002, would have cost about 10x more than usual for a theater of its vintage. That seems like a decent index of the structure's dilapidation.

The article continues with a quote from Irene Sherr: "The theater now has deteriorated even further. They [Classic Cinemas] felt it was in terrible shape then and basically you had to rebuild the theater behind keeping the facade."

These statements from 2006 seem to corroborate the University's appraisal in this week's Herald, that "the building is in rough shape -- so bad it may not last another winter. In recent weeks, it has been surrounded with scaffolding, a measure to protect pedestrians from falling debris."

Makes sense. So what is Spicer's position on the scaffolding protecting pedestrians?

From the Herald, again: "He ... said the university doesn't have a permit for the sidewalk scaffolding."

Apart from this curious aversion to public safety measures, that's the second time Spicer is wrong, in one article. Kate Hawley actually checks this fact (bravo!), and tells us that a "valid permit is on file through February 15."

Perhaps the Hyde Park Historical Society, instead of scoffing at scaffolding, should ask its members to take time off work in order to hand out hard hats to all passers by?

(Fine Photograph of Herald Building on 53rd, with Large Brick Mass of Harper Theater Looming In Background, and Deteriorating Antiballistic Radar Platform Above. Credit: Shahzad Ahsan, Chicago Maroon)


GF said...

Obviously Spicer needed to find something to obstruct while he waits for the Point project to heat up again. Luckily for him, there's an old vacant building available. And even better, it's owned by the University.

I keep wondering this: if Hans Morsbach is so worried about being able to park on Harper, why doesn't he petition to have it made into residential zoned parking? Surely a man of his means can afford the extra $25 a year.

Anonymous said...

I guarantee that if a brick fell out of the crumbling Herald building and clobbered someone in the head, Spicer would be the first person to write a nasty letter to the Editor, calling for the University's head for not maintaining their property and caring about public safety.

David Farley said...

I might be dense, but what's the connection with Gavin Newsom?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Jedi Mind tricks:

"The physical condition of the limestone revetment at the Point hasn't changed much in decades, and the community continues to swim safely at the Point as it has for decades." -- Jack Spicer, Hyde Park Herald, Sept. 3, 2008.

These aren't the droids you're looking for.

Move along.

chicago pop said...

...what's the connection with Gavin Newsom?

None whatsoever. Total red herring brain fart. Please see new illustration, more in keeping with the traditional format of NIMBY's Corner.

chicago pop said...

Someone a while back wrote a LTE praising the appearance of the Herald building, emphasizing the beauty of the "lozenges" near the top of the facade. This caused me to investigate the term "lozenge" referring to elements of architectural design, whereupon I discovered that it has longstanding application in the field of heraldry, beside other jewels such as fusils, mascles, rustres, escutcheons and -- my all time favorite (and certainly beloved by all Egyptologists) -- cartouches.

I don't mind the Herald building, really, although I find it rather dark and gloomy. But I do love the lozenges.

Peter Rossi said...

It does appear that Morebucks has a bit of a guilt conscience.

too bad his confederates don't give a damn about the neighborhood

WoodLawn Jack said...

Why is Hans Morsbach not complaining about all the people parking on Kimbark and Kenwood when they go to those restaurants on 57th. Oh, wait, never mind.

Woodlawn got zoned parking--all it takes is a study of some sort showing more than 45% of the vehicles aren't resident's vehicles. I do find Daddy Morsbach whining about the potential of employees parking on his hallowed street funny. With 150 to 200 employees, the majority in non-managerial positions, I'd think many of the employees might be local residents who aren't quite as moneyed as Daddy Morsbach or Moe Spicer. So unless they hi-jack the bus they're riding or throw their shoes on his lawn I don't think Hans had much to worry about.

Now we just need a letter from the final stooge, Greg Lane, to complete the three some.

I'm still dreaming of a BestBuy at the Doctors Hospital site--155,000 square feet is just about the right size.

Elizabeth Fama said...

I didn't think Hans was apologizing, or had a guilty conscience in that letter. It started out seeming to say, "Well, we didn't know about your philanthropic motives," but turned quickly to, "What did you expect would happen, when you weren't transparent with us?"

BWChicago said...

1) Just because a structure isn't a designated, protected landmark does not mean it's not a landmark

2) Landmarks are not based solely on aesthetic quality, but also social significance, historical significance, and so forth.

3) A building's condition is not a factor in whether it is a landmark; it's more an issue of how much historic integrity it has.

4) The articles you refer to refer to the condition of the THEATER, not the Herald building. The two are effectively separate structures.

5) Classic Cinemas was referring to the costs of building out new screens in an existing building. The $10 million figure appears to refer to restoration of the entire building - though I can't say for sure since I can't see the whole article. That's apples to oranges. And for what it's worth, $10 million is about normal for a theater of that size and age. For comparison, the smaller Biograph theater was also a landmark, and also was gutted, and cost $11 million. That's a fair comparison.

6) Landmarking generally doesn't cover interiors, and certainly wouldn't in this case; there would be nothing stopping them from rebuilding the interior completely.

chicago pop said...

Morsbach is apologizing. In the sense of apologetics, or apologia pro sua vita. If you look at this letter in the context of the several others that have been written over the last month, it's clear he's writing from a defensive position in the attempt to justify his actions.

If there were no doubt or guilty conscience involved, why would so much effort be expended to convince people after the fact?

chicago pop said...

1) If a structure is a landmark without being designated a landmark, then every structure is a possible landmark, including my garage. Which seems slippery, so I can see why we need some very clear criteria, although in the case of Drs H, although from this comment it appears that

2) aesthetics is not among them. I'm all for hearing a case for the historical or so ial significance of anything, though with regard to Drs Hospital and the Harper buildings this case has not extended beyond date of construction (the buildings are old) and name of the architect or firm (entity that may or may not have produced something really important somewhere else).

3) Historical integrity is important, which in the case of Drs Hospital would have to weigh a history of institutional ra is and corruption. Condition of a building may not factor into landmark status, but is does factor into public safety issues and decisions to consider demolition.

4) The Herald article discusses both buildings, although it is confusing what's what in the narrative. It's clear from earlier articles that the theater is rotten; the fact that scaffolding now surrounds the Herald Building suggests it's not well either.

5&6) Whatever the cost to Classic Cinemas as of 2002, it was too much for them, partly because of co straints on layout such as parking, lobby size etc, which get beyond the issue of preservation and touch the economics of movie theater in general, which are not favorable there and is the reason the theater idea has been abandoned by the building's owner.

BWChicago said...

All that means is that your garage is historic, which doesn't mean anything on its own. Doctors and the Harper are no Stunning Works of Architectural Genius, but they are well-designed and contribute to their surroundings in a way new construction almost certainly wouldn't. There's a good reason they're both Orange-rated in the Historic Resources surveys. Hyde Park deserves better than a cookie cutter Mariott. Doctors is a well-detailed, well-proportioned, attractive building. I agree it does not look so hot now, but without the dumb portico and with some less crappy windows it would look good. I would side with those who advocate keeping the front of the hospital and building whatever high-rise behind.) The Harper/Herald is also an attractive building; as for social history, it was the first big theater in the area, and in the 60s also helped foster the Joffrey Ballet and Second City.

Historical integrity has to do with how the building has been altered, not the desirability of what happened there. History is history, whether or not the past is ugly. In other words, a building can be falling apart and still have integrity, but if it's been changed beyond recognition or repair, it definitely doesn't. As for the theater rotting, I don't know about that; the theater has been remodeled so many times nobody seems to know what, if anything, of the original theater is still covered up; if we assume none of the interior is usable, it's a question of if it's structurally sound and has a repairable roof and walls, which I would guess it probably does if it was still running 6 years ago. I've only heard it was beyond repair from University spokespeople, who have an interest in seeing it gone. Regardless, it would be no great loss to build something behind the front wall of the theater, and the proposal to totally replace the theater was ok, too.

The scaffolding is probably there because of the Chicago law that requires periodic inspection of terra cotta buildings, rather than any particular crumbling hazard. It's likely that the university does not want to pay for this if they're looking at demolition and scaffolding is cheaper.

As for Classic Cinemas, there were other factors involved.

I don't have any personal stake in any of this, and none of what I'm saying speaks to the motives of the people who are waging these battles. I'm not that convinced all of them are that interested in preservation. I do think preservation-oriented renovation of these structures, or at least parts of them, would nonetheless be good for Hyde Park.

chicago pop said...

If the local case for preservation of anything in Hyde Park was made with even half the intelligence of what I've just read from GWChicago, a lot more might get done down here. The historical facts pertaining to the Harper Theater are the first I've heard; it would seem that, historical significance being the core of any case not based in architectural excellence, this topic should be much more prominent and we should be hearing more about it locally.

The fact that we are not hearing more about it leads many to suspect that preservationism is a local stand-in for stopping change in general, especially when it tends to be the harbinger of abandonment, as it has with The Point and now the non-alcoholic Doctors Hospital.

But, accepting all that GWChicago offers in theory -- and of course in this neighborhood being acceptable on theoretical grounds is quite an accomplishment -- I still fail to share the conviction that even the facade of Doctors Hospital is worth saving. The best anyone can say of it is that is is an average building that doesn't look horrible, and that is has a history which is likewise rather unremarkable, though particular to it, as all history is. That's not a way to sell anything -- which is why the dry vote didn't pass on the basis of the preservation vote.

Aside from that, Drs is incongruous with the buildings around it, in style, vintage, and purpose, representing no unity of style or the vision that is supposed to be "Hyde Park." It could be anywhere, just like an airport Marriott. It is unobtrusive, which I suspect is what makes most folks defend it, for fear of something worse.

Even if it were replaced with something not much more average than itself, I'm not sure that the way to evaluate these things is as zero-sum trades. Tear down Drs, build a nondescript hotel, but take into the balance the fact that remarkable things are being added to the neighborhood elsewhere. Solstice, the Mansueto Library on campus, and a stunning design for Village Center on 51st and Lake Park, to say nothing of the University's South Campus project. Add that all up, and Hyde Park comes out net positive, by far.

Not every building can be a masterpiece all the time, and not everything old is worth saving, even if solid and unoffensive. And in the case of Drs there are very real economic needs that a hotel would have served in a disinvested area.

I liked the Brinshore-Baum plan for the 53rd Herald building. It's too bad it didn't come through. I have no affection for the Theater, building or facade. I'd be delighted if the Herald building was renovated and made lovely; however, if something appeared (pipe dreams) that proposed higher density, this consideration would weigh heavily against keeping the status quo, in my book.

However, given the current economy, this is all more than usually academic.

Anonymous said...

Whatever happens with Doctors and the Herald building/theater, PLEASE PLEASE let it be something other than "saving the facade and building behind it". I'm reminded of this silliness that's been very popular in recent years every time I drive by Soldier Field and feel like losing my lunch.

edj said...

All this discussion regrding whether or not the theater or the hospital are historic is fine, but it ignores a more important quetion regarding whether they are necessary.

Can a theater like the Biograph or the Music Box succeed in Hyde Prk. I would say no. I dont think the market is big enough to make a theater succeed in Hyde Park. Keeping it as a theater doesn't make sense in that regard. At that point, it doesn't make any sense to keep the structure. It will continue to be an empty building. Why not create something new?

With the hospital, it's been vacant for almost ten years. The exterior structure is nondescript. Saving it for the sake of saving its look is silly in my opinion. Buildings like the Monadnock Building or the Rookery can be saved because they are restored to use for which they were intended - office buildings. You look at buildings that save only the facade and they look silly. They lose all context.

One thing I learned from giving architecture tours is that buildings are not about the buildings themselves. They are about the people who use them. Right now we have buildings that are not used by people (except as tools tools to stop development or keep easier parking). It's time to look at the buildings in this neighborhood in the context of needed in the neighborhood today - not 20, 30, 50, or 100 years ago.

edj said...

I want to add that despite the fact that I more or less disagreed with BWChicago, I thought he made a great case for preservation. I have a great deal of respect for people who can speak so thoughtfully on the issue.