Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Chicago Landmark Commission Poised to Eviscerate Key Protection for City's Architecture

Is landmarks preservation in Chicago going the way of the dinosaur? We may only be starting to get a handle on 2007, but already the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is scheduled to take a Thursday vote that stands to reverse the results of decades of struggle, and leave all but a handful of Chicago's finest buildings open to demolition.

Do I exaggerate? I wish that I were. Please read on.


Anonymous said...

Something terrible could happen Thursday, as you describe it, Mr. Becker.

I've been researching George and Philip Maher since the late 1980s. I know the Farwell Building is fine work by Philip.

Thank you for alerting us to the plan and the meeting.

Editor, Prairie magazine.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter who originally designed that building. It's not an artistic masterpiece, and it's not historically significant. It's wrong to turn the Landmarks Commission into designers and planners. It's not their misssion.

Lynn Becker said...

So, if it's not the mission of the Landmarks Commission to designate landmark buildings and then protect them - which is pretty much how they spend all their time - then what is?

Anonymous said...

The appropriateness of the proposed use should be a question for the planning commission.
Also, there is nothing inherently wrong with re-installing old facade materials over new hidden components. The building has weak historic significance.

Anonymous said...

Well the proposed building's design is weak itself. If the whole project is killed off it will do no harm to anyone.

Lynn Becker said...

1. Demolition is not a "proposed use" - it's the destruction of a building.
2. There are no asterisks on the list of designated landmarks. There is not one list of "real landmarks" and another "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" list of those that can be torn down at will
3. There is most definitely something gravely wrong with "re-installing old facade materials over new hidden components" when it's a con job to mask the destruction of a designated landmark.
4. The time to argue that "The building has weak historic significance." was when it was being considered for designation. It was, at great length. That argument lost. To reverse that decision because a developer now finds the building an inconvenience makes landmark protection both toothless and meaningless.

Anonymous said...

Now that 7000 buildings have been placed under landmarks jurisdiction for all kinds of political motivations, it's a little late to pretend that the "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" list doesn't exist.

Anonymous said...

Mr Becker,

More than anything else Chicago's architecture differentiates it from other cities. It draws visitors from around the world and makes wandering the city's streets an enriching experience. Less than one percent of the buildings in Chicago are protected by the landmark ordinance. That fact in itself is a sad one. That the Landmarks Commission would see fit to even consider demolishing one of the few protected buildings -for of all things a parking garage-is repugnant.

Lynn Becker said...

As I mentioned in my article, there is a clear distinction to be made between buildings, like those in Jewelers Row, that are named incidentally as part of a district, (the 7,000 number you cite), and the radically small class of 250 or so specific buildings, like the Farwell, awarded individual designation. No wink; no nudge.

Anonymous said...

"Smash the landmark. Paste the fragments back on again"

Thats a very cool concept. In fact cooler than the building you want to protect. Its progresive, it's engineer-centric and very Chicagoesque in it's artistic brutality. Most important it intensifies the land usage, increases the tax base and preserves the richness of the facade by giving it an afterlife.

Lynn Becker said...

Yes, artistic brutality can sometimes generate interesting effects, but I don't think it's something you want to make public policy. Brutality, like mediocrity, does just fine on its own - it doesn't need subsidy or encouragement.

And yes, there's a sort of technological bravura in the architectural taxidermist's art, but why deploy it on one the city's better buildings when there's an abundant supply of dreck to practice on?

The Farwell only needs a rich afterlife if we're hell-bent on killing it. The "richness of the facade" would be like that "fine Corinthian leather" - an attractive sheen if you can just keep out of your mind that it was once something far richer than a remnant skin - it was a vibrant, living thing.

Anonymous said...

In the proposal it looks like the building is still there - wahts the problem? It has no inside?

Anonymous said...

Well 80-some units is not going to add much to Michigan Avenue, so it's not great land use. Why they can't just build a slim, modern tower over the Terra building is something I don't get.

Anonymous said...

Why the Farwell Building can’t be adapted as apartments and the garage constructed under the new building. If the bean counters at Ritz Carleton can't understand this then surely the marketing department should be able to calculate the tangible value of a legitimate landmark property with irreplaceable historic interiors. Aren't there enough swells out there who would pay extra to live in real historic spaces rather than the simulations churned out by Lagrange et. al.? It's hard to believe that it is actually cheaper to remove the skin and replace it around a garage than it would be to integrate a new garage into the new structure and rehab the existing building. Chicago may be known for it’s “artistic brutality” but it was also once famous for it’s creativity.

Anonymous said...

Mr Becker - Thank you for your articulate piece on the Farwell Building. I couldn't agree more with what you said. The merits of the building have already been debated when it was designated a landmark. We should not "settle" for preserving the facade, both for the sake of this building and for other landmarks that will face this battle (Jenney's New York Life Building comes to mind). The Commission has a responsibility to the citizens of this city (both now and in the future) to do everything they can to keep the building intact. Given its prime location, this should not be impossible nor should it place an undue burden on the owner. Thank you for being a strong clear voice for preservation.

Anonymous said...

Let's just say that public mention of preservation hypocrisies is 'indelicate' and leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

Stand across Michigan Avenue and take a close look at the skin of the Farwell Building...

The "richness of the facade" is eroding! Several of the most significant decorative panels have already been removed, the windows are rusting into oblivion, and the remainder of the limestone cladding is fast gaining the characteristic of a patchwork quilt as more and more spot repairs are performed (truly a “vibrant, living thing”). Eventually there won’t be any original cladding left to save.

The only historically significant element of the building, its facade, is currently being allowed to decompose like so many other landmark buildings in the city (the Old Colony comes to mind). It seems that the developer may have found a reasonable solution for saving the historic character of the Farwell instead of letting its “richness” waste away.

Lynn Becker said...

So, to follow your argument: Let's demolish the Farwell so we can put every owner on notice that if they just let their building rot, we'll reward them by letting them tear it down. What a great strategy for preservation! (You don't happen to work for William Wirtz, do you?)

A facade is not a building. If the Farwell proposal passes, Chicago will come to be known less for its incomparable architecture but as the king of the false fronts.

Anonymous said...

What good is landmark status if the historically significant portions of the building are left to rot? Is a landmark effectively preserved if it is left in a state of ruin?

Isn't the most significant aspect of the Farwell Building its facade? In the case of the Farwell, the facade is indeed the building. In your article you refer to the Wabash facades having interiors that are "unremarkable", yet you offer no contrasting opinion for the interior of the Farwell. The interior of the Farwell is decidedly unremarkable. In this case: save the facade, save the building.

Lynn Becker said...

"What good is landmark status if the historically significant portions of the building are left to rot?" is a really good question (Wirt Dexter, Uptown Theatre, etc.) To suggest tearing them all down as the solution, however, inhabits a surreal twilight zone oscillating between the surreal and the Orwellian.

The buildings on Wabash were, in essence, one-dimensional structures - one street facade, the balance of the roughest brick and finish - or party walls. They had no real mass, only surface.

The Farwell is clearly two dimensional. It is not a false front, it is a BUILDING. It's mass give it its character. You cannot simply paste it back on like a refrigerator magnet and claim its the same thing.

Almost all Landmark ordinances specify the principle visible facades for protection, but this has not meant - until now - that people were free to tear down landmarks at will. This is the equivalent of burning down the village to save it.

As to "state of ruin", this is the argument of a lawyer without scruples (Not you, dear correspondent.) Whatever its wear and imperfections, I defy anyone to walk down Michigan Avenue, look at the Farwell, and use the words "state of ruin" with a straight face.

Anonymous said...

It would be silly to argue that it is okay to tear down a landmark building in order to preserve it; I don't think that this is necessarily what the developer is trying to do to the Farwell. Maybe a garage isn’t the most elegant solution, and maybe that’s what is really at the core of the argument.

The facade of the Farwell is in fact a "skin": a curtain wall of concrete, limestone, and metal windows. This particular skin defines the mass of the building. So if you remove the skin, repair it, and re-anchor it to an improved structural system, you’ve essentially changed only the occupancy of the interior space and the inherent stability of the underlying structure. As you so eloquently described, you have replaced the skin as if it were simply a refrigerator magnet. But the skin is the same because that is the way the building was originally designed: like a magnet on a refrigerator. A plain box with fancy clothes. A curtain wall on a steel structure. The mass of the Farwell, save for the mansard roof and setback at the top floor, is far from significant. The style of the facade and the proportions of the building are what make the Farwell significant. Those things will be retained, so what’s the problem?

The garage, I suspect.

I suppose “state of ruin” is a bit presumptuous. If not for current developments, I’m sure an owner would’ve come along some day to prevent the Farwell from progressing into an eyesore on Michigan Avenue. . . right?

Lynn Becker said...

If the skin is the same as the thing, why do we bury our dead relatives rather than just having them skinned, stuffed and mounted?

Mass is a function of structure, not skin. If the opposite were true, solid structures like the pyramids would have no mass.

I detect a bit of sarcasm - perhaps wrongly - in your statement that if Prism doesn't save the Farwell, some other will come around to do it, but I would say on the basis both of the building and of its prime location, that is almost certainly true. Direct conversion to high-end residential, assuming the bottom doesn't drop out of the market, or the Calatrava tower doesn't suck up every last wealthy person to be had, stands to be a highly profitable prospect.

Plopping a parking garage on Michigan Avenue is appalling, however . . .

This is the great issue at stake here: If your contention prevails - that a facade is the same as a building and that, barring designation of specific interiors, no harm is done by demolishing landmark buildings if the facade is saved - then the protection of landmark buildings is essentially abolished. Developers will be lining up to acquire landmark properties in every economically vibrant district of the city, in order to knock them down and reassemble the facades as window dressing for their far larger - and, as per the inevitable odds, probably mediocre - projects. In our increasingly plastic world, the quality of authenticity is too rare and valuable to be thrown away so cavalierly.

Anonymous said...

The skin certainly is not the same as the thing, unless of course you’re talking about the Farwell Building. I couldn’t say that the skin of just any building defines the character of its mass, only that the skin of the Farwell defines the character of its mass. You can take away the innards from the Farwell and still have the Farwell. If you take away its skin, you have nothing but a hollow, banal mass of steel and space. Its structure is insignificant (from the standpoint of preservation). Its use is insignificant. Only its skin is significant. And this particular skin is easily removed and replaced, at least when compared to removing the skin of our dead relatives. Your hands probably won’t get as dirty.

By this line of reasoning, we shouldn’t concern ourselves that a precedent will be set leading to the dismantlement of just any old landmark building. Many of our landmarks can make the distinction that they are significant for reasons that are more than skin-deep (sorry for the pun - it was just waiting to be plucked out from my keyboard). And if they can’t make that distinction, well. . .

Anonymous said...

well said mr becker. i really look forward to your observations of our urban conditon. also, while i've found anon's positions quite off, i enjoyed the lively discussion on this page.

Dan Richardson said...

This building is across the street from my office. I often look at it and think, "THAT is why people say Chicago has great architecture." The fact that the destruction of this building is even being considered is disgusting. Just what the city needs, more condos.

Anonymous said...

Although the Farwell Building sits on a promenant location on Michigan Avenue, it does not provide a practical environment that suites the demanding needs of today's high-end market. The building's existing floor to floor heights hardly allow enough space to accomodate mechanical,en vironmental and lifesatey systems while maintaining the acceptable finished ceiling heights required by high-end standards accross the globe. 8'-0" ceiling heights hardly meet these standards. Although modern systems can now accomodate tight spaces, they come at a premium cost. Even so, the remaining finished ceiling heights don't measure up to high-end standards.

Something to consider.

Anonymous said...

This isn’t so much a preservation issue to the city as a building code issue forcing developers to facilitate on-site parking as well as ancillary parking. There are specific formulas based on the number of units, building type, etc. If you don’t like it, get the building codes re-evaluated. But the City won’t. Alderman Natarus is on record favoring a lot more additional ancillary parking for the downtown area, so this is a lost cause. Chicago’s political power is too strong for the creation of New York-style Community Boards with respected, binding resolutions. The closest thing to a Streeterville/Mag Mile board, SOAR, whines about every building project to the point they come across as nothing more than “not in my backyard”-ers to the Alderman.

Anonymous said...

I can see the distinction between landmark designation of a building and a district. Though, I would like to see the specific definitional difference between the two as defined by the Landmarks Ordinance.

Without knowing the specific definitional difference between the two forms of landmarking, I can surmise (from Mr. Becker's argument) that a district is more concerned with an area as a cohesive whole as perceived at the street level, and that anything behind the facades are much less important (therefore, making facadecotomy more palatable). Whereas landmarking a specific building states it has unique qualities on it own regardless of location or district (because a landmark building could or could not be within a landmark district)

Now, the question regarding the Farwell is - What about the Farwell makes it significant as a landmark building? - the exterior, the interior, the architect, the developer, the period of Chicago real estate development it represents, etc. or all the above?

These are the elements that must be considered and delineated to make a convincing argument for either side of the issue.

Anonymous said...

The question of what is significant in either a historic district or an individual building is supposed to be addressed in the designation ordinance; however, often these designation ordinances are sloppily written and incomplete, and under such circumstances, the landmarks commission feels free to invent any kind of interpretation they like.
Of course, it's all intentional. Vague, fuzzy laws are needed to preserve aldermanic prerogative.

Lynn Becker said...

There's been a lot of discussion here about whether or not the Farwell merits being a landmark.

Those arguments are essentially moot, because the Farwell IS, already, a legally designated landmark.

If a mistake was made, the proper response would be to revoke landmark designation. But the Commission members supporting the Prism proposal wanted it both ways - maintain landmark designation yet eviscerate the value of such designation by allowing the destruction of the building. In such an environment, given the prospect of substantial profit, the outlook for commercial landmark structures will grow exceedingly dire.

Anonymous said...

OK Lynn if you say it's the interior of the building that really matters then why do you care if the farwells skin is preserved?? Prism is going to build this tower and then just like you state about the original designation of landmark "It's a moot point" I dont want to hear you bitch about the tower after it's built because then that will be a moot point. Lets keep the ugly building just as it is and put a huge strip club on the inside. You are all treating this ugly building as a living entity. Doesnt the building want a bunch of naked girls running around inside of it? I will be the first to state that the building does!! Since I am the first to state this, it now becomes fact. Since it is now fact it's also, by Lynns logic, a moot point and you cant change it. So will it be a strip club? If I win the lottery That's what I will do. Hopefully If I am not the next lottery winner the next guy who does win will read this and copy my Idea.
What building was torn down so the ugly farwell building could be put up? I say we must tear down the farwell and build a new version of the building that was up before the farwell. I bet that building wouldnt mind having it's lower floors a garage. In fact since its been gone since 1927 I know that building would really love to be built. That new old building would have instant landmark status because it is really old new. How can you building loving, living status giving landmark fems deprive a new old building from being built.
Progress, Lynn do you live in an old building or a new one? Either way I bet it would look better than the ugly farwell building. Is Lynn a girl or a guy? I wasnt sure because of the name. I thought they might have put the wrong picture with the wrong words!

Lynn Becker said...

It's a moot point not because I say it is, but because it's the law. The Farwell Building went through an extended legal process in which the Landmarks Commission staff, the Landmarks Commission commissioners, and the Chicago City Council all acted to say that the Farwell IS beautiful and is to receive landmark protection. An ordinance was passed making those decisions law.

The issue is not whether the Farwell is ugly or beautiful. It's whether you can destroy an officially designated landmark building and still call the surviving pieces the same landmark. I would suggest that not only is that premise absurd, but that allowing to prevail will place the vast majority of Chicago landmarks in line for destruction, including, I would bet, a number that you, yourself find beautiful.

(Actually, nothing in the landmarks ordinance would preclude a strip club in the Farwell - that's more of a zoning issue. Providing the objectivization could be equalized with facilities guaranteed to appeal to all sexes and preferences, it might be just what Michigan Avenue needs.)

Petra Lynn said...

It is quite terrible to contemplate the loss of another "Chicago Style," building. It is Chicago's buildings, architecture, and historical preservation that make it the premier American City. The beauty of this city lies not only in its diverse culture, but in its diverse and interesting architecture. A facade, is a facade, and a slippery slope indeed.

Besides, how can the Mayor sell Chicago to the Olympics if the trends of ending preservation to the benefit of a wealthy few continues?

Anonymous said...

I know I'm not the only one who sees it absurd that someone would justify razing a building because they've let it fall into disrepair since it has already been mentioned.

And I don't think it's fair to justify razing the building because it's too expensive to modernize it with mechanicals and such since the condos are being sold for $900/sf.

If you can't get the building up to code with mechanicals and parking for residential use then apply for a variance or find a different use for the building.

Strip clubs are not allowed within a certain distance to downtown, and they're certainly not allowed on The Magnificent Mile.

I’m not against progress, but that shouldn’t be used as justification for razing a building either. One could use progress to justify anything; it’s a generic concept.

There is something to be said about the authenticity of a 'thing'. In this case it’s a building; a building with landmark status, not a facade with landmark status. It’s this authenticity that contributes to the fabric of our City and makes it world renowned for architecture.

With all of the ugly condos that have gone up in the last 40 years it makes preserving these buildings even more relevant. They have landmark status for a reason(s).

I don't like fake noses and fake boobs and fake buildings with real facades.

I don't think you can justify razing a building so a developer can make another $50-$100M. And if the developer does let a building fall into disrepair, it should be taken away from them by the city and offered up at a discount to someone who will preserve it and keep it up to code. If there aren't laws written for that, there should be and maybe that's what we should be arguing right now. There are many cases where a building has been taken from an owner because it is a public hazard and put on the market, almost given away, to someone who will bring it up to code and make it habitable. So why is this or any situation where and owner lets a historic building deteriorate any different? And aren’t there a number or grants and tax relief available to up-keep a landmarked building?

This shouldn't even be up for debate, it's a landmarked building already. And if Prism has its way it WILL set precedence. For that reason alone, City Counsel shouldn’t even touch it. Is it any coincidence the appeal is being held after the election? Natarus asked us to hold off in all new construction until after the election because some of his constituents were already complaining that there was too much.

There is no moral or ethical reason to tear down this building.

Anonymous said...

Its a BUILDING!!! Why have morals come into play when you're talking about a building!!! why not give the new architect a chance. Why is everyone afraid of new? Dont you think Ritz Carlton will put up a beuatiful building? I think they will, and I think Chicago deserves a company as great as the Ritz Carlton, They are going to make that old crappy building SHINE!!! Give them the chance. I went online to the Ritz Carlton Residences Chicago and the building is a 1920's style building on the outside AND the INSIDE it's beautiful!!!! Let them build it then in the future you can all protect the building You helped build!
Also, what's wrong with making money? This is a capitalistic society isnt it? If they can make money and preserve the 1920's look AND add to it and make money then what's wrong? The Ritz project will generate more revenue for the city than the Farwell ever could! How would you like if some committee told you what to do with YOUR property. If we let this happen you're all afraid it will happen to other land marks?? I dont think so! I dont think anyone is going to take significant landmarks like watertower and try to mess with them. Lets be realistic. Each building, if it were a landmark, would go through the same scrutiny as the farwell reconstruction is going through...this is the precedent that is being set!!! I could understand if it were a second rate company trying to redo the Farwell but we're talking about the Ritz Carlton!! Have you seen their other buildings??!! Like I said the precedent being established here is extreme scrutiny for any landmark revisions. Each one on a case by case basis and the landmarks committee should do their job and keep up the quality of the landmarks reconstruction.

Anonymous said...

Philip Maher was a friend of mine. I met him when I was 18 in 1976 (if memory serves me right) he was rather old at the time but still exuded charm wit and style and we became great friends. At the time I knew nothing of his architecture although I had grown up with it on Michigan Ave and in my home town of Lake Forest. When he told me who he was and what buildings and houses he had designed- I started putting them in a context and truly appreciating our Midwestern Art Deco historical eclecticism of the 20s and 30s. At the time I had seen many David Adler houses and knew they were special but was to young to put my finger on it and the rest of world hadn't done so either. Chicago was skyscrapers, only! 4o yrs. later all the rest of country ever talks (in design circles) about is the genius of chicago decorators and architects from the first half of the 20th century. Philips buildings were great, they represented a high-style, sophisticated (these are not dirty words) accomplished early 20th century design sensibility , there aren't a lot of them and its INSANE that Chicagoans have to battle to save one in these preservation savvy times. They are the VERY REASON that Michigan Avenue is what it is!!
The fact that there are a number of them In a few short blocks essentially defines the street scape and has given its voice- we owe him a debt of gratitude! Everyone knows that chicago Architecture today is kind of a big fat zero so why must we battle to save what little we have left of handsome buildings like the Farwell when whats replacing them is a bunch of nothing.
Chicagoans who do not get P. Mahers approach to architectural style are the same people who are making Chicago boring......why don't
we join the rest of countries appreciation of Chicago in the 20s and 30s and embrace our fantastically cool, restrained, chic Art Deco buildings AND save Michigan Ave from becoming the Schaumburg Mall.