Sunday, May 25, 2008

It Could Be Worse

Chicago's landmarking process is deeply flawed and often corrupt, allowing no small number of the city's most essential buildings to slip through its fingers, through desecration or demolition. Still, it's good to pause once in a while to reflect on the successes - The Reliance Building, is a prime example, the current restoration of Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott building is another - and to cringe at how the process is bungled in other locations.

Case in point is Philadelphia, where Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron's in a recent piece reports on the lamentable fate of that city's Boyd Theatre, an art deco charmer that's just been named to National Trust on Historic Preservation's list of the 11 most endangered places. (The list also includes Chicago's Michigan Avenue streetwall.)

Chicago has been successful in saving three of its great Loop movie palaces, first the queen, The Chicago, which owner Plitt theaters wanted to demolish, and also the Cadillac Palace, and the Ford Oriental. The Oriental had been hidden for years behind a forlorn electronics store, but a combination of TIF money and the grand plans of Garth Drabinsky has seen it restored to an original glory that had been invisible for decades. The $200,000,000 plus that the blockbuster production of the music Wicked has grossed over its multi-year run, and the nearly 20,000 people it's been pulling into the Loop every week, has shown that this is one $30,000,000 investment has paid off, big time.

The great omission in the district is not saving any of the smaller houses like the Roosevelt, which my great-grandfather helped build, or, more specifically, the United Artists, which was originally designed for live theatre and would have been a perfect complement to a Randolph Street very much in need of a smaller house for non-musical productions.

Contrast this to Phildelphia, where every one of the city's great movie palaces were allowed to be demolished, save one, the Boyd, and that theater remains in danger as it continues to struggle for landmark protection. By comparison there's Pittsburgh, where no further than two of its great palaces, the Stanley and the Penn, have been restored as performing arts center.

The Chicago landmarks ordinance by default protects only the exteriors of the buildings, however, it also has the power to designate key interiors - the lobby of the Palmer House, for example - as protected elements. According to Saffron, however, the Philadelphia ordinance, amazingly, has absolutely no provision for protecting interiors.

So, yes, it could be a lot worse. You can read Saffron's report here, and see a gallery of images on the Friends of the Boyd website here.

1 comment:

BW said...

Don't forget the Woods - originally the Harris and Selwyn were to have been restored, not gutted, and there were a few proposals for the woods to house two or more smaller stages. I'm not sure if the United Artists had much stage at all left after remodeling.