Archive for August 2011

A change of heart

22 August 2011
Categories: Chicago, Narratives

About five years ago, a builder in our neighborhood announced his intention to knock down a house on our block and build a three-story, single-family home on the site. This triggered a spasm of consternation among the neighbors. The house to be demolished wasn’t particularly significant—just a solid, brick two-flat, around ninety years old, like all the others on the block. In fact, that similarity was what caused the greatest worry: The houses on the block made a tidy, unified whole, each house with its own distinctive features but close in appearance and age to the rest. And this guy, a local to the neighborhood, was proposing—what? It wasn’t clear, but the proposal implied something quite divergent in style and mass.

A meeting with the alderman was called, and soon a push for the establishment of a “Landmark Historic District” was under way. It would actually be an extension to an already-existing district, and would unify two non-contiguous areas of that district. The executive director of Preservation Chicago was a strong advocate for its creation, since he lived within the extension area too, just around the corner from the lot in question.

At the time, I was firmly in support of landmark status. My biggest reason for support was the very real possibility that this one new construction would be the vanguard in a wave of knock-downs, much like occurred in the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the east. There, in the course of just a few years during the height of the pre-mortgage-crisis building craze, similar workman’s cottages—some mediocre and dilapidated, but many solid and stylish—were razed en masse and replaced with dull, enormous multi-unit condominiums. The loss of rental property forced most of the lower-middle-class residents to be priced out of the area; population density skyrocketed, and the neighborhood lost most of its character, both architectural and demographic.

The city council approved the landmark designation four years ago. It couldn’t prevent that one piece of new construction, which is at the very least not a complete eyesore on the block. (I’d still be more appreciative of the house had it been built on any of the many vacant lots within a three-block radius instead.) Nevertheless I liked the fact that I lived in a Landmark Historic District.

That was then. Today, however, my house is in need of tuckpointing. Badly in need, if truth be told. I have a brickmason—a local guy, who does good work at a fair price, and who has worked on many houses in the neighborhood. He’s ready to go. So ready that he calls me every other day to ask, “can we start?”

But this is the city, and I need to pull a permit. Fair enough. The city has an online site for permit applications. It’s not the best user interface in the world—particularly when it responds “exception error” without explanation and forces a total restart of the application process. But ultimately, after several attempts, it allowed me to complete a permit application.

Except—of course—when I printed it out, it contained the troubling notation:

Holds: Landmark

So I have to go to City Hall, and provide the Landmarks Commission with all sorts of documentation on the work to be done, including photographs, to get the hold removed. I pray that won’t be an arduous process.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that, with a few more years under my belt, I now understand this fact: In the city of Chicago, landmark status is meaningless. The landmarks ordinance—and, for that matter, the commission—lacks the teeth to prevent demolition of any building in the city, no matter how historic it may be. Developers are free to do as they please, as long as they have the savvy to file the correct paperwork and to say the right words to the right people. (And, if need be, to grease the right palms… or so it’s said.)

Meanwhile, the one thing that’s preventing me from engaging in actual historic preservation, from performing sympathetic repairs to keep a (nominally) historic building from crumbling into dust, is a historic-preservation ordinance. How ironic.

A smooth-sailing surprise

Now, I wrote the preceding while staring down the gauntlet of the city’s permit process—which, by all accounts, is an arduous journey, fraught with arcane rituals performed before secretive committees that meet in hidden chambers with no doors in or out. I would need architectural plans, notarized letters of intent from all contractors, samples of bricks and samples of mortar and a full accounting of any tools that might be used during the job. Oh, and bring along my first-born—and those of three of my neighbors—neatly wrapped in banana leaves in order to feed them to the Sarlacc.

I called the Landmarks office and spoke to a friendly woman who told me where to go and what to bring: specifically, photographs of the building that illustrate the work to be done. I asked if I should include a close-up of the bricks and mortar joints. “Yes, that’s a good idea,” she said. “Do I need samples of the new mortar?” I asked; I was certain I’d been told this by someone in the permit office when I’d been thwarted in my initial, desultory attempt to secure a permit one year ago. “No, that’s not necessary. Be sure to bring actual photos, though—not print-outs of images taken from the Internet or anything like that,” she said.

Her advice carried a modicum of reassurance, but I still had my doubts. There’s no way this could be easy. And yet…

I arrived at the Landmarks office and was told to wait while the receptionist called to the back office for someone to handle “a walk-in.” After a few minutes a guy came out and I showed him my permit application and my photos—two of them, one the full front façade of the house, the other a close-up of eight or nine courses of bricks (as shown above). He looked them over quickly but intently.

“Now, what we’re concerned with is this: We want to be sure that the replacement mortar is of a similar type and color, and we don’t want the width of the mortar joints to change. You see how narrow these joints are?” he asked.

He pointed at my close-up. I was already well aware that the joints were narrow—typical construction style of the era—and I assured him that I have every intention of matching the existing work, to the very best of my contractor’s ability.

“Okay,” he said. “Let me just go and write this up, I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Five minutes later he returned, with a signed, typewritten letter stating that the Landmarks office had released the hold on my permit application. “Take this to Permits, you’re all set.”

I was gobsmacked. “That’s it?” I asked.

“It’s good that you brought those photos in. That makes our job really easy.”

Easy. No kidding.

Off to the Department of Buildings and Permits, in an upper floor of City Hall. As I walked through the door, I found myself in a perplexing space. The waiting area was full of people who obviously knew the ropes. Architects toting thick rolls of blueprints and diagrams. Builders and general contractors with satchels full of file folders, folders full of cut sheets and specifications. People whose job it is to navigate this very office; people who do this every day.

There was no “take-a-number” system; no clear sign of who was next and where the end of the line was. I wasn’t even sure that anyone was staffing the counter; if anyone was in charge, they had gone in the back for something. I stood in the middle of the waiting area for a minute or two, pondering my next move. Then I saw, off to one side, a wide desk with three people facing me, each appearing to look busy at a computer terminal. Each had a chair facing them; each chair was empty. The big sign above their heads read, “Easy Permit Applications.”

I looked at my online permit application. “Easy Permit Application,” it read across the top. I strode over to the middle of the three workers, smiled, and set my paperwork in front of him. “I think I’m supposed to bring this to you,” I said, with just a hint of questioning in my voice.

He looked it over, punched some info into his terminal, looked at the screen, looked at my papers again. He scribbled a couple of numbers onto a slip of paper. “Take this to the cashier, you’re all set.”

Holy shit, I thought, suppressing the desire to do a happy dance. There’s light at the end of this tunnel—light I had never expected to see so readily. In all, my time in City Hall totaled less than 45 minutes.

I went to the cashier. I didn’t care what it cost; I didn’t care—though I still wonder—why the amount I paid was $25 less than the amount written on my slip of paper. I stood there with bald amusement as I watched the cashier, who between each step of the payment process would write something on a notepad next to her keyboard. This woman must have figured out long ago that her job entails a lot of brief interludes of downtime: waiting for the computer to call up the correct data; waiting for applicants to complete their payment by filling out a check or using the credit card terminal; waiting for the old HP LaserJet printer to spit out the completed permit. Twenty- or thirty-second pauses, interspersed throughout her day.

So to fill that time, she writes. And writes, and writes. She filled half a page of the steno pad while I stood there, never wasting my time—I could see the printer doing its thing behind her—but not wasting her own time either. I tried to read her handwriting upside-down, but only got the barest gist of it. It was either a personal journal, or she’s writing the next Great American Novel. I’m hopeful it’s the latter.


The work is now complete, and we couldn’t be happier with it. The house looks absolutely gorgeous—like new, if only they built new houses today as pretty as they did ninety years ago. The job cost a lot, but we feel that we got every penny’s worth.

All in all, I’ve learned not to be daunted by the city’s permit process. If you have your stuff together, it’s a breeze. (I’m told it also helps to have a cheery, friendly, and mildly deferential attitude.) And I definitely now have a masonry contractor that I trust and would strongly recommend to anyone in the Chicago area.

During the job, we had the chimneys rebuilt from the roofline up. I asked the contractor to include a bit of corbeling at the top—nothing fancy, just something similar to what one of the original chimneys had had. One of the other chimneys was ugly beyond sin, extended with a bare ceramic flue to reach above a nearby rooftop. We corbeled that one too, something that is not quite in accordance with the landmark district ordinance since it doesn’t match the pre-existing conditions as seen from the street. But it’s oh-so-much better. The chimneys suit the architectural character of the house and the neighborhood, and add just a touch of interesting detail to what would otherwise be boring shafts of brick.

The result: Our new chimneys are the talk of the block, and more than one neighbor has asked for our mason’s business card.


Louis Sullivan: Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison

17 August 2011
Categories: From the armchair

coverLouis Sullivan has been my favourite architect for a long time. So long in fact that I have no clear recollection how I got so into him. Surely it was long before I attended a concert at the incredible Auditorium Building, long before I name-dropped him on Jeopardy!. Sometime in college or shortly thereafter I perused his written works, but never got very far into Kindergarten Chats or Autobiography of an Idea. Around that time I visited Buffalo, New York, and made a point of driving downtown to check out the Guaranty Building. But what in my past had given me the knowledge to do so… that’s uncertain.

Thus my recollection is, like so many Adler & Sullivan creations, lost to the sands of time. I wouldn’t be surprised if I first noticed Sullivan’s work in the astounding decorative façade of his Carson, Pirie & Scott Building during a shopping trip to State Street. And I remember later finding a copy of his rare folio A System of Architectural Ornament According With a Philosophy of Man’s Powers at the university library, which delighted me with its sketches and befuddled me with its prose.

At any rate, as I picked up this reprint of Hugh Morrison’s vital 1935 overview and critique of the life, designs, and philosophy of Louis H. Sullivan, in my mind was the notion: “I love Sullivan’s stuff. His details and ornament are so amazing and so different from anything anyone else was building, then or now.”

Little did I realize that his ornament was not his greatest contribution to architecture.

It’s hard to imagine now, but at the advent of the skyscraper the leading lights of American architecture were all wringing their hands at the problem that modern cities had thrust upon them: Real estate was expensive; city density was rising; the only remaining direction in which to build was up, up, up. Masonry buildings topped out at around twelve stories before they needed iron bracing to hold them up, but soon steel-frame construction came on the scene, and the skyscraper was born—in Chicago, as the Home Insurance Building.

Architects were at a loss: What to do with this new monster? It didn’t fit into any of their preconceived notions of building massing and proportion. To this end, early skyscrapers attempted to conceal their height by breaking the mass into a stack of shorter buildings. The Home Insurance Building is a good example: a two-story ground floor mass, topped by another two-story mass, then one of three stories, then two, then one—each section strongly delineated by its own cornice. (Another two stories were later added at the top, in much the same manner.) Meanwhile, its revolutionary structure is belied by the thick masonry of its exterior walls.

The leading journals were filled with articles that promoted this, shall we say, façade façade.

Louis Henry Sullivan, on the other hand, wrote lengthy arguments against that conceit. His many journal articles elucidate with deep profundity his entire philosophy of architecture; but really much of his florid prose could be distilled down, if a touch cheekily, to a single statement:

Tall buildings are tall. Deal with it.

That’s it in a nutshell. Never mind Sullivan’s amazing organic decoration, much of which was detailed by chief draughtsman George Elmslie anyway. So what if Frank Lloyd Wright owed a great deal of his innovative style to having worked under Sullivan (and later was a complete dick when given the opportunity to add to the historical record on his former mentor). Louis Sullivan’s great genius was in thumbing his nose at stultified convention.

His designs were the first to treat a tall building as a columnar form, with base, shaft, and capital—something now considered to be one of the core tenets of “Chicago School” architecture. The results were tall, soaring masses, and even with their elaborate festoons they exhibited a certain streamlined airiness that was decades ahead of its time.

That said, and this is something that this biography of Sullivan has been instrumental in revealing with its critical eye toward his designs, not everything Sullivan designed was a masterpiece. That’s not just including the ordinary, utilitarian edifices, the warehouses and factory buildings. It could also include some of what we now revere as his “lost treasures.”

For example, the destruction of the Wirt Dexter Building in 2006 remains a sad loss to Chicago’s architectural legacy. Yet if we assess the building strictly on its merits, what was lost?—a modest, relatively nondescript six-story commercial building. Although the Dexter’s Chicago Landmarks citation claimed its “unornamented design is a precursor to the firm’s work on the Auditorium Building,” both designs were derivative of their contemporary, H. H. Richardson. Its odd, perforated cast-iron beams on the rear elevation “anticipate building design of nearly seven decades later”—but were not influential on other structures either in its own era or after; they were isolated experiments that anticipated later design, but did not cause it. I believe the Dexter received its landmark designation solely due to the fame of its architects and the dearth of their surviving works in Chicago (a list that is now frightfully short).

Moreover, Sullivan’s extreme adherence to his own design principles may prove detrimental to his buildings’ long-term survival. For example his late works, the “jewel box” banks, are to some degree misguided treasures. Their external (and internal) exquisiteness aside, the interiors of these buildings have a certain over-planned rigidity to them. The jewel boxes are so specialized in their tasks, so precisely geared toward the machinery of their use, that I am forced to wonder: What happens when, say, a building-and-loan office is no longer needed? Or when the mechanics of banking change so dramatically (as they have, in many ways, over the past eight decades) that Sullivan’s highly functional interiors become obsolete? Can his buildings adapt to changing use? Or do they become, simply, pretty boxes with nothing to fit in them?

And his refusal to compromise with what Daniel Burnham deemed a “democratic ideal”—what Sullivan saw, justifiably perhaps, as pandering to the lowest common denominator—was at times so steadfast that his late-career demise might well have been inevitable.

When Dankmar Adler broke their partnership in 1895, only to come crawling back six months later, Sullivan’s refusal to renew their tie was an all-too-human response; he surely felt betrayed by Adler, who had only a few years left to live. Yet Adler’s personal style of dealing with clients was part of the old firm’s strength, and surely could have helped Sullivan to get back on his feet. Instead, new projects continued their post-Panic-of-1893 stagnation.

The Transportation Building for the 1893 World’s Fair—that grand, polychromatic departure from the forced classicism of the “White City”—was among the most eye-catching of any Fair buildings, and possibly (at least, according to Morrison) the most popular among visitors. Yet its outrageously over-the-top style, methinks a reactionary response to the Fair’s other architects, may well have been detrimental to modern architecture in the long run, for its sheer exuberance might have led fairgoers to think “that’s very lovely to look at, but I can’t imagine constructing something like that on Main Street in my town.” A simpler, cleaner, less adorned style, something Sullivan achieved in a few of his contracts within a few years of the Fair, might have been more approachable as a real-world possibility. Instead, the great takeaway of the Fair was a massive boom in old-fashioned, throwback—safe—styles: Roman and Greek columns and forms, temples of commerce and education and government, solid masses of masonry that sharply contradicted the lightweight steel structure they wrapped.

As Sullivan wrote near his death, the Fair set modern architecture back by fifty years—a declaration that loses some of its prophetic tone when we remember that it was written thirty years after the Fair. Still, when one considers such buildings as the Jewelers Building (1925–27 by Giaver & Dinkelberg) his statement rings true. Here’s a building, designed more than three decades after Adler & Sullivan’s game-changing Wainwright and Guaranty Buildings, still relying on Sullivan’s base/shaft/capital system—yet also stuck with classical applied decoration to the extent of five great gazebos, like Greek or Roman temples, plunked on its roofs.

The building owes a lot of its overall massing to Sullivan—but not nearly enough. And, perhaps, Sullivan himself is in some small way partly to blame for this. He was a genius who tried, sometimes desperately, but failed to bring his genius to the people.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that this book really led me to reassess my own biases, not only with regard to Sullivan but to architecture and historic preservation in general. I used to think that 99 times out of 100, demolition is bad, that buildings should be renovated and restored and reused, if at all possible. Now I’m not so stuck in that hard-core preservation mode.

Not every old building is worth saving, regardless of who designed it. And some great old buildings remain great, but lack vitality and purpose. In the end, if a building cannot be adapted to benefit the living, if it serves no other purpose than as a placeholder of architectural history, then inevitably it will probably succumb to economic realities. The Chicago Stock Exchange Building, for example, was destroyed by people who saw it as I have described his jewel box banks, inflexible to adaptation and therefore uneconomic; they were, in retrospect, quite wrong (it was readily adaptable, and was even profitable up to the day its tenants were evicted), and that building remains a tremendous loss to Chicago. But I have little doubt that if it were still standing today, forty years later, it would still be under the constant threat of demolition—for the right price.

Louis H. Sullivan was a great architect, of that there is no doubt. But he also had a tremendous inability to—well, either to go with the flow or to compromise his principles, depending on how charitably one views his steadfastness. I suppose the real tragedy is that we didn’t get enough out of him when he was alive, and we spent far too long under-appreciating what he wrought—to the extent that today we’re left with a mere handful of great works by the master, and a mixed bag of them at that.