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:
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.