Hey Preservationists: Quit Puckering and Get Pissed!

Chicago Reader | May 13, 2005
On May 24 the two big local preservationist groups got together downtown for a press conference, where they were to make what they called a "major announcement" about the "preservation of the historic Cook County Hospital." When I heard this, I wondered, Was Mayor Daley finally going to join the movement to save County?

Nope. Instead, Preservation Chicago and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois announced that the National Trust for Historic Preservation was putting County Hospital on its list of the 11 most endangered buildings in the country.

Oh, brother, I thought, here they go again. How could they think that adding the hospital to another list of endangered buildings--it's already on at least two--would save it? Can't these guys do anything besides compile lists?

County Hospital, an architecturally and historically important structure, should have been preserved months ago, when Cook County Board president John Stroger first started talking about tearing it down. Why? Because there's no reason to tear it down. Demolishing it would cost at least $30 million--about as much as it would cost to rehab it--and no constituency wants it demolished.

So if there's no money to save and no votes to win by tearing it down, why doesn't Daley tell Stroger--who, as everyone knows, takes his orders from Daley--to back off? Because Daley's not going to do something that would undercut an ally just because some preservationists ask him to, even if they're right. He wants them to sit, roll over, wag their tails, and bark for their bone.

Right now the preservationists are barking. That's what the press conference was really about--bringing attention to the cause so that if Daley comes to the rescue he'll be hailed as a hero. Why don't they just come right out and demand that Daley preserve County? Because they're afraid to. The dirty little secret about preservation in Chicago is that most preservationists are wimps. They're so anxious to look reasonable and mainstream that they'll play whatever game Daley wants them to play, including pretending he's on their side when he isn't.

The efforts of LPCI, the biggest and oldest preservation group in the state, say a lot about the state of preservation in Chicago. I'm sure there are lots of wonderful, hardworking, well-meaning preservationists in LPCI--restorationists, designers, knowledgeable students of architecture history. But as a whole the group demonstrates how helpless good-government crusaders are in the age of Daley. Its members can talk for hours about the stylistic intricacies of Chicago's great builders, but when it comes to the intricacies of Chicago politics they're lost. They either don't understand or don't want to understand that the system's against them. And so they suck up to Daley and give in to developers, letting block after block of lovely old buildings get torn down and replaced with soulless towers of concrete. Much of what they supposedly value has already been lost or is about to be, yet they rain praise and prizes on the lawyers, architects, planners, and politicians who cause the destruction.

I've plowed through stacks of LPCI newsletters and financial disclosure statements, and the list of LPCI contributors reads like a who's who of downtown real estate and development interests. A few of these contributors have even worked for the other side in some of the city's biggest preservation battles. Richard Friedman, the eminent-domain lawyer the city hired to help clear the land around Maxwell Street, sits on LPCI's board. Why would a preservation group want to be associated with a lawyer who helped kill Maxwell Street?

LPCI has also taken money from city officials such as former planning commissioner Alicia Mazur Berg and 42nd Ward alderman Burt Natarus. Why would a watchdog group take money from people they're supposedly watching?

LPCI puts out a newsletter in which it brags about its fancy fund-raisers and lists valuable endangered and torn-down buildings. Blurb after blurb bemoans the loss of hospitals, gymnasiums, el platforms, town houses, and mansions. But the blurbs lack essential details, and they name no names. It's as though the buildings just toppled over on their own. You'd never know that some of these properties were endangered by Daley administration policies or by people who give money to LPCI. Cass Studios, at Chicago and Wabash, was once on LPCI's endangered list. But LPCI's newsletter never mentioned that Joseph Antunovich, chairman of LPCI's board, designed the building that's replacing Cass Studios--even though he was already at work on the design when LPCI put the building on its list.

The newsletter also keeps track of all the people LPCI honors. And it's big on honoring people, since giving parties to honor them and charging other people to attend is a great way to raise money. LPCI even honored Natarus for his preservation efforts. Now, Natarus is a funny storyteller, a master of the filibuster, a colorful City Council character. But he's not a preservationist. He oversaw the development of the Gold Coast, which meant razing mansions to put up high-rises. He doesn't even pretend to like preservationists, other than the ones in LPCI. He all but calls them communists, going on and on about how the Founding Fathers wanted property owners to be able to do whatever they chose with their property, including demolishing it. Yet he mentions the LPCI honor in his campaign literature. Maybe he's proud of it. Maybe he just wants to use it to hammer anyone who dares to criticize him for being antipreservation.

But nothing compares with LPCI's royal treatment of Mayor Daley. I don't think the group's executive director, David Bahlman, is capable of giving a speech in which he doesn't praise Daley. Bahlman once told me that he and other LPCI members believed they had to play the game--stroking Daley and putting Friedman on the board were ways of building relationships that could help LPCI get things done. "I know some people disagree with Richard Friedman on Maxwell Street, but Richard has tremendous expertise in development and real estate law," he said. "Joe Antunovich always recuses himself from discussions about Cass Studios. It isn't even awkward, because there's no conflict. Joe has also been the primary architect on the Soldier Field reuse plan and our Cook County Hospital reuse plan. We can't expect Joe to turn down a job because a building is demolished that we don't want demolished. There's no reason to fight just to fight. It's the Chicago way--you can agree to disagree and still remain civil with your adversaries."

But what has this go-along-to-get-along, we're-really-all-good-friends strategy gained LPCI? How many buildings has it saved? Consider some of the great preservation battles of the past few years--Huntley house, Cass Studios, the Plymouth Hotel, Maxwell Street, the Mercantile Exchange, Platt Luggage, Monday's Restaurant, the Coe mansion, Soldier Field. The preservationists lost them all.

Sometimes the preservationists lose even when they win, as they did with Tree Studios, which was supposedly protected because it had been made a state landmark years ago. In 2000 the city struck a deal with a developer, who then got about $15 million in various governmental subsidies to reconfigure the interior, converting it into stores and shops. Only the building's exterior was saved. "Tree Studios had the highest protection," says Barton Faist, an artist who used to live there. "I can't believe people don't see this. We had the highest landmark designation for the whole building--inside and out. These designations are hard to come by." But the big-name preservationists refused to fight for even the little they'd saved. Daley and LPCI hailed it as a great deal for everyone because the building had been saved and would generate more tax revenue for the city.

More recently preservationists have been congratulating themselves for rescuing Farnsworth House, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's landmark of modernism out in the sticks of Kane County. Bahlman must have hurt his hand slapping his own back after LPCI helped engineer the fund-raising drive that enabled a group of art patrons to buy the building for $7.5 million at an auction last fall. He said they'd prevented the building from being moved out of state by a rival bidder. But he and his allies could have kept Farnsworth from being moved simply by insisting that the state or local governments take advantage of one of several laws that would have kept the building right where it was. Two sources told me they didn't insist because they had a gentleman's agreement with the owner not to put any encumbrances on the property. As a result, they probably paid way more than they should have--money that could have been used to save other buildings--and they lost the chance to set a precedent.

I know, I know. There are success stories too. But as most preservationists know, the fight's never over. The city reserves the right to unlandmark whatever it landmarks whenever it wants. Those recently created landmark districts--Michigan Avenue, Lincoln Park, Ukrainian Village--can all be gutted if Daley wants them gutted. Remember the Lexington Hotel, which he unlandmarked in 1996 and which was quickly torn down? Nothing is safe, even when it's protected.

Given that Daley has so much power, I understand why so many preservationists are afraid to criticize him. But I think it's time they reconsidered their silence. Overall his preservation record is lousy, and most preservationists know it even if they say something else publicly. Daley made a mockery of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks by folding it into the planning department in the early 90s. Meetings of the mayoral-appointed commission are almost too painful to watch. I once saw the commissioners landmark a statue in Jackson Park that was in absolutely no danger of being demolished--who's going to tear down a statue in a park? Meanwhile, dozens of old buildings go down every year, and the commissioners can't even find time to update their inventory of endangered buildings.

I'm not saying Mayor Daley is always on the wrong side. As Bahlman also told me, "The world's not black and white--there's a lot of gray." Daley has preserved some buildings--and he might even preserve County Hospital. His finest moment may have been in the late 90s, when he had the city buy the old Goldblatt's near Chicago and Ashland, saving it from imminent demolition. Some preservationists are still praising him for that. Yet behind their backs Daley is probably laughing.

The preservationists ought to remember that Daley's not a king and they're not his serfs. We live in a democracy. They're allowed to dissent. Several preservationists have told me privately that they think Daley will punish them out of spite if they dare to dissent. "We're like kids in a classroom," one of them said. "Better not get the teacher mad."

But Daley will do whatever he can get away with. I don't think he particularly cares one way or the other about preservation. My sense is that he pretty much gives the green light to any kind of development he thinks will increase the tax base, regardless of what gets torn down. If people kick and scream and embarrass him, he might save a building here or there. Otherwise he'll just go about his business.

Many preservationists have told me they think Mayor Daley will do something for them if they're nice to him. But sucking up to him probably hurts more than it helps, because they're giving him something for nothing. Why should he save a building if there are no consequences for not saving it? In Chicago powerful people don't make concessions to the powerless because the powerless are nice. They make concessions only when they have to, and they won't have to if you don't at least try to make them.

The strategy of too many preservationists rests on the false premise that preservation is about getting reasonable men and women to find areas where they can agree. But most preservation fights pit people with fundamentally contradictory interests against each other. On one side are the property owners who claim the right to do what they please with their property. On the other side are the preservationists who say people don't have the right to destroy their property if a larger public good is served by saving it. The property owners usually win because they have money, time, lawyers, and clout. They also fight harder. They don't give in. They're unapologetic. And they're fighting for a goal that most people can relate to--making as much money as they can make from selling or developing their property.

Preservationists are pursuing far fuzzier goals, like "preserving the past." I think a lot of them are embarrassed to press their argument because they think it makes them look snobby. Well, they should stop apologizing. They might be surprised how many ordinary people want to walk down a street where lovely, unique buildings evoke other eras and other times and give them a sense of rootedness.

Preservationists have to be more like the other side, taking stands and sticking to them. Actually I think a lot of them do want to be like the other side. They go to public hearings and see the developers and their hotshot lawyers in their silky suits and shiny shoes, and they probably think, I want to be a player. This is, after all, a city of deal makers. Unfortunately when preservationists try to make deals they usually lose.

Two years ago a bunch of Gold Coast residents led by Michael Moran and other Preservation Chicago activists fought to keep CVS from demolishing Monday's Restaurant, on the northeast corner of State and Division, and two buildings to the east. They did all the hard work of grassroots preservation, mostly by making nuisances of themselves. They stood on the sidewalk in the rain gathering signatures on petitions. They attended public hearings. They badgered reporters and politicians. They tried to enlist LPCI's support--but LPCI stayed out, saying other matters were more pressing.

Just when it seemed as though the activists might force CVS to find another site, LPCI stepped in to endorse a "compromise" that had been hammered out by Natarus. CVS agreed to keep the Monday's facade in return for being allowed to demolish the other two buildings. The mortified residents objected, but Natarus and other city officials dismissed them as unreasonable. After all, Natarus pointed out, it couldn't be a bad deal if LPCI had endorsed it.

Then this past March a construction crew started messing with the facade. They ripped details off the corner turret, which was then refaced "with the cheapest-looking flat material one can find," says Moran. "It looks as though a bunch of high school kids hammered flat plywood sheets onto the turret and then painted them dark green. There is absolutely no detail on the turret whatsoever. The before and after photographs of this mutilation are depressing." Where's LPCI now?

A few weeks ago a preservationist who isn't with LPCI called to pitch me a story. He went on and on about how a certain alderman was going to rezone a nice old building so it could be torn down and replaced with a "piece of crap," and called it a case of "smash-and-grab zoning." A few days later I called him back for some more quotes and discovered he'd changed his tune. "Why are you writing about that?" he asked. "It's no big deal."

It turns out that between the time he called me and the time I called him he'd talked to the alderman. He thought he'd made a deal with the alderman to save some other buildings in the ward. My guess is that this deal won't stick either. Once a building is down it's gone forever. And the buildings he thinks he's saved can still be disfigured or demolished. Then he'll turn to his "friends" in the city, and they'll say they're shocked but there's nothing they can do. It's already a routine--remember the Merc?

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe if the preservationists are really, really nice Mayor Daley will toss them a bone and tell Stroger to save Cook County Hospital. Then the preservationists can throw a fund-raising party and give Daley an award.

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