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At most, perhaps 10 percent of what the environmental movement does advances the cause of historic preservation, but 100 percent of what the preservation movement does advances the cause of the environment.




When Preservation Involves Demolition

By Vince Michael

Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion that resonates with our primal fear of change. At the same time, preservation is change. Restoration and rehabilitation change the current status of a building from one of romantic Ruskinian decay into something new, even if it looks just as it did. The act of preservation suggests the ability to make time stand still and step outside history, arguably the greatest change of all.

All preservation projects involve interventions into the built fabric, whether it is to restore something to a state somehow lost, or to rehabilitate it for a new use. Even pristine house museums like Drayton Hall that maintain a building in a state of suspended animation require surgery; most require much more. The situation is even more pronounced in historic districts, which tend to be concerned primarily with the exterior of historic buildings. Often everything but the façade and walls are demolished.

There is a contradiction here, one of many in the practice of historic preservation. Can preservation condone demolition? Most preservationists frown on facadism, which, like moving buildings, is seen as a last resort. Yet all preservation involves demolition. I always get a twinge when I ask about the progress on the restoration of some landmark and am told "We are just starting demolition." Of course "demolition" in this case is not erasure but simply a step in the rehabilitation process.

There are more ominous cases as well, where preservationists are forced into battlefield triage: deciding to allow some buildings to be demolished so that others might be saved. Some preservationists never condone this, but most will have to at some point. When can demolition be condoned? What questions should preservationists ask when they find they are being given a choice between two evils?

First, determine the reality of the choice. Are the buildings really linked or is one simply being thrown as a sop to ease the demolition of another? Most municipal policies are rife with examples of this kind. In 1979 the city of Chicago moved an 1836 house to Prairie Avenue, making it a landmark along with four other properties, including H.H. Richardson's Glessner House. The move was widely perceived as a weak attempt to compensate for the demolition of Louis Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange in 1972. In 1987, the city promised to spend $2 million to help save the Reliance Building as a sop to demolition of the landmarked 1872 McCarthy Building.

These types of situations feature artificial links between buildings and preservationists end up being treated like any other sort of political constituency – offered something good in exchange for something bad. These are not real choices.

But sometimes they are real. In Chicago, a CVS pharmacy threatened to take down two 1880s buildings for a new corner drugstore in the Gold Coast neighborhood. The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and Alderman Burton Natarus negotiated a deal whereby CVS saved and restored the corner building with its decorative metal turret, while a brick and stone six-flat next door was demolished. One was saved and one was sacrificed.

No matter what the decision in any landmarks case, it is important to safeguard the process. What the politician wants to do is choose between the new and the old; preservation is based on the idea that you judge the old without considering the new.

Which brings up a second point: As much as it hurts, you must make a judgment about significance. I served on the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission for a few years and we approved at least four demolitions in historic districts. In one case, it was a postwar factory building that did not contribute to the district. In another it was a fairly intact older cottage that had become isolated without context in a business district. In another case a house had been heavily altered and was similarly decontextualized. In each of these cases, a decision was made "on the merits," without any quid pro quo or consideration of what would replace the buildings.

Finally, get some guarantees. You don't agree to a demolition because someone promises to do something. You agree to a demolition because there is a binding contract to really save something. One of the most frightening Frankenstein-like preservation-demolition projects in Chicago was the skinning of the McGraw-Hill Building in 1997 and the re-grafting of that skin onto a new structure. The result looked pretty good, but would not have without an ironclad contract with the city and a performance bond that discouraged developer shenanigans.

The most difficult decisions occur when a planning process genuinely links buildings together and forces the preservation commission to choose to save some buildings by allowing the demolition of others. Recently in Oak Park, the village was embarrassed by a bad downtown plan and TIF district that called for the demolition of all seven historic Tudor buildings on Westgate Street. The district made the state's most endangered list and voters were mad enough to dump the village's ruling party for the first time in 60 years.

The village had a deal to buy one of the doomed buildings, called the Colt, and local papers and leaders saw this as the opportunity to stop demolition in downtown Oak Park. A Steering Committee was appointed to come up with a plan for the Colt, Westgate, and the surrounding "superblock." Volunteer representatives of local commissions spent three months of long Tuesday nights listening to consultants, local merchants and every citizen who wanted to say something. It was a real process. A majority of the committee members went in with the idea that they would save the Colt Building. The process happened, and a majority concluded it could not be saved.

The consultants (half of whom were preservationists) found the Colt Building would require many millions to save, and more to restore. So, the committee came up with a consensus plan to demolish the Colt Building and another building for a new street. It was judged that the new street could revitalize Westgate after 70 years of malingering, thus saving the other five buildings. We agreed to the demolition with the understanding that the remaining five buildings would be landmarked. That was the guarantee.

Facadectomies are another area where preservation involves demolition. To me, these point to the limitations of architectural control. In Chicago, three un-landmarked old facades were preserved as part of the development of a new high-rise tower on Wabash Avenue downtown. They actually look pretty good, because the facades were meticulously restored, the tower is set back and with the elevated train overhead, the street retains its feeling of scale. And it was a private deal done without regulation. But then the same developer went two blocks south to a landmark district and convinced the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to allow the same thing. Three facades will be propped up, made to look much better, and then become the false front for a slender residential high-rise. But these are landmarked buildings! The problem, of course, is that developers think like lawyers – in terms of precedent. But preservation does not work that way. Historic preservation is actually quite wonderful in that it treats every case on its own merits. It treats buildings – and districts – as individuals, with distinctive qualities, issues and potential. All precedents are off.

Preservation sometimes involves demolition not because it is a weak tool, but because it is a much more refined tool than zoning or building codes; it abjures precedent and it is historical and not ideological. But since the very idea of demolition runs counter to the fundamental preservation impulse, it must be carefully scrutinized for its necessity, the intrinsic value of what is being demolished and what preservation will gain by allowing it.  

Vince Michael is director of the Preservation program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has served on the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, the Oak Park Preservation Commission, and as an expert witness for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. He is chair of the National Council for Preservation Education and the Gaylord Building Site Council.

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