In past decades, the defining moments in Chicago historic preservation have often been times of failure.
Failures force the public to assess the cultural value of structures — to reconsider the efforts, procedures, partnerships and the meaning of the buildings chosen as subjects of advocacy to those outside of preservation, and to push those elected and appointed to govern to allow protections in place to preserve our built environment to evolve along with new threats.
The demolition of one historic building is only a topical failure, as each demolition becomes a moment of learning. Widespread demolition has a deeper impact on Chicago’s well-worn and highly-regarded architectural legacy, leading preservationists to continually ask the broader public: Do we dare squander Chicago’s great architectural heritage?
For instance, the lack of measures in place to protect the Garrick Theatre—designed by renowned architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler—from demolition in 1961, helped kick start the historic preservation movement in Chicago, leading to the Chicago Landmarks Ordinance in 1968. The destruction of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building gave rise to Landmarks Illinois in 1971. The death of photographer and preservationist Richard Nickel, whose life’s work was documenting the architecture of Louis Sullivan, would become Chicago’s, if not America’s—preservation hero story.
Later, Preservation Chicago began as an assembling of citizens protesting the demolition of the Albert Coe Mansion and St. Boniface Church in 2000. The City of Chicago’s 90-day Demolition Delay Ordinance was adopted in reaction to the demolition of the Mercantile Exchange Building in 2001.
Even after decades of progress in the form of preservation advocacy and adoption of city-level reforms, the 2014 demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital signaled that Chicago’s great architectural heritage remains as fragile as ever.
The establishment of the JRTCHS signals a new approach to defining this future. We will not wait for others to determine the building’s value or the path forward for historic preservation.
Today, we need a new measure that takes into account not whether buildings were considered trend setting at one time or another, but whether and how they impacted the lives of people. For the JRTCHS this means focusing on how the building embodies the patriotism and optimism of the 1980s and the cultural and technological transformation of that era; the resilience of urbanism and of public life in the American city, and the complex legacy of the building’s design, construction, occupation, and neglect.
Meanwhile, important questions remain that the JRTCHs can engage: Will the price of the sale be worth the value of the building as a public space? What will happen to the collection of art currently housed in the building? Will the building that replaces the Thompson Center be of equal or greater value to the current structure? Will that value be measured economically, culturally or architecturally? How will the city ensure that the transit links through the building remain available to Chicagoans? And how much say does the public really have in this process?
The JRTCHS has been formed with an awareness that preservation is reactive, but could have an alternate, proactive model. Therefore, the JRTCHS seeks to approach a singular architectural landmark not in a way that elevates its preciousness as a work of architecture, but sees preservation as a series of moving parts based on the cultural value of the structure, the stories within it, how and whom they are told to, and the will of the people.
The JRTCHS seeks to engage directly with the building’s complex history of negative publicity, technical neglect and preservation attempts, going back to the building’s construction, through the removal of some of its original granite panels in 2009, and into the present, where perspectives towards the building have come to signal the exact opposite of the optimistic ideals it was designed to represent.
JRTCHS collaborates with the people who built, work in, use, or otherwise have affinities with the building to take new preservation actions while also collaborating with those who believe the building has failed and deserves no future. Whether the building stands and remains public, stands and becomes privatized, or falls and is replaced by a new building, these actions will constitute a preservation of it and its impacts on Chicago lives, and give examples of ways that preservation can deliver cultural value.