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The Future of the Past

Preservationism in Chicagoland

See Illinois (unpublished)


A city that boasts to the world that it is showcase of great buildings as Chicago does, must sooner or later face up to the problems of preservation. So must a city that, having for so many years boasted it had only a future, increasingly finds its meaning in its past.

Today’s real estate investment becomes tomorrow’s historic monument, a fact that has caused no end of problems for building owners and public officials. What is the appropriate public response if private owners want to tear down a building with public significance? Where should the lines be drawn between private property rights and public benefit? What kinds of structures merit preserving and on which scale, and who decides?

History resides in things as well as facts, but physical evidence of Chicagoland’s past—or pasts—can be hard to find. The pace of its growth meant that city and suburbs were perennially rendering their pasts not only moot but invisible. In Chicago, each generation lived in a  different city, as it ferociously devoured itself through continuous renewal. What would be sight-seeing in many European cities is in Chicago more like archeology, so thoroughly has the great industrial city of the 19th and 20th centuries been buried or built over.

The number of fine buildings lost in Chicago and its immediate environs is enough to fill a book—that book being David Lowe’s admirable Lost Chicago, a sort of guidebook to ghosts. Lowe’s is not a comprehensive catalog of destroyed buildings—that would require volumes. Rather it is a selection of what the author called Chicago’s true shrines—Wright’s midway Gardens and the Masonic Temple are here, as is Adler and Sullivan’s Stock Exchange at LaSalle and Wash­ington streets, Cobb’s Potter Palmer castle, Holabird and Root’s Diana Court, and many others.

Given the furious pace at which the city grew, the fact that any of Chicago’s pre-1920s buildings survived, much less its pre-Fire ones, seems as miraculous as the survival of a child’s doll house left untouched by a tornado that wrecks everything else in the house. They may have survived the Great Fire but that is nothing compared to the wave of gentrification then blazing through Chicago’s older neighborhoods. A typical result happened in the East Village. The 1859 Nathan W. Huntley House at 836 N. Paulina St. was one of the few pre-Fire structures still standing in 2002 when it was razed after efforts to finance its move to a new location failed; it was replaced by a condo building. 

The Noble-Seymour-Crippen House at 5624 N. Newark Ave. is a City of Chicago landmark. The much-modified house includes a small south wing that dates to 1833, which makes by the city’s reckoning the “oldest building in Chicago.” The oldest house—that is, the oldest house that is complete and in substantially its original form—dates from three years after that. That would be the Henry and the Caroline Clarke House, built in 1836. She was the widow of merchant Henry Clarke, who built house at 1700 S. Michigan Ave. In 1872 it was sold and moved south to 4526 S. Wabash Ave. In 1941 it was home to Bishop Louis Henry Ford’s St. Paul Church of God in Christ—he of the Bishop Ford Expressway—which used it until 1977 when the city acquired it and moved it to South Indiana Ave., where it enjoys the protection of the Prairie Avenue Historic District. The Clarke House is an official Chicago landmark, and in 2004 was the subject of a nearly $800,000 restoration that restored it to its 1860 appearance.

All classes of structures in Chicagoland have proved vulnerable to economic weathers—stores, industrial, theaters, government offices, warehouses. A tidal wave of demolitions accompanies every building boom, but slack times led to demolitions too. Low rents meant that the owners of marginal properties could not cover the cost of taxes, much less maintenance, and many were abandoned or converted to parking lots.

The public sector proved eager wreckers too, as in the 1950s and ‘60s, when derelict tracts in and around the Loop were targeted for government-subsidized clearance under urban renewal programs. Whole neighborhoods were cleared of houses and then re-cleared. The near-in areas which long before had gone from working man’s cottages to slums were leveled and on their bones were built expressways, factories, and great public complexes.

All building demolitions are losses to a city’s sense of its own past, but it was the loss of the city’s signature tall commercial structures that would stir preservation sentiment in Chicago. The Columbus Memorial Building went down in 1959, the Schiller Building (also known as the Garrick Theater) in 1960, Holabird and Roche’s Republic Building in 1961, followed by the rubbling of the Majestic Hotel in 1965. No wonder Daniel Bluestone called it “the most destructive period in Chicago since the 1871 fire.”

Carl Condit described the clearing in 1962 of the entire ten-building Hull House settlement house campus to make room for the new University of Illinois campus there as an “act of violence visited upon the civic body.” To make amends, the University of Illinois restored (in 1966–67) the Charles Hull house that was the centerpiece of the complex. which still stands as forlornly as the entry arch rescued from Louis Sullivan's wrecked Stock Exchange, which was installed like a garden ornament on the grounds of the Art Institute at Columbus and Monroe.

No architect has suffered more at the hands of the wreckers than Sullivan, one of its acknowledged mastersn. By 1957, 137 Sullivan-designed buildings—office buildings, houses, apartment buildings, shops, small factories, even tombs—were thought to be standing in and around Chicago; by the mid-1990s, only 21 Sullivan structures still stood. It was the loss of his Stock Exchange Building in 1972 however that woke up the broader public to the scale of the mayhem. The loss of no other single building galvanized historic preservationists in Chicago as this one did. Its loss made plain how toothless was the city preservation process. The city’s landmarks commission had recommended that Sullivan’s Stock Exchange be designated an official landmark, for example, but the City Council declined to endorse the recommendation.

Even the rich man’s fashionable districts suffered, so it is impossible today to see how the other five percent lived in Chicago’s heyday. Only pathetic remnants of Prairie Avenue are left (with one exception), the old Gold Coast survives only in bits and pieces, and the old Lake Shore Drive is today lined not with mansions but with high-rise warehouses of the wealthy.

Thus it is that while most suburbs of any pretension have a rich man’s house that has been preserved (usually devoted to public use as an art center or local history museum), Chicago, which produced rich business people by the bushel, oddly, has only one that is open to the public, and even it—the Glessner House on Prairie Avenue—was saved because of its architectural merit, not to honor its owner. (Of course, many mansions have been restored for private use. The 1883 Nickerson house at 40 E. Erie, for instance, has been restored by financier Richard H. Driehaus to house his fine art and collectibles.)


Some historic structures were special-purpose buildings that were rendered outmoded by a changing economy. Many were judged too small or too primitively equipped to serve new needs. Others stood in the way of public improvements, needed and otherwise. Many might have been saved—surprisingly few were derelict—but the money or the will or (most often) the imagination was lacking.

Consider the city’s movie theaters. Television is thought to have helped kill the great Loop movie houses but over-building and the Depression had taken a grim toll long before Milton Berle ever wore a dress on TV. The Illinois was replaced by a parking lot in 1936; the Princess fell victim to the same indignity in 1941.

The neighborhood theaters suffered too. On the South Side, the Metropolitan closed as a movie house in 1979; it subsequently served as a meeting hall for Rev. Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH organization, where it offered a different kind of theatrics. The Granada Theater at 6425–41 N. Sheridan Road was demolished in 1990. In 2004, the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois listed five neighborhood movie houses on its ten-most-endangered buildings list—the Central Park (3535 W. Roosevelt Road), the Gateway (5216 W. Lawrence Avenue), the New Regal (1641 E. 79th Street), and the Patio (6008 W. Irving Park Road).

Also on the list was the Uptown at 4816 N. Broadway. In 1962 the Uptown theater sold off its Wurlitzer organ and most of its artwork, and by 1981—after short-lived incarnations as a Spanish-language movie theater and a concert venue—it was boarded up. It is perhaps the most spectacular of the city’s remaining shuttered entertainment palaces, and it remained closed in 2020 in spite of years of efforts by local buffs to secure the funding for its rescue.   

Blood on the sidewalk 

For many decades, building was what Chicago did. Prosperity makes new building possible but also makes old ones redundant. Saving buildings of aesthetic or local historic merit struck most Chicago citizens as foolish until well into the 20th century. If buildings were to be saved it was for practical reasons; until well into the 1800s, houses in neighborhoods that had become problematic were often moved rather than razed. But you can’t roll a skyscraper onto a new lot, and in the commercial heart of the city the battle for buildable sites caused as many casualties among Chicago’s early buildings as did fires.

To assert a public interest by intervening in private land market would have been heresy, blasphemy against Chicago’s civic religion, and for a century and a quarter the private sector’s right to remodel the city at will was unchallenged. “Progress” used to be the cry, and once in a while it was. The fine Field Building, (later known as the LaSalle Bank Building, still later the 135 S. LaSalle Building) that graces Adams Street between Clark and LaSalle was designed in 1931 by Alfred Shaw for Graham, Anderson, Probst and White; the project required the demolition of six buildings on the site, including William LeBaron Jenney's Home Insurance Company Building. Henry Ives Cobbs’ Federal Building, razed in 1965, was replaced by Mies’s Federal Center, which created one of the city’s magnificent outdoor rooms on Dearborn Street.

Usually, however, Chicago’s signature commercial buildings were replaced by nothing as good, and usually by something worse. The turnover of commercial buildings in the greater Loop after World War II seldom resulted in progress in architectural terms. The new buildings that replaced the old were bigger and more convenient, and presumably more profitable, but in every aesthetic and historic way they were steps backward. A good—or rather a bad—example of the trend was Sullivan & Adler’s Chicago Stock Exchange Building, demolished in 1972 and replaced by a generic West Loop glass box which Inland Architect derided as “shoddy, cheap and pretentious.”

Public landlords have proven no more alert to the merits of their old buildings—or their not so old ones. The U.S. Navy had planned to demolish two buildings built in 1942 and 1954 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in North Chicago that had been designed by two giants of corporate modernism—Bruce Graham and Gordon Bunshaft of the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. In late 2006 the Navy announced a change of heart—thanks in part to pressure from preservationists—and was exploring the possibilities (with SOM’s help) of converting one building into a museum and the other into a new base galley and club.

In Chicago, as in the rest of Chicagoland and Illinois, such follies forced people to realize that losing a loved building meant more than the loss of the structure; a little piece of the civic self—connection, continuity—is lost as well. The violence of the wrecking was nearly matched by the violence of the rhetoric among that once-small band of Chicagoans who felt the pain of their loss. Words such as “barbarous” and “vandalism” were hurled, futilely, against the bulldozers. “An incomparable heri­tage mindlessly squandered,” raged Lowe in retrospect, “pieces of gold minted by the fathers and thrown away by the sons.” Advocates gathered signatures in protest, and occasionally gathered themselves on sidewalks to protest a pending demolition or the City Council’s failure to act.

The arguments for preservation, as is usually the case with new social movements, at first fell mostly on deaf ears. The activists were derided as kooks, socialists or, worse, pansies. This mistook their motives, which were, it must be said, not always pure. Love of architecture is easy to confuse with love of oneself, in the form of  nostalgia about the city of one’s youth, or with politics; some preservationists seemed at war not with a particular developer or mayor but with the whole commercial impetus in general.

These private voices (critics call them private interests) made up a constituency. They had no power to outvote the then-Daley-dominated City Council, but they did wield a weapon to which the old man was vulnerable in ways that certain of his predecessors were not—shame. They could embarrass the city in the eyes of the rest of the nation and world by saying in effect that Chicago was such a backward place that it would could not recognize an architectural masterwork when it looked at it every day on the way to lunch—and that it was too corrupt to do anything about it if it did.

Thus began Chicago’s halting progress in building an official defense against too-hasty demolition. The story line differs little from that of other big U.S. cities. Then as now, the aldermanic culture was entrepreneurial, materialist, and Philistine. In this the members resemble the city’s real estate deal-makers (and most of its residents) much more closely than its preservationists. The aldermen saw to it that designation as a landmark under the city’s early ordinances offered a building no protection against demolition, and the commission’s recommendations were often ignored.

The City Council wakes up

The din of falling brick finally woke up a slumbering City Council. In 1957 the Chicago City Council unanimously passed an ordinance sponsored by Alderman Leon Despres establishing a Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks. The Commission was to identify and mark architectural landmarks, educate the public about their importance, and develop policies for their preservation. The first landmarks anointed by the commission, in 1962, were such essential structures as the Charnley House, the Rookery, the gate of the Union Stock Yards, and the town of South Pullman. Also nominated were the Reliance, McClurg, and Monadnock buildings and the Albert Madlener House. Most were of more architectural than historical merit, but in recent years history has gained in importance as a preservation rationale.

Today, Chicago has tougher preservation laws that contain mechanisms by which the public interest can be inserted into what traditionally have been purely private transactions involving land and buildings to protect cultural heritage (broadly defined) in the same ways that zoning laws protect the public health. The City has agencies dedicated to identification of buildings of significant value deserving of legal protection, and reviews proposed alterations, demolitions, or new construction for its effect on landmarked properties and districts. Those agencies also administer a comprehensive and largely invisible system of federal tax subsidies dating from 1968 that support the purchase and rehabilitation of landmarks of all kinds.

Chicago lags behind New York City in the enthusiasm with which it extends official recognition to its local landmarks. Even so, the list grows. As of mid-2002, 202 Chicago Landmarks (most of them buildings) had been designated by the City Council, including 4,500 properties in 34 historic districts.

Most of these official treasures are on the protected lists because they are of architectural significance, but the law also extends to structures of historical merit. Sometimes, however, it can seem that this merely expands the inventory of buildings that people must lament. This being Chicago, the power to decide landmark status is invested with the city’s elected officials, so calculations of the public interest must be made politically. This is done by balancing the interests among the parties to a deal, rather than balancing the attributes of the building itself. City Hall’s job is to mediate between developers, who wish free hand in remodeling the city, and the more ardent preservationists, who would preserve anything that is old because it’s old.

Landmark status used to be a mere honor, but in recent years it carries real benefits to the owner in the form of certain legal protections and tax breaks, and thus, ideally, to the building. The Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative, for example, is a city-wide non-profit program developed to preserve the estimated 80,000 bungalows in Chicago—about one-third of the single-family home stock. Launched in 2000 by Mayor Richard M. Daley—who grew up in a Bridgeport bungalow—the program that helps link present and potential owners with grants, reduced-rate loans, fix-up tips, and other help in maintaining and improving these regular Chicago houses. The same general approach was decided on for the Historic Chicago Greystone Initiative, announced in 2006 and intended to spark the rescue of the thousands of houses of that type that were built in the generation beginning in the 1890s in what was then the middle-class belt that circled downtown at a distance of five miles or so.

Thirty years after the Stock Exchange went down because no one at City Hall had the power to stop it, the city’s architectural masterworks are safer than ever. Even so, good buildings still disappear under the city’s nose, in some cases literally. In 2003 the graceful Beaux Arts 17-story Mercantile Exchange by architect Alfred S. Alschuler was razed at 100 North Franklin Street, just two blocks from City Hall; the buildings was near-fully occupied and in excellent condition, and its destruction elicited outrage from preservation groups. (The incident spurred a new Demolition Delay Ordinance requiring the 90-day notice before the bulldozers move in on high-ranked buildings on the city’s historic structures list.) Beginning in the 1980s, the City of Chicago compiled an inventory of its potential historic landmarks that listed 17,371 structures; a random survey by the press twenty years later found that more than 700 had been demolished.

The number of architecturally significant structures that have survived near-death experiences in Chicagoland is very large. Each has a tale worthy of a novel, heroes and villains, dramatic last-minute rescues, and happy endings. We cannot here list them all, much less tell them all. But a few will give an idea of the riches that have been saved for the present by the region’s guardians of the past.

Wright’s Robie house, at 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue in Hyde Park is arguably the most important house in Chicago. If honors had real weight, the Robie would have collapsed under the strain years ago. The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls it one of the cornerstones of modern architecture.” It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and a City landmark, finally, in 1971. (Eight years about how long it took the city council in those days to catch up with current trends.)

The Auditorium is a must on any they-don’t-make’em-like-this-anymore tour of Chicago. Critics generally agree that its opening in 1889 of Adler & Sullivan’s Auditorium on Michigan Avenue marked Chicago's emergence as a metropolis of international stature. It is not often that a single building can redefine a city this way; a recent example is Frank Gehry’s new building for the Guggenheim Museum branch in Bilbao, Spain.

This mammoth structure encompassed offices, a hotel, shops, an opera house—a Town Centre in a box large enough to comfortably house its current tenants, the whole of Roosevelt University. Both the developers and the architects were admirers of Richardson’s Marshall Field warehouse, and it shows in its rusticated stone and mass. The resemblance led cultural historian Alan Trachtenburg to ask, “Ought a civic center look like a warehouse, even the finest in the world?

The theater in Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Building is supreme blend of engineering and art. In 1929 its major tenant, the Chicago Opera Company, left for new digs in the Civic Opera House and the theater went dark most of the time. It closed altogether during the Depression, and was taken over by the city in 1941. Military personnel on leave or in transit in Chicago during World War II were catered to at four Servicemen's Centers, including one housed in the Auditorium Building—surely the most extravagant venue for free doughnuts and coffee ever, and one that ended up serving more than 24 million meals by war’s end.

In 1946, the Auditorium was purchased by Roosevelt University, which still occupies the building today. In 1952 Congress Parkway, which runs outside its south façade, was widened to the very edge of the wall on that side of the building; architects put the new sidewalk inside the building in effect, by creating a new arcade from space that had been occupied by the hotel café and its famous long bar.

As custodian of the Auditorium Building—a National Register property that also is a National Historic Landmark and a City of Chicago Landmark—Roosevelt University inherited a great treasure, and a big headache. Keeping such a building maintained, not to mention restored, has been a struggle for an institution that is not well endowed. The small school lacked the resources to restore the massive theater, and that part of the building was suffering from neglect; nominally sane people actually talked seriously of converting it into a into a parking garage or gymnasium.

In 1960 a new Auditorium Theatre Council made up of well-connected citizens raised money to salvage it, a job overseen by Chicago architect Harry Weese. The theater was reopened in 1968 after what Condit call “the greatest work of restoration and revival ever undertaken in the city, if not in the nation as a whole.” It remained a theater, but only for the likes of rocks bands; to the likes of Adelina Patti on the list of famous performing alumni were added Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and The Grateful Dead.

It took a court fight in the 1990s to decide who had the better right to control the theater—the citizens who’d saved it or the university that owned it. The university eventually won. In 2001, a comprehensive restoration of the Auditorium Theatre was begun, to general applause.

The Glessner house was built in 1887 for John J. and Frances M. Glessner to designs by H. H. Richardson in his distinctive style. The AIA Guide calls it the finest urban residence by that American master; the Glessner house was saved from demolition in 1966 by a group of architects and ten years later received National Historic Landmark status as the centerpiece of the new Prairie Avenue Historic District. It is today kept as a museum by a private not-for-profit corporation set up for the purpose.

In some cases—especially when large sums for renovation is required—the rules of ordinary commerce do not apply. The present Daley administration has been especially keen on saving Burnham & Root’s Reliance Building at State and Washington. After nearly being leveled in the 1960s, the Reliance was named a Chicago landmark in 1975, and a national landmark two years later. Like so many of its predecessors it was being demolished one small step at a time. Defaced on the outside (its cornice was ripped off) and stripped of fittings on the inside, it slipped past shabby to forlorn. Richard J. Daley had arranged for city agencies to rent floors to generate income, but when he died the deal died with him. A 1988 plan to restore it for use by not-for-profits, who were otherwise being priced out of the Loop, could not be financed. A plan to fix up the building as the national headquarters for the American Field Service fell through in mid-1992.

After the AFS deal soured, the present Daley administration spent $1.2 million to acquire the Reliance. It was reborn in 1999 as the Hotel Burnham, a 122-room upscale boutique hostelry, after a comprehensive refurbishment and renovation. 9The Hotel Burnham’s naming of its restaurant after Charles Atwood, the gifted Burnham staffer who actually did most of the building, was a nice touch.) The exterior shines again; the extensive use of glass by Atwood make a precursor of modern office buildings, which sadly, seldom match it in other ways. Inside, the original mosaic floor, multi-colored marble ceiling and walls, and elevator lobbies were reconstructed, and ornamental metal elevator grills, stairways and archways done up to resemble the lobby as it once existed.

The salvage of the Auditorium was a triumph for the city architectural as well as its theatrical history. Another Sullivan theater didn’t fare so well. Built as the Schiller Building in the 1890s, Adler and Sullivan’s 17-story Garrick Theater on Randolph between Clark and Dearborn was a model for the great “setback” skyscrapers of the World War I era. An office tower set atop an opera theater, the complex was a further elaboration of the large mixed-used building the firm pioneered with the Auditorium on South Michigan. The theater component had been built as a stage for German repertory—it was named to honor the German poet Friedrich Schiller—but that idea proved, in the parlance of a slightly later day, to be box office poison. Renamed the Garrick, it housed Broadway musicals, and—inevitably—movies until the curtain came down on it in 1960. The theater was by all accounts not just gorgeous to look at but acoustically superb. At 1,286 seats, it was the perfect size for many of today’s theater and dance groups.

Plans had been announced to tear down the Garrick even though it was still eminently salvageable, in spite of its having been vandalized for years by its own management. The fight for the Garrick helped galvanize Chicago preservationists. A plan was put together in 1960 in which the city would buy and restore the property for $5 million; the city foolishly rejected it as too expensive, and the Garrick was replaced by a parking garage. In one of those developments that makes reading history such a pleasure for the lover of the absurd, the City Chicago later bought the garage that replaced the Garrick so it could be razed to make room for—a new theater.

The injury of the Schiller’s loss was made worse by insult when terra cotta panels from it were incorporated into the façade of the hideous parking garage that was built in its place—a gesture of intended respect that the AIA Guide called “a textbook example of civic barbarity.” A fragment of the facade from the Garrick was installed on the façade of The Second City theater in 1961, and can still seen at that company’s new theater at 1616 N. Wells. “Walk past that site today,” urges Richard Christianson, dean of late 20th century theater critics in A Theater of Our Own, “and say a little prayer, rejoicing that at least some fragments of the great 17-story building were preserved and mourning that all but a small fraction of its urban grace was demolished.”

The City of Chicago has learned many a lesson in preservation basics over the years that the government of Cook County is only beginning to learn. What the Stock Exchange demolition was to the city council, the Cook County General Hospital may prove to be for the county board. The building is structurally sound, if no longer very efficient for the practice of modern medicine. A medical facilities study justified its demolition on narrow criteria in 1994; upon completion of a new general hospital in 2002, plans were made to tear down the old one.

The plan to tear down Cook County General was met by general dismay. Whatever its drawbacks as a hospital, it has better claims as an important historical site. At one time it was the largest hospital in the nation. And while it is not architecturally distinguished, it is in every way The Kind of Public Building They Don’t Build Anymore. Its Classical Revival design (with French Renaissance accents) impresses with its exuberance if not its taste.

Private preservationists

Chicagoland’s many private champions of preservation have done better at what is admittedly a much less daunting task. The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust is an international organization that, perforce, ranks with local preservationists because of the number of Wright buildings in the region. Founded in its present form in 1989, the Trust began in Oak Park 1974 as the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation, educates and advocates, administers preservation easements, and offers technical services to historians and restorers of Wright buildings. The Trust maintains Wright's Home and Studio in Oak Park and the Robie House on the University of Chicago campus.

Many a building still stands because a conscientious civic or professional group salvaged it for their own use. Typical is Richard Schmidt’s 1903 Albert Madlener house at State Street and Burton Place on the Gold Coast. “Heavens gate can be no more finely drafted that this doorway,” says the AIA Guide; the doorway, with the rest of the house attached, was acquired by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Study in the Fine Arts and expertly renovated for office use in the mid-1960s.

The James Charnley house is officially a work of the firm of Adler and Sullivan but it shows the hand of that firm’s young apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright. Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Foundation purchased the house in 1986 for its headquarters, which it shared with the Chicago Institute for Architecture and Urbanism. In 1988 the building was restored; in 1995, the Society of Architectural Historians moved its headquarters from Philadelphia into the house when it was donated to them by the philanthropist Seymour Persky.

Commercial building owners as a group they have been steadfast in their opposition to stricter landmarking laws. Too many are guilty of the cavalier treatment of what amounts to minor works of art in the name of economy, but a few have proven themselves extraordinarily conscientious stewards. Some of the glories of Chicago preservation—the Rookery and the Monadnock, to name two of the most spectacular—owe substantially to those buildings’ owners. On a smaller scale is the salvage of the Louis Sullivan-designed Krause Music Store at 4611 Lincoln Avenue. It was the architect’s the last completed commission, and over the years had been used as a a funeral home and then an art gallery. It was recently restored—exterior terra cotta repaired rather than replaced, a picture window--and renovated to house ground-floor office space with an apartment upstairs that should give it a viable financial future.

Many of the organizations that own historic structures also have demonstrated extraordinary stewardship. The Unity Temple in Oak Park is a good example but far from the only one. The University of Chicago restored such major historic structures, including Ida Noyes Hall at 1212 E. 59th Street, a Tudor Revival from 1916, Bartlett Hall (nee Gymnasium) and the Rockefeller Chapel, and, most recently a rehabilitation of the McCormick Seminary. Nonetheless, the school’s record on non-campus preservation controversies has been less stellar in view of local activists, who found themselves opposed by the university in campaigns to save Jackson Park’s Promontory Point and the crumbling Theater and Herald buildings at Harper Avenue at 53rd street.

Historic structures often are the focus, and sometinmes the inspiration, of neighborhood revitalization in Chicago. The first steps toward revivification of the historic African American district known as Bronzeville were taken in the 1980s, when local activists allied with preservationists placed six surviving buildings and a World War I memorial in the area marked by 31st and 39th Streets and State and King on the National Register of Historic Places; the sites also made up the nucleus of Black Metropolis-Bronzeville Historic District that was granted landmark status by the city in 1998.

Many of these and other local landmarks are being given new lives. The 1923 Overton Hygienic Building, headquarters of which was one of the nation's foremost producers of African American cosmetics, is now owned and being developed by the community-based Mid-South Planning and Development Commission. An aroused community also stepped in to restore the Hotel Sutherland at 4657 South Drexel, home to a music club popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, and to spare from demolition the Metropolitan Community Church, 4100 South King Drive, a Richardsonian Romanesque building. The new Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council in 1995 saved from the wrecking ball the Supreme Life Insurance Building at 35th and King, the former HQ of the first black-owned insurance company in the North; in 2005 it re-opened as the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center.

The Wabash Avenue YMCA at 3763 S. Wabash Avenue was a major social and educational center in the Black Metropolis, the center of Chicago's African American culture in the early 1900s. Opened in 1913, the Y functioned as an immigrants center for newly arrived Southerners. The facility closed in the 1970s; a four-year, $9 million restoration by the Wabash Y Renaissance Corporation, completed in 2000, brought the derelict building back to life. 

City agencies are also investing of these historic properties. In 1995 the Chicago Public Library opened a branch in the Chicago Bee Building, built in 1931 at 3647 S. State. A few years thereafter, the Eighth Regiment Armory at 35th and Giles, which was the first U.S. Armory built for a regiment trained and commanded entirely by African Americans, was acquired by the Board of Education. The building had stood empty for nearly 50 years; in restoration for use by the school systems’ first military academy won a National Preservation Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. 

Organizations consist of individuals of course, and the roster of Chicagoland citizens who may be regarded as heroes of the preservation movement is a lengthy one. Leon Despres as a freshman alderman in 1957 took on as a cause saving Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. A private residence until 1926, that masterpiece had been sold to the Chicago Theological Seminary, which used it as the damnedest dormitory any college student had the privilege of living in. When the Seminary decided to expand, plans were made to raze the house. The attention brought to this outrage by Despres and his colleagues led to its purchase by a local contractor, which at least kept it standing until, some years later, it was donated to the university.

Preservation found another champion in the Prairie Avenue Bookshop. That enterprise began in 1961 when Marilyn and Wilbert Hasbrouck founded the Prairie School Press to reprint Louis Sullivan's A System of Architectural Ornament and other reprints of titles from that era. In 1964 the Hasbroucks founded the Prairie School Review, a scholarly quarterly devoted to “America's only indigenous modern architecture.” The journal became a focus of debate architectural historians about the value of Chicago School and Prairie School buildings, and thus, implicitly, offered rationales for their preservation. In 1984, Marilyn Hasbrouck was recognized by the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for her work on The Prairie School Review and other preservation efforts.

Mention should also be made of architect John Vinci, Beatrice T. Spachner (the force behind the Auditorium Theatre Council that oversaw the salvage of that crumbling masterpiece in the 1960s), and attorney and real estate developer Marshall Holleb, who has been credited with engineering the deal that saved the Chicago Theater.


In Chicago, a mayor’s advocacy has usually been worth more to a new cause than the law. If Richard J. Daley grasped that civilizations are remembered by the buildings they erect, son Richard M. understood that they also are remembered for those they tear down. The loss of the Garrick and the Stock Exchange during the elder Daley’s administration put a stain of the Daley family escutcheon that the eldest son is eager to cleanse. The second mayor Daley has been a forceful advocate of landmarking and preservation in general (if never strong enough to satisfy zealots). Nearly half of Chicago's 200 landmark designations have occurred in the last 13 years, under the younger Daley’s administration. In fact, the National Trust granted Daley a Preservation Excellence Award in 2000.

One doesn’t usually think of martyrs to the cause of historic preservation, but Chicago produced one—photographer Richard Nickel. In the early 1950s Nickel joined other photography students at Chicago’s Institute of Design who had been assigned to find and photograph the surviving local buildings designed by the late master architect Louis Sullivan. Usually the most a student can hope for out of a class project is that it will change his grade; this one changed Nickel’s life. In addition to making photos and drawings of a building before it was destroyed, Nickel soon began taking home bits and pieces of these dismembered hulks that were headed for the dump. He took mainly ornament, including terra cotta doo-dads, stone pediments, stenciled friezes, cast metal stair railings, even chunks of balconies. He did this partly because the pieces were usually small enough to fit into his car, and partly because it was in his ornament that Sullivan had most passionately expressed his rather fulsome artistic personality. It was while on such a trip that he was crushed in the ruins of the half-wrecked building.

Nickel was not an influential scholar, nor did he organize citizens on behalf of landmarks law—he was impatient with the details of organizations and stiff-backed about political compromise—or sponsor key legislation to honor and protect fine buildings. Other people did those things. But if Nickel did not inspire the preservation movement in the U.S. as some admirers extravagantly claim, he certainly inspired it in Chicago; several of his friends and colleagues who went on to form the nucleus of today’s preservation establishment. [See also Richard Nickel.]

When new architecture gets old

If preservation is today broader in both political and conceptual terms than it was a generation ago, it also encompasses another generation’s worth of history. The buildings that are mourned today were for decades not considered precious, often not even considered to be “architecture.” And the new housing, which the group Preservation Chicago denounced as “tastelessly out of scale,” is no more so that the multifamily buildings they replaced would have been when they first went up. As for their vulgarity—the Queen Anne house with its turrets is was as vulgar compared to a Federal-style house as a McMansion is compared to a modest postwar split-level they replace.


Every real estate boom feeds on the carcasses of the city’s older building that, in commercial terms, no longer have the strength to survive. The result often is that buildings of architectural consequence are often replaced before they have time to become classics. The Masonic Temple was a famous building in its day—for a while it was the world’s tallest, a tourist destination much the way the Sears Tower is today—opened in 1892 but lived only until 1939. The Home Insurance Building, an icon of innovative engineering, was progressed into rubble in 1931, when it was but 44 years old. The Tacoma by Holabird and Roche an important early skyscraper, was wrecked in 1929, aged 40.

As a very general rule, commercial buildings have come to be remodeled every 30 to 40 years so they can stay viable in a market distorted by overbuilding. Good buildings thus get altered in ways that render them ineligible for landmark status before they get old enough to be legally protected by a landmark designation.

Many commercial and institutional buildings that were still new when the Stock Exchange went down in the 1970s, including most of Chicagoland’s architectural works by Modernist masters, are today 50 years old. Recent buildings of this sort pose awkward questions for the preservation movement. The public seldom finds such modernist buildings pretty, and they have not yet endeared themselves through long association. They still look too ”new” to most people (although they often look older than they actually are, as few Modernist buildings age well) to be considered historic in the antiquarian sense.

Typical was the controversies stirred by the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago designed by S.O.M. partner Walter Netsch. The project found detractors from the start; dubbed by a critic, "Fortress Illini," this 1965 applied expressway aesthetics to a pedestrian setting. The result was hard to maintain, and reviled by the students who had to use it. In 1992 the university approved the demolition of the original campus core and its replacement with a more conventional—and much more popular—ground-level plaza landscaped like a tradition quadrangle. That decision stirred preservationists, who insisted that the campus was a monument to Modernist thinking that was worth saving, but preserving it in its original form would have struck most people as perverse. [See also Altered Visions.]

Preservation in the ‘Burbs

However much its residents like to think that time stands still in Chicago’s suburbs, history is as inescapable a fact there as in the city. They may make less noise when they fall than Chicago’s famous buildings, but distinctive structures are going down in Chicagoland’s suburbs all the time. It is thus the rare suburb that cannot boast of having saved, and often resurrected at least one building from its past, often against the resistance of property developers and local officials worried about the loss of taxable properties.

Preservation came late to the suburbs because the need to preserve came late. History did not become an issue in Chicago’s suburbs until 1960s and ‘70s, when the pace of change wrought by postwar affluence forced on residents the kinds of questions that had long troubled Chicagoans. The newer, mostly remoter towns did not see mass demolitions until they ran out of buildable real estate and developers began to put up new buildings on the sites of old ones. In general, the farther removed from Chicago a suburb is, the later it was that the civic anxieties that underlie the preservation movement reached a critical state. Inner ring suburbs such as Oak Park took up the cause in the 1960s; the Bensenville Historical Commission—created to “encourage continued interest in” (meaning sustain the market for) historical Bensenville homes—was not created until 1985.

Whenever the seed was planted, preservation sprouted in pretty much the same way wherever it grew. Locals galvanized by the threatened loss of a cherished old railroad station or mansion experienced alarm, then dismay at the realization that buildings were unprotected and thus there was no means to assert a public will in demolition decisions, followed by the phone calls, the polite demonstrations, the founding of a not-for-profit organization, often the enlistment (or the pres-ganging) of  the local parks board or forest preserve to the cause. In Naperville in 1969, for example, the Gothic Revival church known as the Century Memorial Chapel was threatened by commercial redevelopment; to save it, residents formed the Naperville Heritage Society which raised the money needed to move it out of harm’s way.

And the result? Ann Durkin Keating, the historian of Chicago’s suburbs, has counted more than 250 historical societies in Cook, DuPage, McHenry, Lake, Will, and Kane counties in Illinois and others in Lake and Porter counties in Indiana.  Keating complains that local history tends to focus too tightly on its community. With rare exceptions, the purpose local residents save their historical monuments is not to explicate the tangled history of a community’s interactions with their neighbors. That would be to tell history, and the purpose of most local history museums is local self-definition, if not self justification.

Few Chicagoland towns have been spared preservation controversies. they tend to follow the same arc—alarm at news, scramble for funds, the hurried trips to the library to find facts to sustain claim for National Register status, the impassioned pleas at city council sessions that went way past bedtime, the check gratefully received from local angel, the years spent at bake sales and volunteer paint-and-scrape sessions.

Many towns in the urban fringe do not yet have preservation ordinances. One of them is Plainfield, which has an unusually high number of structures of all types dating from the town’s youth from 1830 to the Civil War. Several of these relics have been torn down and others moved as Plainfield has been engulfed by the tides of new building sweeping west from Joliet.


Another good example is the fate of Glenview’s Hangar One. This relic of the Glenview Naval Air Station—a Modernist gem by Andrew Rebori—was deemed significant enough that the State of Illinois added it to the National Register. Locals wanted to make it a museum of the base, and when that was shown to be extravagant. to save the building for other uses. The building was the subject of a protocol between the U.S. Navy and the Village of Glenview to the effect that it would not be razed for a year, to allow time to work out a viable future for the structure; that protection expired with no action taken, and the developer charged to convert the base into moneymaking stores proposed instead to not only tear down most of the working parts of the hangar but alter the façade.

The threat of a lawsuit by the State of Illinois forced the parties to the project to compromise in which about 70 percent of the historic facade would be saved along with the control tower as part of the new “main street”; thus reduced to décor, Hangar One now houses a book store and a café. State officials said in effect, that’s the best we can do; private landmarks guardians decried the decision.

Only a few Chicagoland suburban towns have riches in old buildings sufficient to tempt the stranger to a visit. The obvious one is Oak Park, with its trove of Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the Unity Temple. In 1976, the Home and Studio was declared a National Historic Landmark; a restoration completed in 1987 earned it the American Institute of Architects' National Honor Award.

The Kenilworth Club, now the Assembly Hall, is a community building in the center of the village used for civic events for the town's gatherings, school-related events, and private organizations' meetings. Opened in 1907, this community center sprang to life from the drawing table of Prairie School master George Maher.

In 1962, Mies’s famous Farnsworth house was bought as a vacation home by Lord Peter Palumbo, a British real estate developer and former chairman of the British Arts Council. In mid-2001 Lord Palumbo announced his intention to sell it—to the State of Illinois if legislators wished to add it to its collection of architectural trophies, to a private buyer if they did not. The prospect loomed that the house could be moved, even razed and the land subdivided. The offering price was a modest $6.2 million. Backers of the sale include some prominent Chicago business and arts leaders including former governor James Thompson, who had championed the state’s purchase of Wright’s Susan Lawrence Dana house in Springfield and who knew a bargain in landmark buildings when he saw one. But the plan drew fire in Springfield. A downstate newspaper columnist who decried the use of public money for to buy the Farnsworth house dismissed it as a loading dock at an upscale truck terminal. A last-minute rescue in 2003 saw the property purchased by National Trust for Historic Preservation with support from Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois and Friends of the Farnsworth House.

Perhaps more in the suburb than in the city, historical and architectural preservation blur. It is typically the local historical society that is devoted specifically to the salvage, restoration, and maintenance of old buildings. In many a suburb, for example, the house of the grandee was saved because it was the oldest in town or because the owner had been a leading citizen. Such houses also usually were built in styles long since abandoned, in materials no longer affordable, by craftsmen whose skills died with them, all of which makes them significant in architectural terms as well.

Such distinctions are increasingly regarded as moot. As Daniel Bluestone put it, “There is and should be little fundamental difference between sites preserved for cultural or political significance and sites designated for historical and architectural value. They all offer the possibility of forging crucial links between people and the places in which they live, work and visit.”

Resources are lacking in suburban small towns, and saving even one old building often requires contributions from a coalition of the willing. Happily, they are almost always large, which means they accommodate offices of the local historical or genealogical society and often a museum and archives to boot, which provides a sufficient civic purpose to justify the expenditure of public money which in any event often is minimal; donations of money and services and fund-raising are the usual financial props holding up aging buildings.

A good example is the house built in 1858 by Colonel Gustavus A. Palmer and his wife Henrietta at the intersection of Route 176 and Terra Cotta Road in Crystal Lake. Heirs of these early settlers of McHenry County donated “Palmer’s Corners” in 1979 to the town. A citizens group was organized as the Colonel Palmer House Restoration Association and began raising money, saw to it that the House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Palmer house stands on city land, used at nominal fee by the local park district which uses it for park programs. It also houses a library and interpretive museum of local history, and offices for the Crystal Lake Historical Society, which is spearheading its restoration.

A few Chicagoland towns have raised historic preservation to the level of civic mania. Woodstock City's efforts in preservation and adaptive reuse of historic buildings can be seen in its famed opera house and in the City Hall office building - the City's earliest public school which was built in 1906. The Todd School for Boys, attended by Orson Welles, has like many other fine old homes been restored to its Victorian beauty. Volunteer citizen commissions review all plans for signage, landscaping, new construction, and exterior modifications within the city limits in order to preserve its late-19th century ambiance. Rather as happened to the hero of the movie Groundhog Day, which was filmed in Woodstock, the town keeps experiencing the same era over and over again.

The Des Plaines River town of Lockport has turned its old status as the headquarters town on the Illinois and Michigan Canal into new civic identity. Lockport’s Historic District encompasses several canal-related sites and structures, such as Pioneer Settlement at the North Public Landing. The Illinois & Michigan Canal Museum is located in the original 1837 canal headquarters building; the 1838 Gaylord Building now houses the Illinois & Michigan Canal Visitors Center and the Public Landing Restaurant; a National Historic Landmark that is owned and managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the building was erected by the State of Illinois as a warehouse. The old canal scalehouse—canal freight charges were determined by weight—has been converted into a tourism center and rest stop. 

Indeed, Lockport’s past as a canal town threatens to crowd out memories of other periods. Since 1973 Lockport’s Settlement Village, which stands next to the canal near downtown Lockport, has offered school children a chance to explore 19th century life. There the Will County Historical Society maintains a dozen buildings, six of which are original (such as the historic Brown family cabin, which dates to the 1830s) and replicas constructed with original lumber and materials (such as a blacksmith shop and a barn).  The city wants to redevelop the land in an attempt to rejuvenate the town’s fading downtown, replacing the real buildings with, ironically, manufactured exhibits about the canal and its role in the town’s development. Plans were made to relocate the Society’s structures, but wherever it is it will not be as well-placed to attract tourists as the original site. (As of mid-2008 no site for a relocated Settlement Village has been found.)

As happened at Nauvoo and Bishop Hill, Zion was left with many relics of the experiment in Christian community that took place there. Sadly, some of the most impressive of the artifacts of John Alexander Dowie’s Christian Catholic Utopia did not long survive its collapse. The Administration Building was razed and the College Building, center of Zion’s parochial schools, burned to the ground. Shiloh Tabernacle was destroyed by fire in 1937, as was it successor, the Zion Auditorium AT 27th Street and Enoch Avenue; the latter building burned in 1959 but the Passion Play it was built to house is still performed. A candy factory from 1916 was razed in 2004.

A few buildings remain to suggest the scale of Zion’s enterprise, and its eccentricity. Over the years, Zion Home, a block-long frame building that opened in 1904, served as a hotel under many names—Zion Hospice, Elijah Hospice, North Shore Inn, Zion Hotel. The hotel, with more than 300 rooms, is considered by locals to be the largest all-frame building in the world; in addition to sheltering visitors to the church’s headquarters, it housed converts to the church while their new houses were a-building.  

The 25- room, three-story Shiloh House was built for Dowie in 1903. It is described by the faithful as a parsonage, but most others call it a mansion, complete with separate staircases for the servants and “the Master.” Dowie designed the roof to symbolize the Holy Spirit emanating from Zion City. Journalist Lloyd Lewis probably was not alone in finding it an “idiotically desig­ned dwelling.” Idiotic or not, it has been restored to its original condition, symbolic roof and all, and since 1967 has housed the Zion Historical Society, which maintains it, and its collection of local artifacts, including personal items of the Dowie family, Zion lace and related lace artifacts, and Leg braces no longer needed by those healed by Dr. Dowie.

Adaptive Reuse

There is no government largesse sufficient to sustain more than a few landmark buildings as such. A few are kept standing as museums by volunteers or willing foundations, but the owners of most of them must find new economic uses to pay for their upkeep when their original uses are not longer capable of sustaining them.

“Adaptive reuse” has long been the practice of the city’s landlords. The Fine Arts Building, a beloved artists colony and art film house at 410 South Michigan Avenue since 1896, began life in 1885 as a wagon-and-carriage factory and showroom known as the Studebaker Building. Medinah Temple at the corner of Wabash and Ontario is a rare building style in the United States. was landmarked in 2001 by the city of Chicago because it is an outstanding example of the rare Islamic Revival-style architecture, (It was built in 1912 as the headquarters of Chicago Shriners). It was converted into a Bloomingdale home furnishing store—a perfect fit in gentrifying River North.

The Dearborn Street Station at Polk and Dearborn streets is one of the oldest railroad stations in the U.S. and the last remaining of Chicago's early downtown stations.   Built in 1885, it was the terminal of the Wabash Santa Fe and Grand Trunk and other main-line railroads. Railway traffic to the station ended in 1971, and in the 1980s the building was converted to retail and commercial use as a community center for the new Dearborn Park residential development that was installed on the yard behind it.

The Chicago and North Western Railway Power House at 215 N. Clinton Street, which is listed on the National Register of Historical Places, has been given a new future as an office and retail building in the booming West Loop. The 1887 LaSalle Street Cable Car Powerhouse housed the engines that moved through channels laid in streets two miles of cable that pulled the cable cars that brought 100,000 workers into downtown Chicago each day; the building survives, and in 2001 the Chicago City Council designated it an official landmark. For a time the powerhouse was, incongruously, a popular restaurant partly owned by basketball star Michael Jordan, and sported a giant basketball on the roof.

Saving and reusing old industrial sites as relics is tricky. They often are polluted, and in any event are too large for the typical local historical society to maintain. A few survive nonetheless to tell their stories. In Kane County alone Batavia’s Campana Factory, a watch factory and railroad shop in Aurora, and Elgin’s watch works have been wholly or partly saved. Elsewhere in the region one finds warehouses, iron works, and mills venerated as honored ancestors.

The Graue Mill in Oak Brook is typical of thousands of facilities whose technology once powered America. The three-story mill was built in 1852 by Frederick Graue, and it used an undershot water-wheel, wooden gearing system, belt power transmission, and bucket elevators that for three generations ground wheat, corn, oats, and buckwheat in the settlement of Brush Hill (now Oak Brook). Designated an Illinois Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, Graue Mill survives as the only operating waterwheel gristmill in Illinois.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation bestowed its 1999 National Preservation honor Award on the Walter Payton Roundhouse for the renovation in 1996 of Walter Payton’s Roundhouse in Aurora, the restaurant occupying the only standing full stone railroad roundhouse in the United States.

The remnants of the old Illinois and Michigan Canal posed even knottier problems for preservationists. Until the 1960s, History, as embodied in historic structures, sites, and buildings, was set aside the way that Nature is set aside in nature preserves—a thing apart from the every day, sequestered, pristine, remote. However, history, by virtue of the nature of the place, mingled with the present along the I&M. Like history itself, the canal corridor was a bit of a jumble of the canal and associated buildings, later factory sites, and nature that had survived on bits of land that the 20th century had no use for. No one part of it was important enough to merit attention; together, all of it did.

You wouldn’t think you’d find an adaptive reuse for a bridge, but it’s been done. In 1898, the then-Chicago Sanitary District built a swing bridge across the Sanitary and Ship Canal at 135th Street in Romeoville. The two-span, 302-foot-long steel truss bridge delayed road traffic when it was open, and was too low for many river craft to get under it when it was closed. By the 1990s it also had become so rickety from age that heavy trucks could not cross it, so it was officially closed in 1990. Whatever its deficiencies as a bridge, it had acquired stature as an artifact of an age, and as the only remaining example of this type of bridge in Illinois was designated by the State of Illinois as historically significant, making it eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The old bridge was removed, moved, fixed up, and reinstalled on the nearby Centennial Trail, a public foot and bicycle path that runs through the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal National Heritage Corridor, complete with cast concrete piers sheathed in stone from the original substructure to recreate its original appearance.


Sometimes what save an old building is not a new use but the coming of a new era. What happened to the city’s pleasure palaces—its theaters—was typical. Overbuilding, then the Depression, then the opening of more convenient movies houses in the city and the suburbs, then television, finally, in the 1980s, racial unease meant that ever fewer Chicagoans traveled downtown to go to the movies.

So poor was the Loop as a ticket-selling venue that in 1970 the city eventually had much of the downtown theater district, including the Chicago, designated a "blighted" area in order to qualify it for urban renewal funds; the prospect of being taken for urban renewal led the canny theater owners to stop upkeep of their properties, which only sped their decline. According to plans, the city would buy the Chicago theater, bulldoze it and several other nearby theaters and retail establishments, and subsidize the construction of new office towers on the cleared land.

The Loop these days is a brighter place in every way, especially for theaters. The Oriental was  restored in a joint project of the City of Chicago and Toronto-based production company that wanted venue for live touring live shows. It reopened in 1998 as a key part of the city news Loop theater district.

The Chicago closed in 1985, awaiting death by urban renewal. Local preservationists formed a not-for-profit group that, with money from the city bought it from owners and restored it as venue for live theater—the first blossom in the garden of new and restored houses that make up the Loop theater district.

As in the city, suburban theaters were often the most spectacular structures in town, matched on by the mansions of the rich in opulence and not even by them in exuberance. The inventory of saved theaters is gratifyingly larger in the suburbs, in part because the pressure to redevelop is less punishing than in the Loop. Woodstock Opera House built in 1890, the facility has seen its stage graced by such personalities as Jane Addams, Orson Welles, Paul Newman, Tom Bosley, Geraldine Page, Shelly Berman, Arlo Guthrie, Dizzy Gillespie, Eugenia Zuckerman, Beverly Sills, and Maya Angelou. Restored in 1977 to its original "Steamboat Gothic" beauty, the structure now serves as a regional performing arts center.

Joliet’s Rialto closed in the 1970s and was on the verge of being turned into a parking lot before Joliet realized that every town has parking lots but not every town has a rialto. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and renovated between 1979 and 1981, as a performing arts center—the Higher Vaudeville house. Since restoration, as the Rubens Rialto Square Theater, again hosts potpourri of talent, from Mel Torme to the Oak Ridge Boys. its Barton Grande Theatre Pipe Organ, the largest Barton Grande still in use in an American theater, is considered a national treasure by the American Theatre Organ Society and its 22-foot-long "Duchess" is the largest hand-cut chandelier in America.

The 1,800-seat Genesee Theatre at 203 N. Genesee Street in Waukegan closed in 1982 and was left a rotting hulk by age and neglect; it was rescued in 2001 when the Waukegan City Council voted to renovate it as part of a downtown renovation project.; after some delay and much debate, it reopened in 2004 after a $23 million renovation that expanded its capacity to more than 2,400 persons. One can hardly buy fittings for such showplaces of the shelf; restorers of the Genesee had to buy an used chandelier from Seattle and a Barton pipe organ from Milwaukee to finish the job.

But salvaging theaters have proven no easier in some suburbs than in Chicago. In 2007, the Du Page Theatre, a Rapp & Rapp palace that had stood at 109 S. Main Street in Lombard since 1928, was demolished. The National Register building had been vacant for more than 20 years, and the village was unwilling, and local volunteers unable, to restore it. 

An era ended in 2007, when the 21-acre Lake Bluff estate known as Lansdowne, reckoned by some to be the last of the great lakefront properties on the North Shore, was sold to a developer who planned to subdivide it, the same fate suffered by all the other of the perhaps three dozen such estates built 1910 and 1940.

Relics of the industrial estate


Only bits and pieces of the old industrial Chicago survive, like shards of pottery on the ground that betrays the long-ago presence of Pottawatomi. In River North, the remnants of its past as a industrial and warehouse center are everywhere, but invisible to the uninformed eye. They exist in the building facades and in the names atop the buildings. The right-of-way of the city’s first rail line, which ran down Kinzie Street to the river docks and grain elevators and implement factories, still exists, if now unused. Some of the warehouses that once lined the river harbor survive. The Reid, Murdoch and Co. building (1914) on the north side between Clark and LaSalle now houses City of Chicago offices. The Pugh Warehouses on Ogden Slip (later known as North Pier Terminal) were built in 1905 and converted in the 1980s and ‘90s into shops, restaurants, and offices. Chicago Varnish Company Building at 33 W. Kinzie Street was built in 1895 to a design by Henry Ives Cobb as the headquarters of one of the leading varnish manufacturers in the nation. (Since 1987 this City of Chicago landmark has housed Harry Caray's Restaurant.)


The Montgomery Ward and Co. Catalog House that hugs the North Branch at 600–618 W. Chicago Avenue was built in 1907–08 and was the equivalent of Sears’s massive Merchandize Building on the West Side. An early reinforced-concrete building, it encloses 1.25-million square feet of warehouse and office space. The building, listed as a National Historic Landmark due to its significance in the history of American retailing, has since been converted to high-tech boutique and upscale condos. (The building that Ward’s vacated to move to the riverside location still stands on Michigan Avenue.)


Much more has been lost than has been saved. The city is forever knocking itself down and building itself according to new plans. What was sight-seeing are now more like archeology, so thoroughly has the great industrial city of the 19th and 20th centuries been buried or built over. Once, all manner of business was conducted with block or two of the Chicago River—retail, banking, and wholesale along Lake Street on the south bank, railroads, factories and mills and elevators on the north. Time has obliterated most of the physical reminders of these earlier industrial and trading city, as office buildings condos and townhouses line the river and its branches on land once used for lumber yards and warehouses, tanneries, and factories. The visitors who has heard of Chicago as a great rail center, for instance, will be mystified by today’s downtown. The railroads—whose presence made the fortunes and shaped the development of the city—are all but invisible in the city center today.


Just as farmland was eaten up to feed the manufacturing economy, older factory sites were eaten up to feed the appetite for new service and residential facilities. A good example is the transformation since the 1990s of the old industrial West Side near downtown, which has become a high-end residential district. The dining, hotel, shopping, and condo area lately known as River North—lately a desirable address for dining, hotels, galleries, and upscale residences—was Chicago’s first factory district, a part of town that the posh set wished to have no connection with, apart from the money they could take from its gas works, brick works, tanneries, rail yards, distilleries, and Cyrus McCormick’s first reaper works.


Factories for decades were dreaded as the ruin of a good neighborhood; beginning in the 1980s, good neighborhoods were threatening factories. The decline of the value of land occupied by aging or defunct factories attracted developers with lists of condo-buyers in hand to places such as Goose Island. In 1990, however, Mayor Richard M. Daley declared Goose Island the city's first Protected Manufacturing District, lest the city’s industrial tax base be loft-ed out of existence.


The visitors who has heard of Chicago as a great rail center, for instance, will be mystified by today’s downtown. The railroads—whose presence made the fortunes and shaped the development of the city—are all but invisible in the city center today.


The Dearborn Street Station at Polk and Dearborn Streets is one of the oldest railroad stations in the U.S. and the last remaining of Chicago's early downtown stations. It was the terminal of the Wabash Santa Fe and Grand Trunk and other prominent railroads. Built in 1885, its last train pulled out in 1971. In the 1980s the building was converted to retail and commercial use as a community center for the new Dearborn Park residential development that was installed on the yard behind it.


Illinois Center, a clutter of undistinguished skyscraper at the river and Michigan Avenue, was erected on platform atop the Illinois Central’s freight and commuter yard. (The Metra commuter line which inherited the railroad, survives beneath the Prudential Tower.) Central Station, a massive residential project, was built in the yards of the company’s main truck line station on the lakefront at 12th which was demolished in 1974. Nearby, River City, Bertrand Goldberg’s sinuous apartment complex, went up on the site of the Grand Central Railway Depot at South Wells and Harrison Streets. The LaSalle Street station, constructed in 1903 as a station for the Rock Island, New York Central and Michigan Central Railroads, was made to disappear in the mid-1980s and was replaced with an office building that contains the Chicago Commodities Exchange trading center. (Metra commuters still ride on the former Rock Island trackage.) The Beaux Arts Northwestern station at Canal and Madison which was the terminus of the C&NW was replaced in 1987 by the massive Citicorp Center skyscraper, purportedly the only skyscraper with a full-sized train station in its lobby.


Among the more remarkable transformations was achieved along Lake Calumet. Harborside International Golf Complex in 1994 opened two 18-hole courses, a 58-acre practice facility, and a golf academy on 450 acres of former landfill. Bulldozers were again making the landscape fit for its new future, only this time the dumps were capped and wetlands built instead of drained. The resulting transformation is roughly the equivalent of Chicago being turned into Florence.


Some wartime factories were converted relatively quickly to other uses, such as the recycling of Albert Kahn’s famous Amertorp Naval Ordinance Plant into the Forest Park Mall. O’Hare Airport was grafted onto the stump of the World War II plant where the Douglas Aircraft Company made C-54 “Skymaster” cargo planes.  Ford City, the city’s largest mall, opened in 1965 on the site of an abandoned factory on Cicero Avenue once used to make bomber engines and, briefly, automobiles. 


Farther west, the old Kroehler furniture factory at 200–300 E. 5th Avenue is today part of the Naperville Historic District. The company’s Main Plant has been restored as Fifth Avenue Station and today houses offices, shops and restaurants, and a School of Performing Arts. Next to the Naperville Train Station & the Naperville Historic District. In most suburbs, however, many a giant factory was simply erased from the landscape so their land could be used for malls, parks, and new houses. The massive Hawthorne Works in Cicero, which was to telephone-making what Packingtown was to bacon, is now a shopping center; The corporate predecessor of the Jewel-Osco Co. had relocated its Chicago operations in 1930 to one of the early suburban headquarters complex—low-rise office building set in park-like grounds on Lake Zurich Road in Barrington. The old Jewel Tea property was acquired in 2002 by the Barrington Park District and the building demolished (after the usual ineffectual protests by preservationists) so the site could become the new Citizens Park.


Retail structures have especially brief lives. They are either abandoned or remodeled into new versions every decade or so. Few such structures survive intact. One is 1 Riverside Road in Riverside, one of the nation’s earliest (1871) examples of a multi-shop, commercial building—a form that been imitated, usually badly, thousands of times in Chicagoland in the 130 years since it opened.


Grand houses and estates


Lakefront estates were the last stop in the decades-long search by Chicagoland’s very rich for a place where a man might get a quiet night’s sleep. An early mansion district popped up along South Michigan Avenue, but it was leveled by the Great Fire. Historian Robert Fishman reports that when Olmsted designed Riverside, he feared that the houses then being built—which he damned for their “uneasy pretentious air” among other faults—were unlikely to be worthy of the setting. Elia Peattie found the same sort of houses in the city forty years later. “Money has been almost recklessly spent upon them,” Peattie told readers of The Atlantic in 1899, “and there they stand in bewildering diversity, imitating all manner of things, from Florentine palaces to castellated feudal strongholds, and reaching for miles . . . . ” The criticism directed at them by the sophisticated does not seem to have lessened their popularity one bit.

After the fire of 1871, business moguls and others of what has been called “the sifted few” rebuilt farther south, along Prairie Avenue, a quick carriage ride from the office and still catching the lake breezes. Prairie Avenue grew steadily after 1860; by 1870 Prairie Avenue between 16th and 18th streets was lined with upper-middle-class Italianate-style residences. The street became a haven of the truly rich when George Pullman and Marshall Field chose it as the location for their new homes, and other families, sheep-like, followed these goats south. (The move to Prairie Avenue figures in the novel, With the Procession by Henry Blake Fuller.) Soon the street between 16th and 22nd streets housed the families of Philip Armour, William Kimball, and John and Frances Glessner, among others.

In the late 19th-century, the Prairie Avenue neighborhood was widely recognized as the city's most elegant—a word that in Chicago was usually pronounced “expensive”—address. (David Lowe called Prairie Avenue a Fifth Avenue for the entire Midwest.) The houses were city mansions—compact but unbelievably opulent in the Victorian way. They exploited the masters’ bank accounts and the skills of the craftsmen in wood stone and glass who had swarmed into the city from Europe. Photographs of their public rooms look to modern eyes look like the lobbies of tourist hotels or the better class of brothel.

Mansions also lined kindred districts farther south such as Kenwood until those districts were crowded by the working class or fell victim to the revolution the rich set loose on the city that saw the whole city turned into a workshop. By the 1920s, South Michigan Avenue became a strip of automobile showrooms and many Prairie Avenue mansions become high-class rooming houses or were converted to offices. Lloyd Lewis in 1929 resorted to that too-familiar euphemism in calling the Prairie Avenue district “an area in transition,” in the same way that a dying duke may be said to be in transition. Most of what Lewis called “sad old eyeless houses” were torn down between the Great Depression and the 1960s. That the mansions of the business elite were ruined by business expansion may satisfy the class-conscious, but it probably hardly bothered the rich at all; it was the natural order of things, so they shrugged their tailored  shoulders and built again somewhere as yet unspoiled.

One of those unspoiled places was the near North Side, once a bridge across the Chicago river made that part of town accessible. The district around Rush and Erie was address o so many of the family of the reaper king that it was known as McCormickville. The biggest pile of all was the Potter Palmer mansion on Lake Shore Drive, which had a vulgarity of almost Las Vegan proportion.

It is hard to imagine today that mansions might be victims of tear-down phenomenon, but that’s exactly what happened along North Michigan and Lake Shore Drive. The presence of the rich made such areas desirable to their inferiors, and in time the mansions would be replaced one by one with apartment blocks and then condo towers. Lavish in size materials and pretension, few of the founding houses survived even a half century. Only bits of the Gold Coast survive to remind us of the lifestyles of the business kings.

Like the city mansions built by their fathers, the country villas of the business elite were seldom architecturally prepossessing, most of them being not very respectful faithful imitations of European estate houses. At best they were pretentious, at worst vulgar. The suburbs were littered with them. Hawthorne Farm was the 4,445-acre estate in what is now Vernon Hills of Samuel Insull, founder of Commonwealth Edison Company. Beginning in 1903, Insull developed a model farm where he might indulge his hobby of raising pure-bred Swiss cattle and blooded Suffolk-Punch draft horses. The 30-room mansion sat amid 101 landscaped acres that included sunken gardens, artificial lagoons, bird sanctuaries, a swimming pool, lodge, and greenhouse. (Its architect was Benjamin Marshall, who was accustomed to working on this scale—he designed the Blackstone and Drake Hotels.) Like so many of its day, the house itself was done up in Venetian style—the closest things to canal in central Lake County in those days were drainage ditches—including a 40-foot-high great hall with arcaded balconies, sky-lighted ceiling, and a grand staircase. No expense was spared—Insull spent more than $3,000,000, or roughly $60 million in 2000 dollars—on 17th-century tapestries, a custom-made gilt grand piano, and a swimming pool of travertine marble.

Next door to Hawthorne Farm—which meant in the case of the Lake County estates, in the next township—was the thousand-acre J. Ogden Armour estate, Mellody Farm. Armour was reckoned by some to have been the second-richest man in the world thanks to the pork-packing fortune piled up by his father. He built a vast playground in the valley of the Middle Fork of the Chicago River. (A driveway two miles long led to a main house that measured 180 x 500 feet, equipped with twenty marble fireplaces.) Armour lived there from 1909 until he went broke in 1921. 

Lake County was not the only desirable refuge from Chicago’s dangers. Publisher Joseph Medill was the original owner of the 500-acre estate in Wheaton known at that time as Red Oak Farms. The place was used off and on as a McCormick family country retreat; Medill’s grandson was Colonel Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Tribune, who took possession of the house in 1920 and renamed it Cantigny after the World War I battle in which his Army unit had fought. (He had the sayings of the French and American generals at Château Thierry written in gold on a ceiling.)


The Colonel also rebuilt it, in the early 1930s, expanding his grandfather’s Beaux-Arts house into a proper mansion—35 rooms, 12 fireplaces, 13 bathrooms and four staircases—that would be reminiscent of the McCormick’s 18th century plantation home in Virginia. A visitor to the upstairs living room reportedly described it as larger than the waiting room of the 30th Street Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad in Philadelphia.) Apparently the surgery was a success; Robert McCormick liked it enough to live in the house until his death in 1955.

Mayslake is an 848-acre country estate in Oak Brook built beginning in 1919 to designs by Benjamin Marshall for coal king Francis Peabody, who died only three years later while fox hunting. His widow and son marked the spot where he had died with Portiuncula Chapel, a copy of a chapel at Assisi. Mayslake was deeded to the Franciscan Order of the Sacred Heart in 1924, which opened a retreat house there that proved so popular that in 1951 they added a 100-room wing.

George and Nelle Fabyan came to the Fox River Valley in the early 1900s and bought a small farmhouse on ten acres south of Geneva. This seed sprouted over time into Riverbank, an estate of nearly 600 acres that at its peak required the services of more than one hundred staff. Like so many of Chicago’s first-generation gentry, Fabyan indulged himself running a model farm. He also built several follies—a private zoo, several ornamental gardens, and a five-story “Dutch-style windmill (in fact built elsewhere by a German immigrant in the 1850s and moved to the grounds in order that Fabyan might grind wheat for his own bread during World War I), even a lighthouse.

By the late 20th century, even the rich couldn’t afford to live like rich people. Chicagoland’s rural estates were being subdivided, to the delight of local taxing authorities but usually to the consternation of neighbors. thanks to the generosity of the owners and the U.S. tax laws, many of these rich-man’s estates have been given over to the public use. They are perfect ready-made parks, nature preserves, and museums.

Successful North Shore architect Howard Van Doren Shaw built “Ragdale” for his family on a 55-acre estate in Lake Forest where he lived until his death. (The foundation that now owns it describes it rather grandly as the “ancestral home of the Shaws;” it was built in 1897.) Since 1976 it has served as the artists’ retreat that bears its name.

Adlai E. Stevenson II, Illinois governor and UN ambassador, in 1938 built a house on 70 acres of Lake County south of Rt. 60 and St. Mary's Road near Libertyville; what he  called “the farm” is now owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve District, which hopes to turn it into an educational institute devoted to international studies, in cooperation with DePaul University.

The villa of J. Ogden Armour’s Mellody Farms today houses the Lake Forest Academy, one of the North Shore’s tonier private schools (the former single-family home accommodates some 400 students) but much of the estate itself has been turned into a protected nature preserves. The gatehouse of the estate has been converted into the Lockhart Family Nature Center run by the Openlands Project.

John F. Cuneo, prominent Chicago businessman, philanthropist and gentleman farmer, in 1937 purchased the Insull mansion in Vernon Hills left vacant when the latter tycoon (to use a local vernacular) lammed it to London, and the house remained the Cuneo family home until 1990. It is now the Cuneo Museum and Gardens, 75 acres of lakes, fountains, formal gardens, antique classical statuary, a private nine-hole golf course, and a conservatory housing exotic plants.

Elmhurst’s Wilder Park was laid out in 1868 as White Birch, the estate of Seth Wadham, local boy who made good; his house eventually became the Elmhurst Public Library, having been sold for the purpose by a later owner for a nominal sum. (The building thus served, expanded and remodeled, into the 1990s.) The Du Page County Forest Preserve District bought Mayslake Hall and its 90-acre grounds in 1992.


After the death of Nelle Fabyan, the Forest Preserve District of Kane County purchased 235 acres of Riverbank; the grounds are open to the public, as is The "Villa" redesigned by Frank Lloyd Wright as a museum containing part of George Fabyan’s collections of bric-a-brac.  The Villa was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and today is a museum dedicated to the history of Riverbank; it also houses their varied collections, some furnishings, and many historic photographs. The Japanese Garden has been partially restored and replanted. The Windmill, also a National Historic Place, was completely restored by 2004.

In Col. Robert McCormick, who always knew what the people of Illinois needed,  left Cantigny for their “pleasure and improvement.” Cantigny today is a public park and recreation area located. Grounds include the numerous gardens, the First Division Museum, and two golf courses, including Cantigny Youth Links, which is dedicated to introducing young people to the game. The Robert R. McCormick Museum is a historic house museum that depicts the exploits of that fabled publishing clan, or at least to their self- importance; the mansion interior was recently restored to its 1937-1955 appearance.  

Historic bric-a-brac

Smaller structures with no feasible economic use get preserved as relics. Scarcely a town in the Chicago hinterland, for example, cannot boast of a restored/reconstructed/relocated log house and one-room school, the twin icons of the pioneer era as it wishes to be recalled by today’s residents. (The most common structures probably were the barn and the outhouse, but these are not generally thought worthy of preservation.)

Winnetka’s Schmidt-Burnham log house is the oldest house in Winnetka and hopeful locals insist that it may be the oldest log structure in Cook County. It dates from around 1837, and in the days of stagecoach travel was one of the several pre-railroad pioneer hotels on the way from Chicago to Green Bay. In 1841, it was bought by the Schmidts, German settlers who lived there for two generations. They sold it in 1917 for $25—given real estate prices in Winnetka today, perhaps the most amazing part of the story—to local artist Anita Willets-Burnham who was drawn to its quaintness.


Burnham moved the house to a new lot three miles away, at 1407 Tower Road, and restored it to its original condition.; her heir left it to the Winnetka Historical Society in 2001. The old place could still stand up to lake winds but not to development pressure, so the Society moved it in 2003 to Crow Island Woods, on land provided by the Winnetka Park District; there the house is an incongruous neighbor to the modernist Crow Island School. No rude cabin—this is Winnetka, please—but a two-story log house, was opened in 2006  to the public as a living history site.

Sholes School was moved to Kane County’s LeRoy Oakes Forest Preserve, and since its restoration has been used regularly as a classroom by thrill-seeking students and teachers who want to relive a school day as it was 100 years ago.


Historic Works of Art

It is not only historic structures that are at risk. Many works of art not intended to commemorate history have become historic themselves by dint of the fame of their creators or because of their own long presence. They are can fall prey to careless handling, official indifference or, in the case of outdoor statures and other works, weather and pollution and vandals.

One such work is the Fountain of Time at the west end of the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park. Intended by artist Lorado Taft as a meditation on the passage of time, it was itself a victim of time, or rather weather working on it in the years since it was made in 1922. The Chicago Park District has spent more than $2 million from various sources to restore it and the sculpture's reflecting pool.

Another good example is the “The Republic,” also know as the Golden Lady, the one-third-size replica of the welcoming statue that stood at the World’s Columbian Exposition is nearby Jackson Park, which gleams again at 63rd and Richards in Hyde Park after a recent restoration.

Over the years, dozens of murals painted in public buildings by artists employed by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration had been painted over, covered by new ceilings or walls, or removed and stored and forgotten. Such works are by now themselves historic documents of the Depression, in aesthetic and social terms, that merit preservation.

The Chicago public school system, for example, is the trustee of a sprawling public art collection. Back in 1908, Kate Buckingham, president of the Chicago Public Schools Art Society, commissioned ten murals at Lane Technical High School; forty more murals from the General Motors Exhibition Hall at the World's Fair "Century of Progress" became a part of Lane's collection in 1934. After 60 years these beauties were showing their age; a restoration was begun in 1995 and by 2000 all could again be seen as they first appeared.

The Lane Tech rescue project spurred similar efforts in other Chicagoland schools. The Chicago Public Schools paid for 17 restorations in mid-1990s; once they realized the scale of the task ahead of it, CPS hired art conservators to advise on rest. The resulting survey cataloged a trove of nearly 8,000 art objects, of which 1,500 turned out to be original murals, paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Several hundreds were restored by 2002.  



Living history 

Today, suburban Chicago is part of Illinois’s most urbanized corner, but most of its land for most of its postsettlement history was devoted to farming. That development consumes farmland is a commonplace in the 21st century; what surprises people is to learn that it has been going on since the 19th. Robert Bray in Rediscoveries, points out this passage from A Prairie Winter (1903), a diary putatively recording the actual life of a woman living on a farm near Mokena,  in Will County. In her diary, the unnamed author recalls looking to the northeast on autumn evenings and seeing “a fitful glow . . . the beacon of civilization . . . . Chicago!”

To many a committed farmer, that glow on the horizon looked more like the campfires of an advancing army. Land that is good for farming—flat, well-drained, near roads or railroads—also is perfect for building on. As suburbanization gathers momentum, the rate of loss tends to accelerate. Nearby development pushes up land prices, makes farm operations difficult, and raises costs (not least from vandalism), both of which are incentives to sell out. As a result, the housing subdivision or the mall is the last crop grown on many a Chicagoland farm.

There are not many farms left in Chicagoland. According to the U.S. Department of Revenue, In Lake County, for example, from 1997 to 2002, the number of farm acres dropped sharply, from more than 50,000 to just under 39,000, a decrease of 22 percent.

The story is the same for other counties in the Chicago area. In Cook County, the number of farm acres dropped 40 percent from 1997 to 2002. Nearly 10 percent of Will County's and more than half of Du Page County's farm acres vanished during those same five years, according to the USDA's Census of Agriculture. (In Illinois, the number of acres of farmland stayed virtually the same from 1997 to 2002, according to the Census of Agriculture.)


Like the $50,000 starter house, working farms—as distinct from “hobby farms, horse farms, and the like—are something found only on the urban periphery, which gets more peripheral every year. Kane, McHenry and Will counties are at that stage of development where Lake and Du Page were a generation ago; 1/3 to 1/2 of their farmland still being farmed as the new millennium began. Kane County agricultural land still covers about 60 percent of the county; officials hope to retain two-thirds of that through 2020 through aggressive zoning and other protections.  

That lost world survives only in dreams of the hobby farmers and exurban house buyers. The suburban homestead is of course the very model of the 19th farmstead, complete with livestock in the form of family pets the fenced pasture, the garden, even the tractor. In its more refined version, the nostalgic farmstead informs sub housing developments in literal ways. At Prairie Crossing, the central Lake County “conservation community,” the yards tend toward prairie grasses, and the houses—upscale versions of what is offered as the traditional Illinois farmhouse. The centerpiece of the development—where the strip mall would ordinarily be—is a certified 90-acre organic farm; a Lake County dairy barn, was built in 1885 and restored in 1996, serves as a community center and is the venue for broadcast chamber music concerts.

In the farther reaches of Chicagoland, where farming still a occupation and not a recreation, farming is often controversial. Farmers complain that the new kids treat fields as playgrounds. Farmers and exurbanites perennially at odds over how much ought to be spent on school and roads, and who ought to pay it. Exurbanites treasure farms as open space and so lament their passing, but also complain about farm machines clogging up narrow county roads. Exurbanites expecting a rural Eden are often dismayed to learn that modern farming is a quasi-industrial process—it has been since the days of Cyrus McCormick’s reapers began. and the noise and fumes from grain dryers and field machinery and pumps and dust and manure smalls. and impatient commuters trapped behind a plodding combine on one-lane township road don’t want to hear about enduring values.

The Chicagoland citizen that most miss farm neighbors are the one who never had any. The urban nostalgia for farm days is general. For decades, Illinoisans couldn’t wait to escape their farms and stay, if only for a night, in the city. These days urbanites spend weekends on the farm—or at least in farm buildings, that have been converted into B&Bs with all the amenities. Typical is Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, whose silo now houses a comedy club and whose milkhouse is now a dinner theatre and Restaurant; a two-story restored 1836 barn in Geneva has been refitted as a bed & breakfast inn.

Chicagoland is home to many displaced Midwesterners with farm roots who look back nostalgically on a life that their ancestors were happy enough to escape. Together with urbanites who wish their children to learn about a simpler and supposedly better era, they make a significant market for the “heritage farm” or “living history” farm.

Heritage farms have another and more dubious appeal. To the urbanite, the model farm was “nature” embodied, and its should not surprise that early farms are now regarded in the same category as nature preserves, the antithesis of the natural not being human, but the industrial. In the murky past that exists inside most Illinoisans’ heads, it was developers who destroyed the prairie and savanna of presettlement Chicagoland, not its farmers. Tellingly, most of the region’s living history farms have preserved a patch of (usually restored) prairie, which is more than the farmers ever did.

Living history farms are not quite as ubiquitous in the suburbs as golf courses, but in 2005 there were nearly a dozen were operating in Cook, Du Page and Will Counties alone. Among them are:

● Garfield Farm and Tavern, listed in the National Register of Historic Sites, is a 281-acre farmstead and former 1840s teamster inn 40 miles west of Chicago and 5 miles west of Geneva. The Garfields continued to farm it until 1977, when the family left the property to be used as an outdoor classroom to teach about America's prairie farm heritage. Three original 1840s buildings—the 1842 hay and grain barn, the 1849 horse barn, and the 1846 inn—survive with three later barns (1860-1906) on the site.

● Wagner Farm is the last working farm on the North Shore. It was operated continuously by the Wagner family from 1840 until 1997. The Glenview Park District purchased the farm in 2000 with the help of $7.2 million voted by Glenview residents for the project. The district runs it as a working farm museum depicting farming practices of the 1920s to the 1950s. (A relatively new addition to the farm is a replica of a 1920's United States Dept. of Agriculture-designed chicken coop.) Fund-raising is underway for a new Heritage Center at the site.

● The park district in south suburban Mokena bought the 115-acre Yunker farm in 1997. They set aside 62 acres of it as an example of the town's rural roots; a smokehouse, a corncrib, and a gable barn have been preserved as part of a living farm. The Yunker is only one of a whole series of living history farms imagined in the South Suburban Calumet Area Open Space Initiative announced in 2004 that would show the evolution of farming techniques from the 18th Century to the present.

● The Kline Creek Farm in Winfield, where the Du Page County Forest Preserve District recently equipped with a half-million-dollar center at to educate the public on the county's agricultural history. The original structures have been augmented by what the District promises are “authentic re-creations...and historically accurate activities into a realistic 1890s Du Page County working farm.”

● Blackberry Farm's Pioneer Village in Aurora, which includes a 54-acre farm and displays of artifacts from the mid-1800s (along with antique carriages, a miniature train, and restored carousel) Visitors may take rides on a hay wagon pulled by an old-time tractor and watch volunteers actually perform farm chores—more novel to some suburban kids than a two-headed goat.

●Spring Valley Nature Sanctuary and Volkening Heritage Farm in Schaumburg is an 1880s family farm at which visitors can ride on a hay wagon, help with the harvest, milk cows, make apple cider and taffy apples, do some other chores and crafts while listening, of course, to old-time music.

● In St. Charles, the Greek Revival house from 1843 that was built on the Bryant Durant farm was deeded with the land to the Kane County Forest Preserve Commission in 1968. After extensive restoration work by local preservationists, what is now known as the Durant-Peterson house was opened as a museum of life of the 19th century gentleman farmer; a frame addition contains a kitchen and bathroom furnished to represent the Victorian era.

●The 80-acre Bonner Heritage Farm in Lake County near Lindenhurst opened in 2004. The farm was founded in 1842 by Scottish immigrants whose great-grandson donated the homestead and adjoining buildings to the county forest preserve district.

Sadly, not all of these relics can be saved. The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois listed on its ten-most-endangered list for 2004 the 12-acre Henneberry Farmstead on Grove Road in Oswego in Kendall County, which boasts an 1840s house and outbuildings and a rare English-style stone barn; a proposed new residential subdivision would result in their demolition. And the Lake County Forest Preserve District considered opening a heritage farm preserving the concept Raven Glen Heritage Farm in the Raven Glen Forest Preserve in far northwest corner of the county. The southern part of the preserve was originally a dairy farm that was state-of-the-art in its heyday 50 years ago. It was proposed in 2001 that the old farm be developed into a heritage farm that would have been unusual in highlighting ag technologies of the mid-20th rather than the mid-19th century. The tourism appeal of such a display is problematic, and the idea was shelved because of cost in 2005

 If most “living history” farms get farming wrong, they also get the history wrong too. Usually they are little more than rural theme parks, complete with rides. (Farm kids never knew they were having such fun working from before sunup to —if they had dairy cows— to last light.) This is the equivalent of the blues clubs on the north side—a simulacrum of a once-vibrant culture, now vitiated by change, and rendered safe for tourists.

The demand for ersatz farm experiences came too late for thousands of Chicagoland farm structures. They had outlived their original purpose and were razed before a new purpose materialized. Barns, for example, were often the largest and most expensive buildings in the Chicagoland countryside, in spite of the workaday purpose. Of perhaps 2,000 of these “prairie cathedrals" that stood in Lake County at the turn of the 20th century, fewer than 200 are believed to remain.

The few big barns that survive are to Chicagoland what monastery ruins are to European countryside. Tourists to the Fox River valley can enjoy a “heritage tourism “ program that focuses, among several other themes, on historic barns in Kane, parts of Kendall and McHenry counties. One such is the Milk Pail Barn in East Dundee. Another is the main barn of what is now the Bonner Heritage Farm near Lindenhurst; its main section was built of . oak and hickory in 1848, and is considered among the oldest, if not the oldest surviving intact great barns in Lake County.

The 16-sided Teeple Barn that was built in 1885 at what is today the intersection of Interstate 90 and Randall Road in Elgin; eighty-five feet tall, The Teeple Barn is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only 16-sided barn known in Illinois. Fears for its future were natural when the farm it stood on was sold to Matsushita Electric Corporation; a local citizens group. worked with Matsushita not only to preserve the barn, but also to eventually restore it and put it to use as a regional agricultural education and technology center.

Back to Eden

Here and there across Chicagoland, failed farms have reverted to brush, even forest, and again become havens for wild things. One such former farm, bounded by Flossmoor and Vollmer Roads, Cicero Avenue and Pulaski Road has become a haven for rare grassland birds; a proposal by its current owner, the Cook County Forest Preserve District, to convert the property into a “living history” farm would thus recreating, to the horror of area naturalists, the original ravishing of the landscape.

Those who lament the wreck of the agricultural countryside by suburban development usually forget that the construction of the farms wrecked a even more pristine Eden—the prairie and savanna and wetlands that existed before the 1820s. The massive prairie and savanna restoration movement underway in Chicagoland since the 1970s—see Nature—has been seeking to undo some of that damage.

Prairie restoration and historic preservation are versions of the same impulse, and share many of the same attitudes, the same assumptions, confront the same kinds of issues, and attract the same kinds of people as historic preservation. The nostalgia that permeates the historic preservation movement in general oozes through the green branch of the historic preservation movement too, including that peculiar nostalgia of the educated classes for places and scenes they never experienced, but yearn for nonetheless—the Chicagoland of the Potawatomi, of the voyageur, of the hardy settler and teamster, the Chicagoland of the lake schooner and of industry before steam.

Restored presettlement ecosystems also offer some of the same kinds of rewards as restored historic structures. The relic landscapes of Chicagoland’s presettlement past—its prairies and savannas, its bogs and lake dunes—like its buildings of the same era, have teaching possibilities. They also offer a means of civic regeneration by connecting people to place, along with aesthetic rewards to the sensitive visitor.

History figures strongly in the appeal of the restored prairie or savanna. A neglected prairie or savanna is a closed book of local history. Seeds of many prairie plants can lay dormant for hundreds of years until conditions are right for their sprouting again. Providing those conditions is like opening a long-closed work of history, revealing what pre-1820 northeast Illinois looked like, felt like, smelled like, and tasted like.

However, restoring a prairie is not exactly like restoring an 1820s house. A prairie/savanna is not an artifact, like a restored house, that can be returned to its appearance at a chosen point in the past and then kept that way as a monument. The ambition was not to restore prairies and savannas, exactly—no one yet knows enough to do that—but to create the conditions under which these damaged but resilient ecosystems might restore themselves.

Anyone who has seen even a small prairie can envision a prairie once growing where the Loop now stands. However, so comprehensive has been the cleanup that its polluted past that the smells of offal rotting in the creeks, manure, and rancid trash in the gutters are beyond imagining by modern Chicagoans. No matter how rich the educational possibilities might be, no one wants to recreate Chicago’s putrid post-settlement past. There is no organizations of concerned citizens eager to dump dead cats and dogs into the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, for example, so as to restore the ambiance from the stream’s Bubbly Creek days, they way they might stoke up steam threshers or hitch up draft horses at “history farm” in the suburbs.


As for the State of Illinois, historic properties have their own State of Illinois department, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which administers landmarking under the National Register of Historic Places and manages 21 historic sites (all Downstate.) Preservation is sanctioned under law, officially deemed a Good Thing; the State of Illinois’s Property Tax Assessment Freeze Program, for example, since 1984 allows homeowners who invest at least 25 percent of a designated home's property value on approved rehabilitation projects to freeze their tax payments for eight years; statewide, 37 municipalities qualify for the program, including several in Chicagoland.

Most preservation campaigns are marshaled by single-purpose organizations formed for the purpose. There are nearly as many of these as there have been preservation fights. Typical is Friends of the Uptown, founded in 1998 to save that neighborhood’s once-sumptuous movie house; as usual in preservation fights, the Uptown cause attracted an antic variety of interests, from neighbors and nostalgic moviegoers to theater organ enthusiasts—yes, they exist—local historians, and architecture buffs.

Fighting on larger fronts, such a new laws, required larger coalitions. The Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois provided a permanent advocacy organization. The LPCI was founded in 1971 partly out of frustration with the failures of elected bodies to protect what they perceived to be the public interest in the Stock Exchange affair. (The contact page of the LPCI’s Web site has an image of the building hovering, ghost-like, in the background.) At a minimum it sought to prevent another Stock Exchange fiasco, and indeed the LPCI had a role in saving such gems as the Marquette Building, the Chicago Theater, the Reliance Building, and St. Mary of the Angels Church.


The LPCI also has lent a hand to the rescue of such properties as Oakbrook's Mayslake, the Henry Demarest Lloyd house in Winnetka, the Skokie North Shore train station, the Wagner farm in Glenview, and the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Glasner house in Glencoe, and, most recently Mies’s Farnsworth house, among many others. Since 2004 the LPCI has gone from advocacy to funding, setting up a Preservation Heritage Fund that is being used for necessary work at such regional icons as Unity Temple and the Glessner house.

Advocacy of a more local, and more insistent sort was the need that Preservation Chicago was founded to provide. Preservation Chicago was started in the fall of 2001 by veterans of local grassroots preservation battles community activists who were incensed that, as they put it, far too many of Chicago’s great buildings, and many more of its good buildings, were being needlessly demolished in favor of “bland, banal chain stores and automobile-oriented strip malls. Others are being replaced by ‘cookie cutter’ architecture that seems to have been pulled all from the same architect’s plan drawer.”

Why preserve?

In a 2003 address to a conference, scholar Daniel Bluestone noted that preservationists have not always given articulate answers to the question, “Why preserve?” Other parties to the preservation movement have not hesitated to provide their own answers. The power to stop history by saving it has tempted people to use preservation for purposes that have little to do with history or architecture. Green space can be preserved when it part of an “historic” property; the pending sale of Francis Peabody’s Mayslake estate in Oak Brook in 1990, for instance, pitted developers against preservationists. (As noted, in 1993 the estate was saved when it was sold to the Forest Preserve District of Du Page County.)

There have been the now-familiar controversies-attempts to use landmark status as a development control tool. (There few better wrenches to toss into the works of progress than an officially designated landmark building.) “Save the old” also is a rallying cry for the big-city nostalgists fighting incursions by suburban taste. Historic district status is sometimes used to enforce social exclusion in residential districts by, for example, barring conversion of large houses into apartments. In other settings, landmark status can fend off the rich, as when affluent citizens seek to armor properties as landmarks to prevent their being replaced by bigger houses. Working class suburbs use historic site designation to stop the loss of houses, period. South-suburban Chicago Heights in 2004 approved a 109-home historic district in the hopes of stabilizing that community by setting up impediments to absentee landlords who are carving up old houses into apartments.

The author of Constructing Chicago noted that one of the first acts of public preservation in the United States was the purchase in 1850 by the New York State Legislature of a building used as a headquarters by George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The aim was patriotic as well as pedagogic—to, as Bluestone noted, “transmit to our children a knowledge of the virtues of the fathers of the republic.” Such buildings have been the object of philanthropic and (later) government attention for decades. Lincoln’s house in Springfield, for example, was purchased by the State of Illinois way back in 1887.

Still, the commonest aim of preservation is to teach. Education remains a crucial motive for preservation because buildings are a particularly effective means of learning about the past from the past. A city’s buildings, properly understood, are a sort of history diorama of the city that built them. The Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin once explained to readers that a drive down Washington and Warren Boulevards from the Loop to Oak Park enables visitors to experience the outward growth of middle-class Chicago, using houses as signposts of the journey.

Close in, there were the Italianate row houses that sprang up in the 1880s. Further out, near Garfield Park, were the Queen Anne homes that were fashionable in the 1890s and early 1900s. And at the city's edge, near the Oak Park border, there were the American Four-Squares that had their heyday from 1900 to 1930, reflecting the city's new fascination with the bungalow.

Buildings are troves of public social meaning. Class is the main motif in the songs that Chicago commercial buildings hum, but history is evoked too. Historical events, indeed whole worlds also can be evoked by their shapes, their materials, their ornamental doodads. The surviving structures of Chicago’s golden age of commercial building for instance can be read like obelisks telling of victories or kings.

The builders of the office tower at 1 N. LaSalle in the Loop decorated it with sculpted panels on the fifth-floor façade that recall Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, who allegedly camped on this site in 1679. Holabird & Roche’s Marquette building struck Elia Peattie in 1889 as “perhaps the ideal office building of the country” because of its ornamentation, which consists of mosaics and murals and medallions recalling the exploits of Father Marquette, (The owner was an amateur historian who had translated the Frenchman’s journals.)

 “Reading” buildings this way requires that we master at least a bit of local lore and some guidebook architectural history. This is best done afoot. (Tourists to the Loop used to have worry about being mugged; these days the risk of injury comes from neck strain from constantly gazing upward at buildings.) To most of us, alas, the iconographic language of older structures is as undecipherable as hieroglyphs. Designer John Root's biographer speculates, improbably, that Egypt reminded Root of Chicago, which also was built on a swamp, one of whose native plants was the wild onion, a "typical compound-umbel plant, like papyrus." Had Root based a Chicago building design on the ordinary wild onion he probably would have had to reduce his fee; if prophets are without honor in their hometowns, so are plants.

After learning (broadly defined), beauty is perhaps highest among preservation’s acknowledged rationales. Helping people see and appreciate the great beauty of past architecture in a more or less curatorial context has made preservation seem precious and thus irrelevant. While in Chicago, Daniel Bluestone pointed out the obvious problems—architectural beauty is not a universal value, and standards of beauty change, which has meant that taking beauty as the criterion of preservation leaves out a whole lot of buildings that are not beautiful in the usual sense. (This is why so many developers prefer to make aesthetics the test of preservability, because it exempts a lot of buildings from salvation.)

One of Chicago’s most loved buildings is one of its most ugly. The Water Tower represents a fanciful interpretation of a medieval fortress. Oscar Wilde famously derided it as "monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it” and urged that it be torn down. It still stands, impervious to fire, storm, and critics, on some of the most valuable real estate downtown, while the bones of worthy buildings like the Stock Exchange lie moldering in landfills. According to the Official Version of Chicago history as retold by the guidebooks, the Water Tower’s significance is social. Three generations of Chicagoans have treasured the tower because it recalls the city’s survival and rebirth after the Great Fire; the structure thus is an icon of the city’s “I can” spirit. This makes for a lively brochure, but it seems more likely that the building has become beloved because it helps people orient themselves in physically confusing urban space. Filling this role—the original, literal sense of the term “landmark”—does not require that a building have exceptional architectural merit, only conspicuousness.

By 2004, the list of officially sanctioned reasons to preserve had become encyclopedic. To be recommended for landmark status by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, for example, a building or district need meet but two of seven criteria: critical part of city's heritage, site of a significant event, association with a significant person, important architecture, important architect, distinctive theme as a district, or unique visual feature. (Physical integrity also is a factor.)

Unofficially, the list of criteria is even longer. Since the 1970s there has been developed a further rationale for preservation—the environmental. Buildings are not only reservoirs of memory but reservoirs of the energy that was poured into their construction; the most “sustainable” policy toward our stock of existing buildings and landscapes, argues the green wing of the movement, is to keep on using them.

In it early years, preservation targeted the built artifacts of social elites—the tall commercial buildings, the majestic public buildings, the mansion of the rich. Nostalgia has worked its downward through the American social classes along with such other fashions as voting Republican and the romantic affection for the natural; history has become a middle-class consumable. And just as the erection of icons in form of public statuary marked the rise of ethnic groups to respectability a century ago, so today does the designation as historic icons of buildings significant to the experience of Chicago’s working classes and racial minorities. The mansions now stand side by side—on the roster of official landmarks anyway—with neighborhood theaters, working class ethnic neighborhoods like Ukrainian Village and Bronzeville, and the bungalow belt.

Indeed, some of the city’s least-loved buildings now qualify for official protection on historical grounds. Public housing is a part of Chicago’s history too, a fact that poses dilemmas for preservationists. The Chicago Housing Authorities has been emptying many fortress-like public housing high-rises and razing them as part of its ambitious effort to transform public housing ghettos into mixed-income communities. The demolition of so many buildings may be a relief to reformers but it is a cause for disquiet among some who care about the city’s built history.

“ABLA” is the 24-acre complex of public housing projects—named respectively Abbott, Brooks, Loomis, and Addams—that lies north of Roosevelt Road between Loomis Street and Racine Avenue on the West Side. In the 1930s, slums were razed to construct the first of these, the Jane Addams Homes, ABLA's first community of 32 three- and four-story rowhouses. The project—complete with playgrounds and grassy courtyards accented by some of the city's first public sculptures—became, briefly, a model for the federal government's public housing projects.

Addams, with parts of five other local developments of that era, were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Because of that eligibility, they cannot be razed or altered significantly without approval of government preservationists. The Chicago Housing Authority wants to demolish the apartments. Local activists think the buildings and their courtyard sculptures can and should be preserved as monuments to what was once a national model for public housing, and to the West Side’s working class past; CHA administrators said that at best they might save a couple of the buildings for a museum. Certainly the neighborhood’s newer residents could use a few reminders of that past; the two-flats that once were the plumber and butcher’s pride and joy today sell for several hundreds of thousands of dollars to young people who, as a Sun-Times reporter put it, are more familiar with Samuel Adams the beer than they are with Jane Addams.

To be worth saving, a building used to have to be significant to the wider world; now it is necessary only that it be significant to the people who live in and around it, that it “cultivate narratives of place” that strengthen human connections to their surroundings.

One of those places that was crucial in the refinement of the social rationale for preservation was Chicago’s Old Town. This neighborhood, bounded by Lincoln, North, Wells, and the former Ogden right-of-way was settled in the 1850s by German immigrants. Crammed with workers cottages and modest apartments, Old Town was a pleasant place in the German style but never fashionable. After Depression it became the kind of neighborhood that the fastidious call run down, and the adventuresome call quaint. The area teetered on the brink of slumdom, and in the 1940s its residents undertook a neighborhood revitalization effort before that term even existed.

Old Town’s virtues were neither historic, nor narrowly aesthetic. As a neighborhood it was rather backward in terms of the visions that most mayors had for the city, which was satisfied by new building such as Sandburg Village. What Old Town had, and has, is picturesqueness, coherence, convenience. It was, in short, a nice place to live in the city. That certainly made the neighborhood unusual, if not unique in the Chicago of the day. Did that also make it significant? It did not according to then-prevailing pres policy. So backers set about inventing a new rationale. Stylistic integrity had always been a criterion of preservability in individual structures; the Old Town activists argued that what is good in buildings is bad in a neighborhood. They coined the term Chicagoesque, to describe the jumble of styles and eras typical of areas like Old Town.

The Old Town backers turned another preservation standard on its head: They argued that Old Town was historic not because heroes lived there, but because average Chicagoans—the new heroes of a dawning new egalitarianism—did. This ennobling of ordinary houses and the people who built and lived in them meant that every neighborhood is potentially significant, and thus potentially preservable.

Consider Bronzeville. When it was known as the black South Side, the are was unwanted even by most of the people who lived there. It stood for a past that few of any color wanted to even think about, much less celebrate. Over the past 30 or 40 years the district’s downtown and much of its local economic infrastructure crumbled. The destruction was comprehensive. City landmarks scouts found only nine significant structures left from what city officials call “one of the nation's most significant landmarks of African American urban history.” In their title of a 2002 article, Ebony editors felt obliged to announce to its African American readers that Chicago “still a center of Black life and culture.”

Architecture critic and author Lee Bey has described the National Pythian Temple Building that stood at 38th and State as a “benchmark in black American achievement.” It was built in 1926, the heyday of one of the country’s most famous black neighborhoods, on a street known locally as "the black Wall Street," for a black client to designs drawn up by Walter Thomas Bailey, Illinois' first black licensed architect. Further, its terra cotta facade was graced by African motifs. Sadly, the building was demolished in 1980, a loss to the city and the neighborhood.

A happier fate befell a kindred Bronzeville structure. Abandoned since the mid-1980’s, the seven-story South Side Masonic Temple dominates the traditional Englewood “city center” opposite the new campus of Kennedy-King College. Locals insist that a restored temple would be “a beacon of promise” to the neighborhood—a good reason to rehab it, not perhaps a good reason to designate it an official historic landmark—that would help that beleaguered area regain the social stability that it symbolizes.

The Chicago suburb no less than the Chicago neighborhood seek to recover, or in some cases to create, a civic consciousness through the preservation and promotion of historical icons unique to a place. Naperville has the now-ubiquitous historic district in what used to be the middle of town. This one includes the North Central College Campus (see elsewhere this section) and the old Kroehler furniture factory (Fifth Avenue Station), and those houses whose design cannot be lumped into the category of Suburban Moderne. Among the last is Bailey Hobson’s old house at 506 S. Washington Street. Hobson was the first white settler in Du Page County; he built a grist mill on the Du Page River where Naperville’s Pioneer Park is today. (Pioneer Park contains the original grist mill stone from the Hobson mill.) The large frame house went up in 1834, and was built to host Hobson’s patrons, many of whom had to drive their wagons farther than a day’s travel to get their grain ground.

Preserved period structures offer the same rewards to the anxious urbanite of the 1990s that the fabled White City of the World Columbian Exposition offered to her counterpart in the 1890s—an idealized cityscape intended to impress an anxious middle class. Worlds away from Englewood, in northwest Cook County, the 1901 Queen Anne Turret House at 17 E. Schaumburg Road was the first structure in Schaumburg designated as a local historic landmark (in 1978). It was incorporated in that edge city’s instant downtown, Olde Schaumburg Centre at Schaumburg and Roselle Roads, established to preserve the historic character of the area originally known as "Sarah's Grove."   

Such newly rehabilitated downtowns can be found in Downers Grove, Lake Forest, Lockport, and Wheaton. They are “historic” in strictly local terms, yes, but what makes them worth preserving, a la Old Town, is the 19th century ambiance they provide—an ambiance that is pleasing to shoppers, and soothing to a populace fretting about growth and other manifestations of change. In the Disney-fied reconstructions in shopping malls in Orland Park or in the Olde Schaumburg Town Centre, a middle class displaced variously from the small town and the Chicago neighborhood take refuge in faux versions of each, seeking continuity even at the expense of authenticity¾perhaps especially at the expense of authenticity.


As land value rise downtown and in neighborhoods along transit arteries, pressure rises to replace older, smaller buildings (often of some quality) with larger ones capable of generating plumper rents. In the Loop that means office buildings eating older and smaller office buildings. In the suburbs, it usually means houses eating older and smaller houses. Thus the tear-down controversy.

Historic houses just as threatened as lesser ones by the mania to buy up desirable lots in upper-end suburbs and build new mini-mansions on them. More than 200 tear-downs occurred in Deerfield in the three years after 2001, including a 1915 estate known as Deep Dene, with a Mediterranean-style villa. Since 1989, 404 homes have been razed in Glencoe, including dozens considered to be historically significant locally, including the village's oldest house.

In Glencoe on the North Shore, a developer in 2004 tore down one of the Keck brothers pioneering solar houses in the Solar Park subdivision and replaced it with a larger house. Such projects not only threaten the stock of affordable houses and vitiate the aesthetic integrity of the subdivision, said critics, but neighbors worried that the looming bulk of the McMansions that would replace it would block the sun and obviate the advantages the Kecks built into the houses. Attempts to turn the subdivision into an historic district failed when half of the 26 homeowners voted against the notion, most fearing that the new restriction would make their houses difficult to sell. 

Three Wright houses in Chicagoland have been threatened by the tear-down trend since 2001. A one-story prefabricated house in Lisle, one of eleven designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built by the late Marshall Erdman, sat on a temptingly large two-acre lot; Wright's Allen Friedman House in Bannockburn and his William A. Glasner residence in Glencoe were similarly targeted by developers. The last two were saved when they were bought at the last minute by preservation-minded owners; the Lisle house was moved to Pennsylvania and rebuilt.

Hinsdale has lost 25 percent of its housing stock to the tear-down phenomenon in the past ten years, among them the W. H. Knight House. Built in 1894, this typical Queen Anne was torn down in 2002 to make way for a new super-sized residence on the site. Such redevelopment, states the official village website, occurs “sometimes at the expense of the very things that bring people to Hinsdale.” Dismayed locals backed the adoption of a Hinsdale Historic Preservation Ordinance in 2000, and the first Hinsdale Historic Preservation Commission was appointed the following month. “Preservation is now policy in Hinsdale,” states the village, “and the village's unique historic and cultural assets have their own official advocate in the form of the Historic Preservation Commission.”

The tear-down phenomenon usually associated with the suburbs but it happens in the city too, where some parts of the city have not seen a virgin lot since the 1830s; there, the process is called “development.” The East Village neighborhood—Division, Grand, Ashland, and Damen—is home to Chicago workers’ cottages and tenements and flats in the Romanesque and Queen Anne styles built in the latter 1800s. As spreading tides of residential redevelopment from downtown reached the area, developers picked off the vacant lots, then bought the substandard buildings and replaced them with new housing. Up to this point the changes were welcomed by longtime residents as improvements. But as demand for housing in a newly discovered neighborhood builds, it becomes economical to buy and raze even sound structures.

In both suburb and city, preservation has posed new dilemmas for both private owners and public authorities in the suburbs that needed new ideas to solve. The preservationist tool kit—tax breaks for protected properties, cunningly designed loan programs, property easements—had to be invented and tested (often in courts). New laws needed to be drafted and lobbied for at the state and municipal levels. The result is a boxful of tools—property tax reductions and freezes and subsidies, direct and indirect, for fix-up work, to name the most often used.

It would be fatuous to suggest that saving buildings takes as much creativity as designing them, but some of the region’s preservation deals were as artfully arranged as many a building façade. The Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois, or LPCI, operates a revolving Preservation Fund that was established in the mid-1970s with seed capital from the sale of the Henry Demarest Lloyd property in Winnetka. The estate had been entrusted to LPCI by the Lloyd family. The LPCI placed a conservation easement on it and it was then subdivided; under terms of the easement, these owners are bound in perpetuity to preserve and maintain the critical historic features of the property, which is monitored by the LPCI. The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Glasner house in Glencoe was saved when the property was donated to the LPCI, which placed a conservation easement on it before reselling it to private owners, who (with their successors) are thus bound in perpetuity to preserve and maintain its historic features.

In some cases preservation groups act as developers, rehabilitating threatened houses (often using volunteers to reduce costs) for resale; three houses in the Tri-Taylor Historic District west of the Medical District on Oakley from Grenshaw to Congress Parkway, as well as two of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Waller Apartments on the near northwest side were saved and resold this way.

The Future of the past

What is one person’s stability in the symbolic built environment is another man’s pointless nostalgia. The familiar gripe that preservationists want to freeze the city in time against the natural march of the Market, of Art, of History is a fairer complaint than many preservationists allow. Landmarks laws codified the polite classes’ dissent against the ideology of Progress. Historic preservation arose at the same time, among many of the same groups, and for many of the same reasons as environmentalism, the civil rights movement, and agitation against the war in Vietnam. In each case people revolted against the corruption of a cherished ideal—Beauty, Nature, Justice, Peace—by a mindlessly destructive materialism and the social system set up to advance it.

Many of the movement’s vanguard in Chicago—Hyde Park intellectuals or newly risen youngish political radicals—shared at least an implicit critique of capitalism. Richard Nickel for example raged in a letter against Chicago’s cultural elite, who “rape the city for private fortunes in order to enjoy private art in the suburbs.”

Just as the liberal consensus on environmentalism, civil rights, and Vietnam is being undone, so have government-backed preservation programs come under attack. (They have always been unpopular in the suburbs, many of which began, after all, as refuges from the complications of city life such as regulations limiting the use of private property.) Private-rights ideology is less a spur than resentment felt by culturally disenfranchised Main Streeters toward Culture, History, Taste as defined by the liberal urban bourgeoisie. Most of the buildings officially enshrined on the National Register, after all, are the landmarks of the ruling class’s rise, buildings that enshrine its heroes and express its values. (The winners, as they say, get to save the history.) Perhaps if there was a strip mall on the National Register . . . . 

It is not only private enterprise that finds itself at odds with public authorities over preservation. The Roman Catholic Church of Chicago is custodian of many structures of crucial neighborhood significance, if not architectural significance. But the church is a potent political presence in the city, and insists on autonomy as a landlord—thus the 1987 city ordinance requiring “owner consent” for the landmarking of religious properties.

But the church’s inner-city parishes are saddled with old buildings and dwindling congregations, most of whose members are so poor that not only cannot afford to operate their churches but can’t afford to maintain them if closed. Demolition is one way to rid them of that burden, but that contradicts the city’s own preservation aims.  


In 2003, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks voted to begin the process of designating St. Gelasius Catholic Church at 6401 S. Woodlawn Avenue as a local landmark, a process that include denying the demolition permit that the Archdiocese of Chicago had requested. The city pursued landmark status after its lawyers reassured it that Renaissance Revival-style church which was closed in 2002 does not fall within the restrictions of the ordinance because the ban on landmarking religious properties without the owners consent did not apply to properties that were vacant and no longer used for religious purposes. (A Latin mass order agreed to take over St. Gelasius and restore it for use as its U.S. headquarters.)

In an interesting case in the suburbs, a former Masonic Temple built in 1924 at 310 E. Chicago Street—a local historic site, National Register property, and part of Elgin's historic Gifford Park District—is now owned by the Family Life Church. Masonic symbols on the building offended the present owners, who were prevented from removing them by Elgin Heritage Commission (which did grant permission to cover them). A compromise was reached in 2007 under which the church was allowed to remove the symbols under supervision of the city, which agreed to preserve them in the hope that they could be returned to the building if it changes hands in the future.

Good building still go down—the Mercantile Exchange was lost in 2003, for example. Public money for cash grants is chronically scarce. Chicago’s preservation ordinances and the procedures based on them are gradually being tightened, but many towns in its hinterland lack any kind of preservation ordinances at all. Many of the ordinances already on the books are weak; preservation laws in Glencoe and Winnetka, among other towns, require the consent of the owner for an important property to be designated a landmark. Such clauses are a political requirement of such laws, not a legal one; the constitutionality of preservation ordinances was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s. However, as many a suburban town council member will inform you, just because something is constitutional don’t mean it’s right. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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