Who Decides: Historically Significant or Landmark?

July 20, 2011 — 3 Comments

Chicago is an old town, sorta.

I say that because technically speaking, Chicago’s buildings are 30, 60, 80 years old and only a small percentage can claim to be more than 100.  Chicago is old in the sense that the United States is very much still a young nation.  Our oldest cities and towns barely crack 200 years and if we’re really honest, most American cities in their current incarnation, are probably less than 60 years old.  Compare this to European cities which can boast 200, 300, 400 years even with various invasions, razings, fires and plagues.


Chicago Black and White

[Photo by Genie Bae]

As a relatively new (old) city in a relatively new nation, it’s not surprising that we’re still trying to figure out what to save and what to get rid of. What can be considered architecture that is significant enough or old enough to be preserved? In fact, what is the difference between a Louis Sullivan building, Soldier Field, University of Illinois Chicago and Prentice Women’s Hospital?  Why is an old bank on the west side of Chicago worth saving, but a Modernist icon, not saving? There are many people in the building industry on both sides of this argument, including many green professionals who argue that preservation and reuse are the most conscientious use of our natural resources.

To briefly (and in a very, very simplified manner) break down the argument for preservation versus the argument against preservation:

Preservationists believe that the cultural legacy of a population lies in its significant buildings. The building itself is as much of a part of the character of a city as the function it serves. For example, Prentice is not just a women’s hospital. Prentice is a unique example Modernist architecture that was the dominant building style of Chicago in the late 20th century. Prentice is part of Chicago’s legacy as the preeminent Modernist city of the 20th century.

Non-preservationists believe that buildings are not works of art, but personal property that must   fulfill a function. One the property no longer fulfills it’s function, the owner is within their rights   to alter or demolish the property. In the case of Prentice, the building was small and functioned poorly as a hospital. The rooms were impractically sized and the mechanical systems were outdated. Both hospital staff and patients were dissatisfied with the aging structure.


In these debates, oftentimes, it comes down to developers versus preservationists. In most cases, the preservationists lose. In a city like Chicago, where the citizenry inherited a vast architectural legacy, issues of preservation are constantly in the public eye. The public is quick to grasp the value of Louis Sullivan’s ornamentation on State St. but slower to understand that Bertrand Goldberg’s spare, concrete Prentice Women’s Hospital is just as preservation worthy.

Architects are often loathe to weigh in publicly on the value of preservation out of fear of losing future commissions.  Even architects who work within the preservation community often choose to stay silent when architectural landmarks are threatened, preferring to stay away from controversy and working on projects that have already received landmark status.  It’s a lose-lose situation for owners and architects who battle over preservation. In the case of Prentice, what are the chances that the owner, Northwestern University, is ever going to engage the services of a well-known architect again? Why would an owner, take the chance of hiring an architect to design an iconic building and in 30 years, possibly face another preservation battle? Losing a potentially rich client such as Northwestern University is a loss to the architects everywhere. Losing a landmark like Prentice is a loss to everyone.

Which brings us to the question, who decides “What is historically significant and What is a Landmark.”

This is usually where government intervenes, only Chicago has a new, unpredictable (also famously curt and foulmouthed) mayor for the first time in 25 years and the landmarks commission, for the first time, is completely devoid of preservationists and architects.  In the most recent hearings, Prentice was not even on the agenda for the committee despite a recent swell of public protest.  This could possibly be taken as a sign that there is a new pro-business sheriff in town regarding Chicago’s architectural legacy.

As the United States ages and more cities face preservation issues exacerbated by issues of climate change, developer, architect and preservationist battles are most likely going to increase in scale and frequency. While Prentice is the most recent public battle happening in Chicago, smaller scale battles are happening in communities throughout America. When you hear about towns fighting to preserve their “small town character,” it’s essentially the same preservation argument on a different scale.

I see both sides of the argument. Having worked in new construction, commercial interiors and in historic preservation, I am torn. I know that oftentimes, the flashiest buildings with the biggest name architects are the ones that are saved while the lesser known, but equally beautiful buildings by smaller architects are forgotten.  I am encouraged when I see brilliant adaptive reuse schemes and am reminded that the key to saving our old buildings is to make sure they are continually in use and vital to the community.

In the case of the Prentice Women’s Hospital, it may be too late.

Prentice Women's Hospital, Chicago, Illinois

[Photo by Jim Kuhn]


A special thanks to Genie Bae for sitting at the helm today. You can follow her musings on Twitter @EBArchDesign and please visit her website for more of her writings.




Print Friendly

even better stuff from Life of an Architect

  • Audrey Lively

    Maybe it is because the developers of these concrete modernist buildings demolished historic magnificently crafted works of art to build in the style of a trend. All over the country this happened. Buildings made of stone and wood, Tiffany stained glass, priceless carvings, marble inlayed floors handcrafted by artisans, the quality of which, we will never see again were razed: serviceable structures destroyed. Just for the sake of “being modern”. As an artist, historian and sentimentalist, I feel no pity for the fall of these embarrassing tyrants of concrete. They are reminders of a period of shame, where being new and different was more important than anything else.

  • @twitter-151263914:disqus , thank you so much for taking the time to read and leave such a passionate and well thought out response to my post. I agree that a community based preservation effort is more effective than designating individual buildings. I also agree that the public is not a good judge of “ugly” versus “beautiful” buildings. Brutalist concrete structures are a significant part of Modernism and to discount their cultural value or place in the urban fabric is short-sighted. I absolutely agree that the 50 year designation is completely arbitrary to the value of the building. 

    As for preservationists most often losing, I think that this time in our cities is most critical in whether or not the legacy of Modernist architects survives. For the most part, it seems like people understand pre-Modernist buildings. I think most people, when they think preservation, think about ornamental architectural movements. They think about “pretty” buildings. They understand Frank Lloyd Wright. They understand Louis Sullivan. They don’t understand Mies or his impact on Modernism around the globe. They don’t understand Mies’ impact on the shape and face of Chicago in particular. On a smaller scale, people often have violently negative reactions to preserving Mid-century modernist housing. Modernist homes are being torn down all over the country without even a second thought by the general public. This is why I would argue that we are losing the preservation battle. It’s more than just the big, flashy buildings that make up an urbanist landscape or cultural legacy.

    People decide what they want to save. Sometimes, they just decide wrong.

  • Deciding what is to be deemed significant or a calling a cultural/architectural/historic landmark important over others is problematic in many ways. Who are we to say that one building is significant or that another one isn’t? Whose history are we saving? Yours? Ours? It’s a tough one either way.

    As you say, there are two sides to a coin: we have the preservationists on one and on the other side we have developers and owners of buildings that *may* eligible to be saved from the wrecking ball. We do that by attributing numerous criteria that deemed these buildings and places worthy of such designation.

    I can’t agree with you when you say that preservationists most often lose. In part, because there are many external and internal forces that must be taken into consideration before a decision on the future of a building or structure is made. 

    Preservation works at its best when there is a *strong* enough of a group behind a particular building or structure pushing for its preservation. In other words, community based preservation is where is at rather than listing individual buildings as landmarks or deeming them significant enough to demonstrate the history of a particular city or a group of people, culture, etc.

    The case with Prentice has resonated with many cities and individuals. The 50 year rule is pointless and does nothing, but to further malign buildings like Prentice, Boston City Hall, Paul Rudolph’s Blue Cross Blue Shield Building in Boston. Buildings that according to this rule, must turn 50 years old before they are even eligible for any designation why they die right before our eyes.

    I hope that Chicago wakes up and open its eyes before it’s too late. To lose a building like Prentice Hospital *will* be deemed one of the biggest travesties in the short history of preservation. We need to stop referring to concrete buildings built around the era of Prentice Hospital as “ugly” or “brutal” before we realize we have none to study and look at and even call “ugly” or “brutal.” When its too late its too late and we’ll be all lamenting.

    I find it problematic to appoint people who have no architectural expertise or knowledge of local history or architecture/landscapes to any landmarks commission. Are we in to profit from history by erasing it?