New landmark survey overdue to protect Chicago’s architectural and cultural heritage; A new survey would help save more historic buildings and assist efforts to bring more landmark-based economic incentives to historic but economically challenged areas
By the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, 11/27/20
“There’s been some good thinking by the Lightfoot administration as of late regarding the landmarking of buildings, particularly the relatively quick march toward an official designation for Mamie and Emmett Till’s home.
“So what’s a fitting encore for 2021? The city should — finally — commission a long overdue update of its 25-year-old Chicago Historic Resources Survey, a catalogue of 17,000 buildings and structures that has proven to be a valuable tool in helping city officials and preservationists determine if a site is worthy of landmark status.
“The color-coded survey is essentially a ‘book of life’ for Chicago structures built before 1940. A building at the two highest ratings of red and orange can be placed on the path toward a landmark designation. And the city can issue a 90-day hold on a demolition permit sought for a non-landmarked red- or orange-rated building. During the hold period, city officials can decide if a building is worthy of landmark status.
“But the current survey doesn’t include buildings and sites constructed after 1940. It also overlooks scores of potentially historic South and West side locations and structures, including the 125-year-old Till residence, which should have earned a spot on the survey based its age alone.
“A new survey would fix these wrongs and help save more historic buildings. And given that designated buildings can be eligible for things such as historic tax credits for rehabs and property tax freezes — critical in historic but economically challenged areas — it’s essential the Lightfoot administration and the Department of Planning push for a new and far more comprehensive resources survey.
“You can find Pride Cleaners, a radical-looking midcentury modern building with an angled, hyperbolic paraboloid roof — one of the few in Chicago — at 79th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue in the Chatham neighborhood.
“But you won’t find it in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. Built in 1959 with a seamless addition in 1966, the building was barely out of its teens when work on the survey began in 1983. Pride Cleaners was part of a significant class of buildings across the city that were too young, then, to be considered historic.
“An updated survey would give a more accurate account of Chicago’s historic buildings by including other midcentury structures. If the cut-off year were moved from 1940 to 1975, the new survey would include iconic structures such as SOM’s John Hancock Center from 1971, the 110-story Willis Tower, completed in 1973, and architect Harry Weese’s Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, built in 1968 at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue.
“A new survey is in order, and we acknowledge that doing it right won’t be cheap. The current survey was done for $1.2 million, which is equal to nearly $3 million today, and required more than 20 surveyors to fan out across the city and document the buildings.
“This is no small task.
“But it’s an important one.
Read the full editorial at The Chicago Sun-Times
New landmark survey overdue to protect Chicago’s architectural and cultural heritage; A new survey would help save more historic buildings and assist efforts to bring more landmark-based economic incentives to historic but economically challenged areas, Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, 11/27/20
Reevaluating the CHRS: Chicago Needs a New Architectural Survey to Protect its Vernacular and Postmodern Heritage
By Elizabeth Blasius in The Architect’s Newspaper
Chicago embarked on its very first survey of historic buildings in 1983 with the objective to identify new landmarks. The CHRS was a complex undertaking, combining research in archives and libraries with detailed field assessments and photography. A half-million properties were surveyed, with the work completed in 1994.
“Dividing up the city into Chicago’s system of 77 community areas and 50 wards, the survey work began with teams driving through each ward and color coding each property according to three criteria adopted by the CHRS: age, degree of physical integrity, and level of possible significance.
“Buildings given a red rating were determined to be significant on a national scale, the “best of the best” of historic resources. Orange properties possessed similar features but were significant locally. Yellow properties were identified as relatively significant and within a greater concentration of similar buildings. Yellow-green buildings were identified as being within a concentration of significant buildings but reflected alterations. Green buildings were identified in previous state surveys, and purple buildings reflected significant alterations. Lastly, the survey team included a category for buildings constructed after 1940 that were considered too new to be properly evaluated, blue, except in cases where significance was already established.
“Data forms and photographs were produced for each property in the second phase of fieldwork, as well as follow-up research including zoning and building permits. In total, 22 people worked on the CHRS over the course of the 13-year, $1.2 million-dollar project. A summary of the survey was published in 1996 and widely distributed at Chicago public libraries, but it only represented a selection of significant buildings.
“After the orange-rated 1927 Chicago Mercantile Exchange Building was demolished without oversight, the City Council approved a proposal sponsored by Mayor Richard M. Daley that would grant a measure of protection to significant buildings. Adopted in 2003, the Demolition Delay Ordinance requires a 90-day hold on the issuance of a demolition permit for a building rated red or orange in the CHRS.
“The CHRS online database is widely used to determine if a building is an “eligible” historic resource. Unfortunately, neither the online database nor the published summary fully represents the estimated 500,000 buildings that were included in the field assessment. Each only includes a selection of buildings that fell under subjective eligibility criteria, with the city GIS website only representing data on red- and orange-rated buildings.
“Demolition delay has become the most significant function of the CHRS, yet it was never the intention of the survey to have the data determine whether a building is demolished without a review of significance. The survey organizers felt strongly that the survey would have to be periodically updated to ensure accuracy.
“The ‘modern’ cutoff date of 1940 was selected to provide a 50-year waiting period for eligible buildings based on the anticipated 1990 completion of the fieldwork. This determination mirrored the National Register of Historic Places requirement for a building to be at least 50 years old before its eligibility may be determined. It was felt that this choice would allow surveyors to be more objective, but there has been no public attempt to survey or evaluate midcentury modern resources. As only red- and orange-rated resources are subject to the Demolition Delay ordinance, most modern and postmodern buildings could be at risk.
“Buildings that were new at the time of the survey are rapidly aging to eligibility and could be threatened with demolition without a municipal matrix to protect them. Postmodern architecture is only represented in the CHRS if it is included but not contributing to a local landmark district. This leaves most of Chicago’s postmodern architectural heritage absent, including all of the work of Stanley Tigerman and Harry Weese, as well as the James R. Thompson Center.
“In the survey, there are inconsistencies across neighborhoods and styles of architecture as well as works by individual architects. For example, a similar grouping of structures may be identified with a ‘warm’ color rating in one neighborhood and have no information and no color rating in another. Vernacular buildings—the structures that make up Chicago’s neighborhoods—are disproportionately represented throughout the survey. Choices that include what modern buildings to include and how surveyors color rated them lack a degree of impartiality, as not enough time had passed between their construction and evaluation to make a fair, non-aesthetic judgment.
Furthermore, while the original survey team included historic resources that are individually listed on the National Register, are National Historic Landmarks, and contribute to historic districts, the surveyors did not evaluate buildings that were already designated as City of Chicago Landmarks. While Chicago Landmarks are well known, the omission of established landmarks within the CHRS data makes the overall results less comprehensive. This also renders it difficult for researchers to review Chicago Landmark and CHRS data concurrently.
While work has been done to informally update the data of the CHRS, no update or reinterpretation of the CHRS data or attempt to resurvey the portions of Chicago that are missing from the data would have the same effect as a comprehensive effort by a city-managed municipal survey. The Chicago Landmarks Ordinance states that the Commission on Chicago Landmarks must ‘encourage the continuation of surveys and studies of Chicago’s historical and architectural resources and the maintenance and updating of a register of areas, districts, places, buildings, structures, works of art, and other objects which may be worthy of landmark designations.’
“History is not static, and old buildings are continually taking on the mantle of significance, some by aging into it, some due to changing mindsets, and others by losing enough of their stylistic comrades to become rare when once they were common. The data that we rely on to determine what buildings are saved and what buildings are demolished in Chicago is at best 24 years old, and at worst 35. An updated CHRS, one that evaluates modern and postmodern architectural heritage and takes a fresh look at vernacular architecture, is the only way that Chicago can continue to protect its architectural heritage.” (Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, 9/21/2018)
Reevaluating the CHRS: Chicago Needs a New Architectural Survey to Protect its Vernacular and Postmodern Heritage, Elizabeth Blasius, The Architect’s Newspaper, September 21, 2018
From Resources to Rubble: Evaluating Chicago’s Demolition Delay Ordinance in its Twentieth Year, Elizabeth Blasius, MAS CONTEXT
Is Chicago’s Historic Building ‘Bible’ Out of Date and Out of Touch?, Patty Wetli, WTTW Chicago, 9/9/20