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History of Historic Preservation in the Chicago Region

Preservation did not gain a strong foothold in Chicago until the 1960s, a time many experts characterize as promoting indiscriminate demolitions – and an eventual public backlash. Central were Chicago's flagging mid-century economy; the sweeping urban renewal projects that cleared entire blocks in an attempt to spur reinvestment, replace derelict structures and end the mass emigration of the middle class; and the perceived expendability of buildings that would be valued landmarks today (Kamin, 2008).

Among early preservation activists in Chicago, few are as well known as Richard Nickel. Nickel was a photographer and preservationist of buildings by Louis Sullivan, an innovative post-fire architect whose work was all but forgotten by the 1950s. Nickel's passion to save Sullivan buildings was unmatched in the mid-century urban-renewal era, which favored "progress" and new construction over architectural nostalgia. His activism slowly gained attention in the 1960s, especially after a high-profile, though ultimately unsuccessful, demonstration to save the Garrick Theater (Schiller Building) in 1961. But it was not until Nickel's death in the rubble of the Old Chicago Stock Exchange in 1972 (he was salvaging ornamentation as the structure lay half demolished when an upper floor gave way, entombing his body for nearly a month) that his cause – and much of Sullivan's architecture – inspired the mainstream recognition it holds today (Cahan, 1994).

In 1957, the City Council passed an ordinance to establish the Chicago Commission of Architectural Landmarks, an advisory body appointed by the mayor whose primary task was to compile a list of historically significant buildings throughout the city (Cahan and City of Chicago). Unfortunately, the commission was given little authority to protect those buildings, and seven of the 39 landmarks identified during this period were lost (Kamin, 2008). The city gained greater preservation power in 1968 when a subsequent ordinance (see text box above) introduced design restrictions and gave the commission (now called the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks) permit-review authority.

One expert argues that the early Chicago preservation movement was as much a complement to urban renewal as a reaction against it. He cites the mid-century trend of evaluating landmarks by narrow aesthetic – instead of historical or social – associations. He argues that by favoring buildings of a specific style and era, this framework formalized the "Chicago School" of architecture (of which Sullivan is iconic), and limited the buildings considered distinctly "Chicago" and worthy of preservation (Bluestone, 1994). Downtowns tend to grow concentrically, so reserving "significance" for a single architectural style is like saving one ring of a tree stump and hollowing out the rest. Accordingly, the preoccupation with historic Chicago School structures literally cleared the way toward redeveloping vast, contiguous portions of the Loop, all while hedging against the protests of preservationists (Bluestone, 1994).

In the 1970s, it was preservation – not renewal – that leaders increasingly embraced to ease Chicago's economic decline as industry left the region and residents sought a reason to stay. For many middle-class homebuyers, the mere pronouncement that a neighborhood contained rare and historic architecture became an incentive to invest (Wilson, 2003). Indeed, the growing prevalence of Chicago landmark districts in the 1980s and 1990s came at a time when high-paying corporate jobs were filling the economic void left by shuttered factories. These conditions underscored a clear correlation between late-century landmark designations and the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods (Wilson, 2003). Ironically, some modern preservation efforts seek to curb that gentrification, and debate continues among academics about preservation's role (if any) in the economic cycles of urban neighborhoods.

In the Chicago suburbs, preservation has a mixed history. In places like Long Grove and Oak Park , historic architecture and cultural sites have long been a defining characteristic. Evanston and Highland Park lead the region in suburban National Register sites with 60 and 33 respectively (National Park Service and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency). Riverside was one of the first "planned communities" in the country, and largely designed by famed architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Accordingly, the entire city was named a National Historic Landmark in 1970, and Riverside's local government has a landmark ordinance and an array of initiatives to promote the near-west suburb's architectural heritage (riverside-illinois.com).

However, in many communities, the importance of historic preservation – as reflected through the adoption of local landmark ordinances or the formation of preservation commissions – is rarely acknowledged; and then, often lightly enforced (Kamin, 2008). There is not widespread recognition that beyond clusters of vernacular housing and "main street" businesses, the suburbs are living museums of industrial, transportation and Native American history. They also present an opportunity for rural farm and barn preservation, a breed of landmark that is often overlooked – but due to the Midwest's unique (and vanishing) agrarian culture, no less important. More controversially, some suburbs offer "recent-past" landmarks: the cylindrical concrete high-rises, neon-lighted bowling alleys and mid-twentieth-century churches that represent some of the most debated objects of historic preservation.

Case Studies

Two regional examples of historic presrevation activities are described below.

Will County Example

As one of the fastest growing counties in Illinois, Will County has experienced unprecedented development since 1990. As of 2008, Will County ranked first among all Illinois counties in population growth and new home construction. While new growth in Will County is encouraged, the county board recognizes that historic properties and places provide many benefits, including the creation of civic pride, enhancing the quality of life, as well as numerous economic and environmental benefits. In 1992, the county board adopted the Will County Historic Preservation Ordinance, establishing a Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) and a local landmark program. The purpose of the HPC is made clear on Will County's website: "Whether you live on a farmstead, rehabilitate old buildings, design new developments, or visit historic sites, protecting your community's sense of place while respecting the need for its progress is a priority for the [HPC]". The HPC is an advisory board, composed of volunteers with backgrounds in law, history, real estate, and architecture, that meets once a month to make preservation policy and planning recommendations. The HPC's jurisdiction extends throughout all of Will County, covering urban, rural and unincorporated areas. The majority of the HPC's work pertains to preserving properties such as farmhouses, barns, churches, bridges, depots, and cemeteries, as well as preserving the rural landscape.

Rural Historic Structures Survey Project

The Rural Structures Survey is used by Will County to further their goal of preserving historic buildings and the cultural landscape in a manner that accommodates the needs of the present while assuring a respect for the past. The survey allows the County to inventory and document information related to its historic buildings and structures throughout the unincorporated areas within the county. The survey follows National Park Service standards and includes the following components:

  • Inventory of all rural buildings and structures 50 years and older;
  • Historic research, photographic documentation (taken from public right-of-way, unless property owner permits otherwise);
  • Comprehensive database of all surveyed properties which includes a sketch site plan;
  • Detailed architectural information for each property such as building material and structural integrity;
  • Geographic Information Systems maps; and
  • A report that examines the overall rural themes present in the County and evaluates the local landmark and National Register potential of each building and structure.

Since 1999, the County has documented over 3,700 structures on 850 sites. The County uses the information collected through the survey process to make recommendations on which sites should be preserved. In addition, the survey allows the County to identify individual local and national eligible landmarks and historic districts.

Source: Will County Land Use Department, 2009.

Kane County Example

Kane County adopted their Historic Preservation Ordinance in 1988, which was the "first such ordinance adopted by a county in the state of Illinois". The ordinance created a historic preservation commission with the power to recommend landmarks and historic districts for designation by the Kane County Board of Commissioners to the Kane County Register of Historic Places. The ordinance was born out of a desire to control the effect of development on the historic character of the county. Kane County is full of historic assets that have become increasingly vulnerable due to recent construction efforts, including historic farmsteads, rural villages, scenic vistas, landscapes, road corridors, and commercial buildings. By placing these assets on the Register for Historic Places, the Historic Preservation Commission is given the authority to "review significant exterior alterations, additions, new construction or demolitions proposed for designated landmarks or within historic districts". As a result, historical assets are able to be carefully managed in the face of growing construction efforts in Kane County. Since its creation, the historic preservation commission has identified 35 individual landmarks, one rustic road (under the Rustic Roads Program), and one historic district. For its work, the Preservation Commission has received seven national, state, and local preservation awards.

Kane County Rustic Roads Program

Many of the roads in Kane County reveal the rural character of the area. The view of the countryside along these roads gives a sense of stability in a fast-changing world. Points of visual interest along a rustic road, both natural and manmade, add to the enjoyment of roadside scenery and to a sense of place. In Kane County rustic roads provide views of Midwestern vernacular—gently rolling woods and expansive farm fields, the Fox River and its tributaries, autumn color, farmhouses, barns, hedgerows and churches. Roadside land is often the first and most visible land converted to residential or commercial uses. The Rustic Roads program was established under the Kane County Historic Preservation Ordinance to designate and preserve natural character and scenic vistas for future generations. The Rustic Roads program promotes:

  1. A Sense of Place, by preserving community identity and quality of life;
  2. Resource Preservation, by protecting the significant scenic, natural and historic resources that are often located within rustic road corridors.
  3. Economic Development, by generating tourist revenue through the promotion of the scenic beauty of the county; and
  4. Recreation, by providing enjoyment for those who enjoy driving for pleasure and sightseeing.

The designation process includes gathering input from property owners within and adjacent to nominated road corridors, the appropriate highway authority public officials and other governmental jurisdictions.

Rustic Road designation does not "freeze" roads in time. During the designation process, a Corridor Management Plan is developed that defines the significant features of the road corridor that should be protected and enhanced. Traffic and life safety issues continue to be addressed while those features are preserved. Designated road corridors minimally include the road right-of-way and can also include properties and features adjacent to the right-of-way. The program applies to roads located in unincorporated Kane County and may include municipal roads through intergovernmental agreements.

Source: Kane County Development Department, 2004.

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