When a blocked sewer caused major water damage to the 1891-1892 Louis Sullivan- and Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Charnley-Persky House in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood in August 2014, the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), which has owned the building since 1995, was quick to repair the damage. But the extent of the damage and abruptness of the repair left the SAH thinking that it needed to do something more to preserve the national historic landmark.
“It made us worry about, in this older building, what other problems were out there that we weren’t aware of,” says SAH executive director Pauline Saliga. “We needed more information in order to address them proactively.”
The solution? The SAH announced last week that it would develop a conservation management plan that would provide a set of recommendations for a future, staged restoration as well as identify any immediate repair needs. The SAH also hopes that the plan will explore new uses for the building beyond its current function of housing the SAH’s headquarters and hosting twice-weekly tours and programs. “There are many ‘house museums’ that are doing a lot of soul-searching right now about how they’re going to manage financially now and in the future and they’re developing really innovative new focuses and branding,” Saliga says. “We need to look at a whole array of possibilities for this house.”
The 2014 flood—along with the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the building's design this year and a $123,000 grant from the Chicago-based Alphawood Foundation—gave the SAH the capital needed to begin the process. The society hired Harboe Architects, a historical preservation firm based in Chicago and known for restoration work on a number of Wright buildings as well as its master plan for the architect’s Taliesin West campus. Harboe’s five-person team will work with consultants to study the structure and its history.
The house has changed hands a few times since its construction. Designed as a residence for lumber mogul James Charnley by local firm Adler & Sullivan with then-draftsman Wright, the house eschewed the Victorian architecture that predominated the Gold Coast at the time of its construction. Its exterior is minimal in ornament with rectangular massing and a central balcony that serves as the façade’s focal point. Inside, a three-story atrium and ample woodwork with floral motifs, along with a symmetrical plan, speaks to the combination of Sullivan’s and Wright’s unique aesthetics. The house was named a local and national historic landmark in the 1970s and underwent a major renovation by Chicago architect John Vinci, FAIA, during that period. The work followed a spate of efforts in the 1950s and ‘60s to tear down the house as area developers purchased and demolished many historic homes in the neighborhood to make way for high-rises. In 1986, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill bought and restored the house before selling to philanthropist Seymour Persky, who purchased the building to be the SAH’s headquarters.
As it stands today, Saliga says, the house is “very close” to its original condition. “We’re lucky that a lot of the important interior ornament and interior finishes were never painted or ripped out,” she says. “The wood surfaces on the interior of this house are very important.” As is the central atrium. “It takes up a lot of the usable floor space but it’s one of the things that makes this building so unique and interesting,” she says. “You’d typically see that kind of treatment in a commercial building.”
No one can find the original drawings for the house, Saliga says. Nor has anyone been able to source diaries or photographs from the time the original owners lived there to inform what furnishings were present or how the spaces were used. The oldest set of drawings available is from the 1970s restoration.
The conservation management plan requires ample research, exploring primary sources like photographs, drawings, written descriptions, and other articles, in addition to looking at secondary, scholarly and structural analysis, explains Harboe Architects principal Gunny Harboe, FAIA—all of which have not yet been brought together in one place.
“We’re just excited to work on another really fabulous historic house, a cultural resource, and with an owner as important as the Society for Architectural Historians,” Harboe says. “We take that charge very seriously and are looking forward to working with them to create an exemplary document.”
The plan is expected to be completed by February 2017.