Ned Cramer
Ned Cramer

Do we really need to have this argument again? Everyone seemed to be in agreement: Some buildings and groups of buildings have an architectural or historic significance that renders them worthy of legal protection against demolition and significant alteration. I thought Philip Johnson and Jackie Onassis chaining themselves to New York’s Grand Central Terminal in the late 1960s made the case once and for all.

Apparently three Illinois appellate court judges never got the message, because they ruled on Jan. 30 that the seven criteria in the City of Chicago’s landmark ordinance are “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad.” (The city is appealing the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court. Lord help us if it loses.) What’s vague about the criteria? According to the ruling, terms like “?‘value,’ ‘important,’ ‘significant,’ and ‘unique.’?” The judges also have trouble with the Chicago landmark commission’s membership qualifications:

We are uncertain as to what the Ordinance means when it provides that Commission members shall be selected from professionals in disciplines of history, architecture, historic architecture, planning, etc.; or persons who have demonstrated a “special interest, knowledge, or experience” in architecture, history, neighborhood preservation, or related disciplines.

I fail utterly to see what’s vague about being a professional, or a person with “special interest, knowledge, or experience,” or why someone from either category would be incapable of determining a building’s historic or architectural value. They’re called experts, Your Honors, whether professional or no, and their role plays out something like this: Martin Luther King Jr. lived here; he was an epochal figure in our nation’s history; we should designate the place as a landmark. Obviously, not every evaluation can be so straightforward—witness the battle over Edward Durrell Stone’s 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan, now the Museum of Arts and Design—but the process itself couldn’t be more clear. So what’s the problem?

In a word, greed. The Chicago landmarks ordinance is more than 40 years old. It and others like it in municipalities around the country have withstood dozens of legal assaults by disgruntled property owners and developers using the same “vagueness” charge. Legal minutiae aside, their beef typically boils down to this: Landmark status impedes easy development. When faced with a historic property, some developers see just one path to profit­—a path cleared by a wrecking ball. No surprise, then, that the two individuals who brought the case in Illinois are a real estate agent and an employee of a major development company.

The economic benefits of preservation have been exhaustively documented. (Donovan Rypkema’s The Economics of Historic Preservation is one excellent resource.) Those who won’t believe the numbers, who still think that preservation is necessarily bad for the pocketbook, should talk to a landlord in New York’s SoHo, where rents are through the roof, or check out the breathtaking property values near my office in Washington, D.C.’s Logan Circle, which was a slum just 10 years ago. Making money off a landmark often takes little more than patience—at some point, a charming, down-at-heel neighborhood will begin to attract bargain hunters.

Call me a socialist (you wouldn’t be the first), but I believe that the greater good should occasionally trump individual property rights. You can’t site a toxic waste dump near a school any more than you can build a high-rise within spitting distance of the U.S. Capitol. For good reason: Both toxic waste and a misplaced high-rise would cause certain harm to the ones we love.

Some older buildings, like the Capitol, are sacred cows, others are white elephants, and we can show our affection for them in many different ways. A landmark designation shouldn’t amount to a pair of handcuffs, and this is where preservationists sometimes love too much, strangling the life out of landmarks by holding them so close to the chest.

The three projects in this issue of Architect exemplify the range of ways we can care for a building and still make it work for the 21st century—an essential task in an age of depleted resources, when ground-up is decreasingly an option. Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y. (page 115), demanded respectful restoration, but it neatly accommodates, even benefits from, the introduction of a minimalist entry pavilion by Toshiko Mori. A doo-wop coffee bar in downtown Detroit (page 111), by contrast, practically begged Andrew Zago to remove the kid gloves; his lively renovation stands as a 3,000-square-foot case study of how the old Motor City really can bounce back. But arguably the thorniest challenge arose at New York’s Lincoln Center (page 101), a love-to-hate-it monument of Brutalism. In their remodeling of Alice Tully Hall, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and FXFowle managed to prove that old and new can make excellent playmates. The trick is ensuring expert supervision.