Wednesday, April 11, 2007
What’s the purpose of historic preservation? Is it mostly visual, in that old buildings are pleasant to look at? Or is it also cultural, so that we save buildings that exemplify a style of architecture or an historic event? Because they serve as museums of a former age? Is it more mystical –- that an historic building acts as some kind of silent and inanimate witness from the past to the turmoil of the present?
The Chicago Tribune published this week a thoughtful piece by its architecture critic, Blair Kamin, on the common practice of “façade preservation” –- what Kamin also refers to a “façade-ectomy” (actually, shouldn’t it be everything-but-the-facade-ectomy?) –- in which only the facade of an historic building is preserved, while the space behind it is transformed to modern needs: a modern office building or even a parking garage. Kamin’s article, which is critical of the practice, points out successes in fixing up the entirety of some structures for modern use, such as the famous landmark Reliance Building (now the Hotel Burnham) in Chicago, or even reconstructions in which only the girders are saved.
I too am a fan of historic preservation laws, even when I think they sometimes go too far. Like the protection of endangered species, if we allow an historic building to be demolished, there’s no way to get it back. But I’ll differ from Kamin on his view of façade preservation. In the “exuberant” era –- say 1870 to 1920, which also matches the “golden age” of Chicago architecture –- many structures were built largely as facades; behind many a splashy street exterior of stone and sculpture lay a rather functional and bland brick and plaster building of a nation focused on business. Many exteriors were built purely as visual treats, and it does not seem improper to treat them as such today.