Archive for the ‘Historic Preservation’ Category

Yeah, this one’s ranty. I waited too long to write. So much has happened. Agendas have changed, a zillion people in architectural fields have been laid off due to downsizing and restructuring—an unbelievable number of architectural firms have closed their doors in Chicago and the Chicago Department of Environment is going away entirely. For real. Yeah, it’s feeling a little apocalyptic these days.

I’ve considered everything from starting a brewery to going to law school, but the truth is, I’m a damned writer with a lot of debt and opinions. And I like to write about architecture and history and the environment at this point in my life. So here I am, feeling a little lonelier in Chicago these days as I watch almost all of my preservationist friends from grad school and beyond leaving this city for jobs in Los Angeles and D.C. The melancholic autumnal vibe is making me want to write poems about my favorite buildings decomposing into tortured faces.

Alas, let me sip my scalding herbal tea and calm myself down while looking at the trees swaying and the hoods flipping up outside this here café window. Things are changing like the season and, I hope, evolving to be more intelligent and livable. It remains to be seen where all of this restructuring will go. Perhaps a strange, unintended result will be the scattering of environmentalists and preservationists into seemingly unrelated fields where we can make changes to those disciplines based on our former lives in green/historic fields?

The truth of the matter is that we can’t go back at this point. I think (and rather hope) that we know too much now and have too much information to go back to the status quo in terms of energy and the impacts of demolition. And nobody would hire us anyway. Codes are forcing our fields to span multiple disciplines now and I think that’s a positive. Preservationists are finally catching up and even innovating out of necessity with technology like 3D laser documentation, phone apps, more comprehensive energy efficiency case studies, (hopefully smart) multi-cultural and multi-age outreach…there’s a general and sweeping restructuring of goals and huge changes in the green building world as well. These are good things. I’m not entirely sure how many of them translate to jobs for the non-tech savvy, but that just means that unless we’re able to retire (ha!), we all have to work harder to be more informed and less isolated which will only make our arguments and successes stronger in the end. Right?

I’ll be honest. I don’t even know where I fit into any of this. It’s a tough thing to be brimming with ideas and have no idea what to do with them, or how to make them happen. But I’m trying to just hang onto the idea that if I (we) just keep working and learning it will all be okay in the end.

Or, if you have some start up capital, call me and we can start a brewery with punny names and cute little historic buildings on the label.

Actually, what I really want are comments. Suggestions. Encouragement throughout this field that is genuine and not just lip service or Tony Robbins speak. Talk to me, people. Where are you working? What are you doing? Where are you finding opportunities? This blog has been viewed tens of thousands of times after three years of posting and I’d like nothing more than to hear from any and all of you about what is happening in your cities and with your jobs–the good, bad, and hideous. I’ll keep posting updates on policy and strategy and energy and all of it, but I want to hear more from the bottom on up. It’s important stuff.


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This week’s featured guest writer, Chris Cook, describes the importance of Portland, Oregon’s historic theaters in the context of preservation and sustainability. Basically, in his city at least, environmentally-minded folks naturally gravitate to these venues over the big box cineplexes, and for good reason. For more on Chris and his excited brain, scroll to the end of the blog.

The Historic Salem Theater in Salem, Oregon. A bike-friendly location for over a century! Photo from http://www.historicgrandtheater.com/history.html

Portland is a remarkably walkable city, especially considering that it is a relatively young western city which languished a few decades in between its industrial heyday and its current population boom. A well timed preservation movement in the 1970s and Portland’s own cultural idiosyncrasies enabled the city to either retain or refurbish its neighborhood commercial cores, which in turn have become the foundation of Portland’s human-scale walk- and bike-ability.

The original single screen theater of the Laurelhurst Theater could seat 650 people and was one of the first art deco style theaters of the period.

One of the many reasons we cherish old buildings is for just this; the human-scale relate-ability and comfortable surroundings they provide. Prime examples of this in Portland can be found in the city’s preserved movie theaters. Locally run, most without even the hint of a parking lot, Portland’s theaters not only connect and influence the culture of the city, but provide an extremely desirable amenity to a variety of neighborhoods. Here are just a few:

The Laurelhurst Theater, at 2735 E. Burnside, has been in nearly continuous operation since it opened in 1924. Home to first and late run movies, festivals, special events, and a smattering of local beers, it has been redone as a cinema-pub, replacing every other row of seats with a shelf for snacks and drinks. Its neon façade is a pretty spectacular addition to E. Burnside.

The lobby of the Laurelhurst. Classic, yet updated to allow this independent theater to thrive.

As for facades, the Hollywood Theatre, at 4122 NE Sandy, outshines all others with its blend of rococo and mission styles. The Hollywood was designed by local architect John Bennes, who was also behind the Liberty Theatre in Astoria, Oregon, as well as a plethora of hotels and office buildings currently on the National Register in downtown Portland. Built in 1926, it deteriorated into second-run theater until it was purchased by the Oregon Film and Video Foundation in 1997 and renovated as a venue for film festivals. Cinema 21, which opened at 616 NW 21st in 1925 as the State Theater, similarly contributes to the cultural fabric of the city by hosting film festivals as well as first run independent films not found at any other theaters.

The Hollywood Theater. Wow.

St. Johns Cinema, at 8704 N. Lombard, though certainly less flashy than the Hollywood or Laurelhurst, is an important component of the small town atmosphere of Portland’s most geographically isolated neighborhood. Opening as the Venetian Theatre in 1926, the single screen theater was bisected horizontally in 1983, turning the balcony into its own oddly shaped screening room. As with many other local theaters in Portland, tickets are fairly cheap and local beer is provided.

The Moreland Theatre, at 6712 SE Milwaukie, is similar to the St. Johns Cinema in that it adds to the, again, “small town” feel of the West Moreland neighborhood’s commercial core. Built in 1926, and today a real mom and pop operation, this single screen theater is simple, relaxed, and features subtle yet sweet mission revival ornamentation on the inside.

While the average home size in the U.S. has double since 1970, the average theater size has followed suit, sometimes with 20 screens under one roof. Though theaters like Cinema 21 above are pretty tiny and not as flashy as some of the other historic theaters in Portland, they add to the small town, local, main street feel of the city.

Having lived in Portland for the past three years or so, I can still count my visits to the large cineplex in central Portland, Lloyd Cinema, on one hand. Situated behind a sea of cars, this modern movie theater provides no lobby to speak of and lacks any charm or sense of place. It is also certainly not the center of any unique cultural happenings in the city, be they the Portland International Film Festival at Cinema 21 or Bike Porn at the Clinton Street Theater. Nearly everyone I know feels the same way. This variety of small, local theaters provides what large chain theaters never can; uniqueness and charm. In addition to these more intangible qualities, Portland’s theaters fit well into resident’s desires to shop locally and, in some cases, never venture further than a comfortable bike ride from their home. Old theaters are also usually quite laid back and cozy; try getting that at a cineplex. The smallness of these theaters is one of their greatest assets. A city can sustain only so many giant mega-plexes, but small theaters allow for friendly competition (by my count, Portland currently has thirteen small local theaters, quite a few for a medium sized city).

While the Clinton Theater is only two-stories tall and not necessarily the pinacle of architectural embelishment, it honors the scale of the city and is still more interesting looking than most cheesy multiplexes. And you can bet that movie stadiums won't be showing films like Lady Terminator, Slumber Party Massacre, and Calamari Wrestler.

Chris is a native New Orleanian working on his fourth year of living in beautiful Portland, Oregon after spending time in Austin, Houston, and Southern California. Currently pursuing a Masters in History, focusing on social and cultural shifts in post-Reconstruction New Orleans and Emancipation in the New World, he sees preserved buildings as crucial social and cultural ties to the past. He is also keenly interested in sustainability and the livability of cities, he works to bring both bikes and a love of cycling to underprivileged kids around Portland through the Bike Club program at the Community Cycling Center.

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Lately, I feel like every day I am pulled into a conversation revolving around this question and it’s lead me to believe that perhaps as green building advocates and preservationists, we should do 2 things: Establish some kind of guidelines and promote more repairing.

I know the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation are out there, but most homeowners don’t exactly have them hanging on the fridge–most likely they have never heard of them. But

Really? Does this make your heart go pitter-patter?

at least preservationists already have an idea of when to repair vs. replace, the info just needs to be more accessible. The green building movement is a mess in this regard, likely because there are so many new materials on the market and so many certifications out there to show how green that they are, and that’s a whole lot of money and industry. Good news is that there seem to be some acknowlegement of this, at least on the part of a small faction of Chicago “greenies,” as I was recently asked to be part of a group that weighs in on “green” materials on a monthly basis. I think that frequency is key here as 8 million new products seem to come out each year.

As a side note, if preservationists want to promote restoration to a larger, more general population, language is crucial. People often think of “restoration” as being cost-prohibitive. And this is because, well, let’s be honest, it can be. If we start to use words like “repair” which actually tends to conjure ideas of frugality, along side “restore,” a lot more of the will be on board with the idea of keeping more of what they already have and simply fixing it up. I think that this is presicely why a lot of people also fear landmark status, when in reality it will benefit them vs. make their lives difficult and more expensive. “Landmark,” like “restoration,” has a stigma for many.

Oh, how we love to gut interiors like this. It's madness.

That said, I’ve recently joined up with an initiative started up by Big Shoulders Realty “Restoration Not Rehab” to help people looking for homes, or who already have existing homes, to restore/repair their existing features and/or make their homes more efficient without gutting all the charm and craftsmanship out of the interior. I’ll save the details for another post, but I think the initiative is rather awesome. We’re a down-to-earth crew with a wide knowledge base and the best intentions. That’s what it’s all about. (Please save the Hokey Pokey jokes).

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I’m still working out the mission statement, so here are my rambling, uncensored thoughts on the purpose of this site.

I created this site because I wanted a forum for people to discuss the following issues and keep each other updated on new technologies, policies, and ideas. After studying and working in both historic preservation and environmental work places and on various projects around the country, I’ve learned that these fields are absolutely essential to one another. Different cities have different approaches and policies, but essentially they are the ying and yang needed to bring about a more sustainable built world. Unfortunately, there is still a whole lot of tension between these two worlds. What I have noticed most often is that preservationists fear green builders are too quick to bulldoze and build new, and green builders feel that preservationists are a roadblock to progress.

It’s all hooey, really. There is absolutely no need for tension here, and hopefully we can find some middle ground and (god forbid) foster creative solutions. This is not to say that these issues are not legitimate, because of course, they are. And, of course, economics play a major role in all of this, but this can be overcome. We won’t be able to come up with creative solutions to make both of these fields interactive and prosperous (there is so much room for job growth here it is staggering) until we all gain a better understanding of the incentives and barriers in related architectural fields. Once we understand how we are alike and different, and what works and what doesn’t, we can more easily work together to affect change.

But first, we need to get over ourselves and break down some of the barriers. So here is what we need to do first in order to stop slamming our heads against a wall:

  1. Preservationists have to stop being on the defense and be more proactive. We are all in love with architecture, materials and the building arts and need to a better job of getting people excited about these things. In the eyes of most designers and architects, we are still the lame, crotchety old ladies that started this movement, ala Ann Pamela Cunningham. We need young, innovative designers and this new architectural energy on our side, so it’s time to rethink how we’ve been doing things and edit those Secretary of Interior’s Guidelines already. Let’s show that we want progress too, and learn to play with the hip kids.

  2. Green building people need to acknowledge the importance of embodied energy and to stretch themselves to focus on how to be creative within existing walls. You don’t always need a blank canvas. And history is cool. Not just cool, it’s fascinating. Not to mention a heck of a lot greener to preserve in most cases as these buildings—even at 100—are more sustainable than most of the new architecture that is going up. Retrofitting is so often the greenest option, but we need new technology to help us constantly improve our energy and water reduction, and to work better within existing structures.

History, artistry, sense of place, dwindling resources, indoor and outdoor air pollution—these things matter and are not incompatible. We are all well intentioned, so lets cut to the chase and get some work done. Educate me, educate yourselves, educate each other. Then let’s combine forces and take over the world.

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