Written by Christine Madrid French
The Society of Architectural Historians, celebrating its 70th anniversary in its home town of Chicago, hosted a large and energetic gathering of scholars and practitioners the week of April 21. The annual conference featured expected studies – one session explored Roman architecture after Hadrian – but also delved into new areas, marked by a historic preservation colloquium dedicated to public housing.
This topic is perhaps outside the range of “typical” preservation interests, but is worthy of our attention for a number of compelling reasons. As conservators of the built environment, we are interested in finding new ways to use historic structures. The greenest building is the one already built, right? Well, in the case of public housing there is a both a community need for this type of structure and a nationwide inventory of solidly constructed buildings available for renovation and re-use.
A series of three speakers tackled both the challenges and opportunities for restoring public housing during this day-long discussion and tour. Our own Elizabeth Milnarik, associate architect in the Stewardship of Historic Sites department, opened up the day with an astute analysis of the motivations behind the public housing movement, dating back to the industrial revolution. With a series of illustrations, she demonstrated the transition from tenements (often overcrowded with no running water and windowless rooms), to modern facilities incorporating communal areas, parks, and libraries.
Michael Jackson, chief architect of the Preservation Services division at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, followed up with a particularly compelling discussion of good buildings awaiting new stewards. His comparative study countered the idea of the “throwaway building,” by proving that public housing (dating from as early as the 1920s) can be effectively renovated. At the Trumbell Homes project in Chicago, residents advocated for preservation of original kitchen elements during the renovation process, intent on keeping their oversize cast-iron sinks from the 1930s. In Memphis, the city redeveloped Lauderdale Courts as market-rate housing (promoted with the tagline “Everything Old is New Again”) and listed the complex on the National Register of Historic Places. As a special addition, visitors can rent the unit where Elvis and his family resided from 1949 to 1953, decorated in a vintage style.
Sunny Fischer, board member of the National Public Housing Museum (and executive director of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation) closed out the program. She eloquently interwove the goals of the museum -- to preserve, recover, and reveal stories of community building in the face of adversity -- with stories of her own childhood years as a resident of a public housing project in New York City. Discussing the past, and the future, of public housing, she asserted, helps us “think through our own stereotypes and prejudices,” and reveals the “full story of the American experience.” The museum is in the planning and fund-raising stage at this point, but does have a location in hand – the last remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes of 1936 (most of the other structures were demolished in 2002).
After lunch, participants hit the road for a tour of Chicago’s own housing sites, a one-of-a-kind experience. Everyone walked away with a greater understanding of the significance of public housing within the history of our country and the realization that this study can thrive only if we stop “drive-by demolitions” and take the time to analyze, understand, and appreciate these urban buildings and landscapes.
Christine Madrid French is the director of the Modernism + Recent Past program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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