Friday, April 04, 2008

Is inclusion in the historic district appropriate for our home?

It is ironic that I am dealing with this issue. I am a proponent of and have been active in historic preservation for over 12 years. When we first purchased the Tiny Bungalow, we thought it was funny that we had moved to a community that is known for its historic architecture and filled with designated landmarks and historic districts but we were in a home that was excluded from designation.

All of this seems to be changing as the OP is considering expanding their Frank Lloyd Wright – Prairie School of Architecture Historic District to include our home. Under typical circumstances I would feel honored and would be all for the designation. Unfortunately, I can’t help but have reservations about this.

Oddly enough, my reservations have less to do with how this affects the tax assessment, property values, and other issues that owners seem to get their panties in a bunch about when it comes to historic designations. Instead, my concerns are a bit more academic and conceptual and the more I dwell on it, I can’t help but wonder what they are up to in the OP.

The OP is FILLED with historic districts and landmark properties. I can't argue with them and I believe it is one of the reasons that the community is so physically attractive. With Unity temple, Pleasant Home, Wright's Home & Studio and the countless other Wright homes and beautiful structures, I would even argue that architecturally, it is one of the most significant places in America. That said, there are many modest parts of the village. If there weren't, we wouldn't be living here.

Our home, along with many others on the street, was built in 1914 by developer Raymond Hancock. If someone told me there would be a “Hancock’s Bungalows Historic District”, I might laugh at them to the point of choking but I probably wouldn’t disagree. Hancock was responsible for the development of a large number of EXTREMELY modest, though nicely detailed, bungalows on the western edge of Chicago and eastern edge of the OP. I appreciate the bungalow as a housing form and am concerned that these minor players in the history of American housing are endangered. Thematically, it seems to makes sense.

To take these same homes and jumble them into a district that seems to celebrate the work of Wright seems a bit odd though. I’m not a Wright scholar and not at all a fan of his lifestyle so forgive me if I get any of this wrong but I believe that Wright “left” the OP in 1909. In 1911, he built Taliesin and I believe he worked from there (and eventually Arizona) for the rest of his career. It would seem that it would not make sense to include homes that are NOT in the Prairie School vein and NOT built before or during Wright’s tenure in the OP. This logic would seem to exclude Hancock’s ventures.
What in the world does Frank Lloyd Wright have to do with bungalows anyway? Contrary to what you might think while leafing through an issue of American Bungalow, the connection is tenuous at best. With it's countless publicity of Wright properties up for touring and images of Prairie Style designs, AB would probably have you believe that Wright invented the bungalow in order to see more magazines. On the contrary, I don’t believe he ever designed one and the simple and rustic Craftsman tradition that is associated with bungalows seems a sharp contrast to the complex constructions and refined designs that Wright produced. Maybe in proposing an expansion of the district to bungalows and foursquares currently excluded, there is a broader goal on someone's part to connect Wright to everything related to the Arts & Crafts. I still can’t make sense of it.

One might argue that it is logical to include these structures because they “preserve a view” by including homes on both sides of a street in the district. Currently, the homes across the street are in the district and our side is not. What would happen to the streets character if someone came and tore down all the homes on our side of the street? Well, that’s ridiculous thinking. The chances of someone doing that are pretty slim. It’s also somewhat laughable since most of the homes, on both sides of the street; bear little resemblance to what they were when originally constructed. Though the Tiny Bungalow, clocking in at just over 850 square feet is an exceptional case, all of these homes are very modest. Inappropriate exterior cladding and terrible new windows and storms aside, considerable modifications have been made to make them amenable to our modern lifestyles. One driving down the street would hardly call it “historic”.

I could spend an equal amount of time remarking on the economic concerns I have about the designation but won’t elaborate at this point. I will say that I hardly doubt that anyone with such a modest home will be taking advantage of any of the economic benefits of a historic district in order to historically restore their home. Getting a permit in the OP is enough of a pain in the ass without having to deal with a historic designation on top of it. Don’t get me wrong I am a huge fan old houses and a big fan of bungalows but I can’t jump on the historic district expansion bandwagon just yet. The draft has been submitted to the state. We'll just have to wait and see how things play out.


Jennifer said...

You have some good points... I'm suprised they are looking to put houses with such modifications in a historic district! Around here I think 90% of the buildings have to be unmodified to even make an application.

It does make you wonder what they are up to...

Andy said...

Good luck. We have friends on the East Side of the OP in a Chicago-style bungalow...don't know if they're getting lumped in as well, but I know that they'd agree with the "pain in the ass" that permits are down there.

Great points, too, on the historic relevance/connection. It's almost like playing "six degrees of separation" and believing that such a link means anything, really, in the end. :)

john hancock said...

I found you blog while doing a search for my grandfather, Raymond G. Hancock. He was a builder in Chicago and it appears as though he built your house. What a find! I live in Sacramento, CA. My sister lives here too and she is also a homebuilder and has a number of Raymond's business artifacts from around the time your house was built. Congratulations on your project.
All the best,
John Hancock;