Sunday, October 19, 2008

An architectural mess in the OP

The OP is a strange place. It really prides itself on the architecture there. A visit to Chicago is typically not complete without a trek to Oak Park. Everyone knows about Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s home and his other work here. A good number also know about the other homes and structures designed by Wright disciples, contemporaries, and imitators. Unfortunately, fewer come to appreciate Oak Park’s diverse commercial side: a main street and adjacent neighbors that mimic and small-town in America. Movie theatre, diner, storefronts, brick and terra cotta commercial buildings constructed over the past hundred years.

In addition to having such a fantastic architectural heritage, it also seems like a place where many architects live. I don’t believe I am exaggerating when I say that I think there is an architect on just about every block and it seems to have been this way for a long time.
This place is keenly focused on architecture. Oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to make it an architectural bed of roses. We have an absolutely spectacular new library but you’d be hard-pressed to say something nice about any of the other additions made to the community over the past several years. The architectural heritage isn’t having such a hot time either.

Perhaps it’s the size. I witnessed the difficulties that places like this have while living in Buffalo N. Y.; a small city trying to keep numerous structures by Wright, Sullivan, Richardson, Saarinen, and others from falling into the ground. There is a down-side to having all this architectural greatness in a location with a limited population. It is difficult to retain focus on what is important when so many things are so. Also, small communities often don’t have the resources to maintain and keep this many structures a vital part of their community. Heck, if Chicago can lose three Sullivan buildings in one year, just imagine what slips through the cracks in places with less foresight and means.

I guess I didn’t really expect much when we moved to the OP. Okay, that’s a lie. We expected a lot and we were wrong. One needn’t look any further than the publicly owned National Landmark, Pleasant Home, to see what can happen to architectural greatness when it is not given its due attention. In a different community, where its fundraising efforts might not be overshadowed by Frank Lloyd Wright Structures, I imagine this home would be a shining beacon. Here, it is not far from becoming a crumbling mess. The preservation focus seems to be elsewhere.
Within the next few months, another chunk of the OP will be falling through the cracks as three buildings will be getting demolished. Last year, the village was patting itself on the back over the restoration of traffic and creation of a pedestrian-friendly Marion Street. Rightly so, they took a bold step in removing a pedestrian mall and bringing back activity to an otherwise floundering piece of the business district. Oddly enough, at the same time, it was taking steps to eradicate what could be a viable pedestrian-scale group of buildings that complete and enhance the Marion street area: Westgate and the Colt Building (I’ll refer to them as one, “Westgate”, throughout the rest of the blog). From Lake Street, because of the additions put on in recent years, they don’t look like much but from the backside, they complete an alley of nicely designed turn of the century buildings.
I could go on about the history of what has happened here but it’s just too much to re-hash. For the best synopsis I’ve seen of how the OP got into this mess with these buildings, look no further that Vince Michael’s blog.
Personally, I can’t help but find the entire situation a little ironic. For those of you that don’t know, I spend my days working for “the man” – I’ve mentioned it several times on the site before. In archi-speak, I tell folks that I do developer-driven residential and mixed-use developments in the TND mode. My architecture (if you can call it that), is designed and built to fulfill one primary need: to make developers money. “…without offending the neighbors too much” might be a good way to complete the description. “TND”, or Traditional Neighborhood Development at its best is a comprehensive approach to architecture and planning that aims to create a relatively diverse development modeled after places that have developed over time. At its worse, it is designing developments where the building facades look like old buildings. We do a little of both.
The reason I point this out is that the buildings that exist at Westgate are just that: a TND. They are mixed-use structures, built at a pedestrian scale, as part of a neighborhood that developed over time. This is precisely what people hire me to design and oversee construction of. I’m not saying that they are “great pieces architecture” but these buildings at Westgate are nicer than anything we could construct today so why tear them down? Their proximity and configuration adjacent to the “new” Marion Street makes them even more intriguing. It isn’t hard to imagine small restaurants, shops and offices easily developed in the area if there were a little patience and will.
There is a plan though: replace these small old buildings with a mega-block of parking, hotel, and residential development. Three words aptly describe the replacement building(s): big, glass, concrete. It looks like the architects threw their interns on that one and said, “have at it” with little or no supervision. It is an architectural mess. Luckily, given the current economic crisis, it probably won’t be built for another 5 or 6 years, if at all.
I’ve watched the Westgate story develop even before I moved to the OP and I still haven’t put my finger on the reason for this mess. I’d love to say that the village is filled with morons when it comes to the folks making the decisions but that's just too easy and frankly, there has to be more to it. Is it resident greed trying to have a building that “increases” the tax base and decrease homeowner tax burden. Is it lack of will and foresight to preserve older structures and recognize this as viable development? Is it a general ignorance about current trends in downtown revitalization in small communities? Is it a political situation where a village board and its community are not communicating and time and money is wasted in the process? Are we jealous with Chicago’s neighbor to the north, Evanston and want a bunch of tall shiny new buildings “just like the Joneses”? I don’t know but suspect that it is a combination of all of these and maybe a few more.
I just find it a little hard to believe in a community with so many people in the architectural profession that such a mess can occur. Maybe too many cooks do spoil the broth. Whatever the reason, The OP will be demolishing 3 structures that are part of its “main street”. Businesses will likely continue to migrate to Forest Park but heck, at least we’ll have some additional parking for the next few years.


Jennifer said...

What a shame. I've been lucky with my town... they are just embarking on a huge downtown revitalization that includes restoring old buildings. In fact, they just removed the yellow paint from a formerly monstrous and now grand looking brick 4 story... one of the tallest here. Nice to see.

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

There is a lot of respect for the fabric here - and people do rehab a lot of old structures but they just seemed to have botched this one in a major way.

Fargo said...

This Oak Park plan is disappointing on every level. Some of the new stuff in Evanston is good, but overall it's a little too shiny and new and NOT very Evanston. I'm glad that some of the old blocks in downtown Evanston are still intact. I haven't heard anything recently about the plans for the huge skyscraper in the middle of downtown Evanston. I hope that the dismal economy has killed it.

Oak Park does not need to follow in Evanston's footsteps on this. Forest Park will undoubtedly be grateful for the continuing gain in business, but it will certainly be Oak Park's loss. What a waste!

Brownie08 said...

We live in Oak Park and can't believe how beautiful the residential neighborhoods are and what an eyesore parts of our downtown are at the same time. You'd think with all the tourist we get, the village would want the downtown to be representative of the other parts of Oak Park. It has so much potential. Who knows if we'll ever reach it at this rate! I hope so.