More on the Chicago Landmarks (mis)ruling

From the Chicago Tribune

Originally posted: January 30, 2009


Disorder in the court: Wrong-headed ruling threatens Chicago’s architectural treasures
By Blair Kamin

The headline from Crain’s Chicago Business was a screamer-“Court strikes down city’s landmarks law”-but it also appears to be an exaggeration.

In its ruling Friday, an Illinois appellate court did not strike down Chicago’s 41-year-old landmarks law, which protects more than 250 buildings and 50 historic districts, including architectural treasures by the likes of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Instead, the court found that the law’s criteria for choosing both landmarks and members of Chicago’s landmarks commission are vague, and that the commission has been given too much power in determining whether buildings should be protected from demolition or defacement. It sent the case back to a trial court, where the law could indeed be overturned. But the city of Chicago has other plans.

“While they didn’t strike down the ordinance…the way their ruling was worded, the trial court judge will have little alternative…but to strike it down,” city Law Department spokesman Jennifer Hoyle told the Tribune’s Antonio Olivo. “So our feeling is that we have to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.”

The ruling–which arises from a lawsuit filed by two plaintiffs, including Draper & Kramer real estate executive Albert C. Hanna–aims a dagger at the heart of Chicago’s landmarks law and measures like it around the nation.

The laws are based on a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which stopped the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad’s attempt to pile a 55-story office building atop New York City’s Beaux-Arts Grand Central Terminal. In that ruling, the court held that communities have the right to safeguard significant pieces of property, so long as they do not trample the rights of the properties’ owners.

The key word is “significant,” a word that appears frequently in Chicago’s seven criteria for landmark designation, as in the site of a significant historical event or a building that is the work of a significant architect.

The Appellate Court ruling, written by James Fitzgerald Smith for a three-judge panel, argues that such terms are “vague, ambiguous, and overly broad.” It challenges whether members of the commission “can be well-guided by these terms” and suggests that just about any building could be made to fit such loose criteria.

Perhaps the judges would like all potential landmarks to be ranked on a supposedly objective numerical scale, like Olympic figure skating or gymnastics. The fact of the matter is, the process of evaluating potential landmarks (or sports performances, for that matter) is hardly so cut and dry. That process changes as we gain new insights about buildings and their historic worth, just as laws themselves change to reflect society’s shifting values.

Equally wrong-headed is the judges’ attack on the criteria for selecting members of the commission, particularly the non-experts who might have a “special interest, knowledge, or experience” in neighborhood preservation. The city offers “no criteria” for selecting such persons, the ruling says.

The judges may think only credentialed professionals are qualified to exercise judgment on historic preservation issues. By this overly strict standard, the late Jane Jacobs– author of the enormously influential book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which argued that preserving older buildings is crucial to the diversity and economic well-being of cities–could not have served on New York City’s landmarks commission. She was just a mother in Greenwich Village sitting on a stoop, after all.

Nor could Michelle Obama have served as a member of the Chicago’s landmarks commission, despite her experience with preservation issues in the city planning department, in the mayor’s office and at the University of Chicago. The future First Lady had no architectural degree.

Such non-architects are “critical to have on the commission,” said Jim Peters, president of Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago-based advocacy group. They can leaven an otherwise esoteric debate with their practical knowledge and street smarts.

Making this a perfect strikeout-three issues, three whiffs–the judges also err in concluding that the landmarks commission illegally possesses the equivalent of legislative power. No, it doesn’t.

The commission makes recommendations to the City Council. The City Council has the final say in determining whether a building becomes a landmark. If aldermen are too lazy or too busy to vote, a building automatically becomes a landmark 365 days after the recommendation is made. This measure is known as a “sunrise” provision.

The judges seem blissfully unaware of the way that many controversial landmark issues were handled in Chicago before 1997 when the “sunrise” provision was enacted. After the commission made its recommendation, the City Council would never vote, leaving the buildings in limbo for year after year. They were protected from demolition while their cases were pending, but they lacked official landmark status.

Among those that once suffered this fate: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s pathbreaking steel and glass apartment buildings at 860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive, the Art Deco Carbide & Carbon Building, and the Gage Building, where Sullivan pinned ornaments like brooches.

In 1996 and 1997, though, Mayor Richard M. Daley pushed the City Council to grant landmark status to 28 of these 29 endangered sites. And the Council, at Daley’s behest, passed the sunrise provision. That hardly makes it seem as if the landmarks commission has usurped the council’s legislative power.

Maybe the state Supreme Court can get this one right. The Appellate Court sure hasn’t. Its insistence on rigid standards threatens to strip Chicago-and the world-of a great architectural patrimony, opening the floodgates for an endless series of legal challenges to existing landmarks while preventing other worthy buildings from ever making it on the list.


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One Response to “More on the Chicago Landmarks (mis)ruling”
  1. Steven says:

    It’s going to require us to review our historic preservation ordinance here in a northern suburb of Chicago to make sure we don’t fall victim to this.

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