Argument: the star of Downton Abbey is the house

All television shows have settings and locations but few are as important as the large home on Downton Abbey:

The main character in Downton Abbey is not a person at all. It’s a building. Downton Abbey.

There it is in the opening credits of the new film and, despite a whole raft of new changes that I am trying not to give away, there it stands at the end, towering over all of the humans who enter and exit its doors, more custodians than owners, really.
The domestic edifice is this hugely successful franchise’s reason for being, the explanation for the movie, the lodestar for the show’s fans. Individual characters can die — and, God knows, they have. But if “Downtown Abbey” itself were ever to fall, then the story would be over.

This is unusual. Most long-running TV shows are centered on either an individual or a family. “Mad Men” could not survive past the death of Don Draper. “Dexter” needed Dexter. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White. “Game of Thrones” (73 episodes!) had numerous story arcs, heaven knows, but it still remained the story of communities, not unlike “The Wire” or “The Deuce.” “Star Wars” is a generational saga at its core. And, of course, superhero franchises need their superheroes. (Or their close relations.)

In many television shows, the setting functions more as a backdrop than anything else. The opening credits may show a city and/or home. The show itself may feature a few main sets, typically a place of residence and a workplace. But, swap one city or suburb for another or home for another home and the show could go on.

Would the same be true for Downton Abbey? If the show took place in a different English manor – which are occasionally seen on the show and in the movie – would it be a different show or a weaker show? Is the show popular because of the house or is the house popular because of the show?

It seems like a step too far to suggest that a bad or mediocre television show could be rescued by or solely built on a unique and interesting setting. Good characters encountering interesting situations is a necessary ingredient, even in a show that depends on an unusual and/or popular location. Yet, we could study the degree to which a setting or location or building figures in the plot and popularity of a show. For example, would The Sopranos be the same show without the suburban McMansion the family lives in?

Publication on long-standing church buildings in the Chicago region

I recently had an article published in Visual Studies titled “Still Standing After All These Years: The Presence and Internet Presentation of Religious Buildings in the Chicago Area, 1936-2016.”

Here is the abstract:

Scholars have examined the changes in religious architecture over time but few have focused on the ongoing presence of religious buildings in communities nor how long-standing congregations interact with their older building. This study utilises two Internet data sources – Google Street View and the websites of religious congregations – to examine the fate and online presentation of the buildings of four Protestant denominations in the Chicago region from 1936 to today: Disciples of Christ, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Presbyterian, and Seventh-day Adventist. The patterns found show the stability of many church buildings over eight decades and how they help anchor some religious groups – even though newer congregations use a number of these structures – yet congregations make unique choices about presenting their buildings through their website. These findings suggest religious buildings continue to influence their original religious congregations, newer groups using the building and neighbourhoods decades after they are constructed.

Addition to the abstract: we could use more research on how older religious buildings are used, celebrated, and renovated by their original religious congregations, new religious groups, and other organizations. Additionally, what do these long-standing buildings mean for their neighborhoods and communities, even if they are no longer utilized for religious purposes?

Measuring the success of a leader by the number of buildings and public amenities named after them

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn suggests the Chicago Riverwalk should be named after former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and also discusses the number of buildings named after prominent Chicago mayors:

In situations like this I usually invoke my “hall of fame” rule. That rule requires that, when faced with the urge to slap a politician’s name onto public property, we emulate how pro baseball and pro football halls of fame require players to have been inactive for at least five years before they can be considered for induction. (Hockey and basketball make their luminaries wait only three years.) The purpose is to prevent cheap sentiment and spasms of nostalgia from coloring the cool judgment of time.

For instance, the years have not been kind to Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley. The further his six terms as mayor recede in memory, the more fiscally irresponsible and ultimately destructive Daley seems.

He dined on our seed corn — most notably by selling 75 years’ worth of parking meter revenue for a paltry $1.15 billion in 2008. He failed to make the painful decisions that would have kept local pension funds healthy. He left flaming piles of debt for the Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Transit Authority. I need not go on.

There’s a reason that a neighborhood branch library is still and perhaps forever the most significant public structure to bear Richard M. Daley’s name (compared with his exhaustively honored father, Richard J. Daley). By 2024, similarly harsh retrospective assessments may discourage us from putting the Emanuel name on the riverfront jewel he relentlessly championed.

Attaching names of prominent officials to buildings and other public structures (such as highways or an interchange) has a long history. Once a leader is out of office, they can fade from public memory. A prominent feature of the urban landscape with their name on it can help keep their name in public view for decades, perhaps even centuries.

Often, the name is attached to something they helped create. This is where putting Emanuel’s name on the Riverwalk makes sense: if he helped make it happen, his name reminds Chicagoans of at least one good important thing he did. His legacy will likely be mixed but who can deny the value of a nice public amenity?

But, the gesture can also seem vain, backfire in the long run, or . Self-application of a name probably would not work. Consider the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. in major American cities. Or, the numerous honorary streets in Chicago that few notice. Even worse may be names that few remember even as the name is regularly invoked (the fate of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago).

It will be worth tracking (1) how many places in Chicago bear Emanuel’s name in the long run and (2) how these named places affect his legacy.

If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.

One of the best uses of empty church buildings: homes for new religious congregations

A recent piece by Jonathan Merritt suggested there are many empty American churches and communities struggle to know what to do with them:

Many of our nation’s churches can no longer afford to maintain their structures—6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year in America—and that number will likely grow. Though more than 70 percent of our citizens still claim to be Christian, congregational participation is less central to many Americans’ faith than it once was. Most denominations are declining as a share of the overall population, and donations to congregations have been falling for decades. Meanwhile, religiously unaffiliated Americans, nicknamed the “nones,” are growing as a share of the U.S. population…

Converting old churches into residential spaces, like St. Augustine’s and St. Vincent De Paul, is becoming more popular. Churches’ architectural flourishes—open floor plans, exposed brick, vaulted ceilings, and arched windows—often draw buyers of means who are looking for a residential alternative to ubiquitous cookie-cutter developments.

While this type of sacred-to-secular conversion may be a tough pill for former members to swallow, many are even less satisfied with the alternatives. A large number of abandoned churches have become wineries or breweries or bars. Others have been converted into hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and Airbnbs. A few have been transformed into entertainment venues, such as an indoor playground for children, a laser-tag arena, or a skate park.

Based on research I have been working on in recent years, I’ll offer a suggestion of what could be done with these buildings that is not covered in the article: repurpose these buildings for other religious groups. I have found a variety of religious congregations that are willing to buy and/or use older religious buildings constructed by others: megachurches that are opening satellite campuses, new congregations that would not have the resources to buy land and construct a whole new building, and minority religious groups or immigrant groups who are new to areas. The biggest stumbling block might be not just the price of the building but also the possible price of renovations. At the same time, a church in decent condition could look very attractive to religious groups with limited budgets or who want a building that already fits in with the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous churches and synagogues in the Chicago area have been reused by different religious groups, particularly as certain groups left urban neighborhoods in white flight or congregations dissipated due to declining attendance.

Are there any religious organizations that try to match buildings with possible congregations? The article discusses a group that works with churches to use less of the building and use of the rest of it for community space. But, how about a directory where a new or growing congregation could go to in order to find a congregation that is trying to leave their building?

Below the surface, one of the issues present in this article is the matter of zoning. It is not necessarily easy to initially get approval to build a religious building in certain locations but it can be even harder to take what was once a religious building and convert it to another use once the neighboring residents get used to the religious building over decades. Residents like the predictability of their surroundings, even if they do not necessarily like the religious building in the first place.

10 South Canal Street in Chicago contains a building part of NSA Internet surveillance

The Intercept claims to have identified 8 major U.S. cities that have a building where the NSA spies on telecommunications through AT&T facilities. Here is the photo from the story of 10 South Canal Street in Chicago as well some of the background of the building:

https://theintercept.com/2018/06/25/att-internet-nsa-spy-hubs/

10 South Canal Street, Chicago, IL

 

Like many other major telecommunications hubs built during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicago AT&T building was designed amid the Cold War to withstand a nuclear attack. The 538-foot skyscraper, located in the West Loop Gate area of the city, was completed in 1971. There are windows at both the top and bottom of the vast concrete structure, but 18 of its 28 floors are windowless…

 

10 South Canal Street originally contained a million-gallon oil tank, turbine generators, and a water well, so that it could continue to function for more than two weeks without electricity or water from the city, according to Illinois broadcaster WBEZ. The building is “anchored in bedrock, which helps support the weight of the equipment inside, and gives it extra resistance to bomb blasts or earthquakes,” WBEZ reported.

Today, the facility contains six large V-16 yellow Caterpillar generators that can provide backup electricity in the event of a power failure, according to the Chicago Sun Times. Inside the skyscraper, AT&T stores some 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel, enough to run the generators for 40 days.

NSA and AT&T maps point to the Chicago facility as being one of the “peering” hubs, which process internet traffic as part of the NSA surveillance program code-named FAIRVIEW. Philip Long, who was employed by AT&T for more than two decades as a technician servicing its networks, confirmed that the Chicago site was one of eight primary AT&T “Service Node Routing Complexes,” or SNRCs, in the U.S. NSA documents explicitly describe tapping into flows of data at all eight of these sites.

It is common that cities have buildings that may be hiding something, ranging from telecommunication structures to power substations to fake facades to hide subways or rail lines. But, I assume very few people would guess that a rather normal looking city structure could be part of an Internet surveillance program. I’m not sure what people would do with this knowledge. Protest outside? Give it a wide berth by not traveling near it? Chalk it up as a local oddity and then move on with normal life?

City landmarks, maps, and status

A Chicago group recently used a survey to look at how well big city residents know local landmarks:

According to a 360 Chicago spokesperson, the impetus for the survey was to “see how familiar residents in major cities across the U.S are with their hometowns, but also determine which cities have the type of stand-out landmarks that even outsiders can pick out on a map.”

The survey quizzed 2,000 residents from 10 cities, wherein every person was provided a list of 10 famous landmarks in their city and asked to ID those pinned on the map (five of the 10 listed were not pinned).

Some of the Chicago landmarks included were Robie House, Navy Pier, Second City, Merchandise Mart, the Art Institute and the 606 trail.

The Art Institute was the best known landmark, while the 606 stumped the most folks.

The data revealed Chicago residents were savvier at identifying Los Angeles landmarks than those in their own backyard. Not sure what that says about Chicagoans, but at least residents from other major metropolises in the country know the Chicago landscape more than their own towns — shout out to Houston and Seattle!

I do not know exactly how the survey was put together but three parts intrigue me:

  1. Landmarks are important for big cities, both for residents and possible visitors. For residents, they provide a sense of the character of the city. For visitors, they become perhaps the only thing they really know or have seen in the city. Either way, landmarks are anchors for millions of people. This could be seen as strange; could the Sears Tower or Empire State Building really represent the lives of millions of people?
  2. Putting landmarks on a map requires an extra set of knowledge. Landmark buildings and their images or silhouettes are all over the place. But, being able to place them in a particular context is much harder. Residents of a big city, let alone visitors, may have few opportunities to make it to other parts of the city.
  3. Landmarks are tied to the status of the city. I would guess larger and more important cities are likely to have more recognizable landmarks. For example, I could not likely pick out a single building or landmark from Houston even though it is the fourth largest city in the United States. Some of these landmarks become status symbols for the city. On the other hand, some buildings are just really unusual – think the Space Needle in Seattle or the Opera House in Sydney – and this could help put a particular city “on the map.”