More unusual conversions of buildings to housing in Chicago

Here are a few examples in Chicago of converting solid older structures into residences:

Developers have never shied away from turning the remnants of Chicago’s past into residences—see the omnipresent warehouse-turned-loft projects across the city. Conversion treatments are now being found where they are less expected: A former Jewish orphanage in Wicker Park is now a single-family home. The old Sears store on Lawrence Avenue in Lincoln Square? It’s likely to become a 40-unit apartment building. Most impressively, a landmarked church at 2900 West Shakespeare Avenue in Logan Square reemerged in November as a 10-unit condo building. Other similar projects are in the works.

The reason for repurposing instead of demolishing is simple: The quality of old construction often surpasses that of today’s standards. “Most of the brick structures that were built in the postfire era used high-quality materials such as Chicago brick,” says Greg Whelan, a Redfin real estate agent. “Intrinsically, these buildings have high value because they don’t make that brick anymore.” Plus, existing structures bypass height restrictions dictated by modern zoning laws and solve the issue of the lack of vacant land in the most desirable neighborhoods.

These projects fix problems for developers. And the quirks of unconventional buildings appeal to homeowners. In the former church, bell towers allow ceilings, supported by original steel trusses, to soar as high as 30 feet. Slate from the old roof was repurposed as tile in the lobby. (There are plenty of modern features, too, including floating vanities the bathrooms and quartz countertops in the kitchens.) The exterior looks much like it did when the church was built in 1908, with dramatic arched Gothic windows and regal stone detailing around newly built balconies. Three of the 10 units were still available at presstime for between $480,000 and $650,000.

Presumably there are some limits to which older buildings get converted. Although this article doesn’t mention it, I assume a big factor is money: will the conversion provide a sufficient return on investment for the developer? Also, cities won’t necessarily allow anything to be converted to residences. It likely helps if the structure is already in a residential location (common for churches) and is a building that the neighbors like (as opposed to an eyesore or mismatch that even a conversion can’t fix).

I’m still intrigued by the conversion of religious buildings into residences. The architecture of such buildings is often conducive to groups (which would be limited when converted into multiple units) and intended to provide a physica connection with the spiritual realm. How exactly does this architecture fit the tastes of homeowners? Can you easily reduce the spiritual architecture to its component pieces like large windows and high ceilings? See an earlier post about converting Chicago churches into residences.

Quick Review: A Burglar’s Guide to the City

Joining the subjects of crime and architecture, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is an interesting if not repetitive read. Some thoughts about a book that would intrigue many general readers:

  1. Manaugh’s main argument is that criminals – burglars in particular – see buildings and cities in very different ways compared to architects. While architects assume people will use the correct entrances and the rest of the building as it is intended, burglars are always looking for unique ways in and out of buildings which leads to going through walls, roofs, and floors. Additionally, the locations of buildings can significantly affect burglary – such as the banks right next to highway on and off ramps in the Los Angeles area. In other words, these criminals are hackers of the built landscape.
  2. Manaugh talks to a number of law enforcement people and records some interesting insights. The best people he talks to are from Los Angeles as he travels with the helicopter crews and tries to see the city from above as well as spot criminal activity from this vantage points.
  3. Oddly, Manaugh doesn’t spend much time talking to architects. Do they think they should pay more attention to possible criminal behavior? Do they need to change how they think about buildings? He does talk to one creator of safe rooms.
  4. Overall, Manaugh seems a bit in awe of the burglars who can see the landscape in the ways that no one else can. He basically admits this at the beginning of the last chapter – he likes heist films – and admits at a few points that the vast majority of burglaries are connected to drugs.

This is an interesting read and those who like examples of daring criminals – such as those bank robbers who build tunnels under bank vaults, emerge from the floor, and escape through water tunnels on 4x4s – will find plenty to like. Yet, Manaugh doesn’t go far enough to connecting of how architects and city planners should respond or even if they should – perhaps this is just collateral damage of living in American cities today.

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.

Just how much historical preservation is too much?

The source of this information is on one side of the issue but it is an interesting question to consider: just how much historic preservation of buildings is too much?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four “historic districts”—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That’s all “anyone had seriously considered.”

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool’s testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative destruction that made New York, well, New York…

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for “its prominent siting” and “frequent appearances in pop culture.” The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that “owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity.”

If “prominent siting,” “tree-lined streets,” “residential character,” and “architectural integrity” are grounds for landmarking, what’s to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Here are the two sides of the issue:

  1. The preservationists will argue that buildings and streetscapes need protecting because (1) capitalism and free markets tend to bulldoze meaningful structures for current residents and future generations in pursuit of progress and (2) residents of particular places should expect that features of the location that helped draw them there should remain there.
  2. Reason and others would argue that such restrictions limit the free market, stopping progress and natural processes of neighborhood change. Such regulations constrict the market for property which can drive up prices as well as freeze areas in time even as the world has moved on to better things.

Perhaps there is some middle point or range where both parties can get what they want? This opinion piece suggests nearly a third of Manhattan is simply too much but where is the empirical evidence to support this? Is Manhattan development suffering because of this? As is common in social life, neither side will likely get all that they want – no such designations vs. always having to get approval from the neighbors when building a new structure – so some compromise should be reached.

It would also be interesting to look at the level of historic preservation in wealthier vs. poorer areas. Can more of Manhattan be saved because there are resources to do so versus an inability to save many noteworthy structures in poorer American neighborhoods because there are few organizations who could handle the burden? In other words, perhaps historic preservation is an issue largely faced by wealthier communities who can afford to protect some of their gloried past.

The case for saving Chicago’s old churches

Here is an argument for why the broader public should work to preserve dozens of older churches throughout Chicago:

The protection of religious structures presents a unique set of problems. A particularly formidable roadblock is the city’s inability to step in to designate threatened religious buildings as a landmark. The city has powers allowing it to move forward with landmark designations for non-religious buildings in spite of owner consent, however, a 1987 revision to the Landmark Ordinance states that “no building that is owned by a religious organization…shall be designated a historical landmark without the consent of its owner.” And without protections, many of these buildings are left to deteriorate and ultimately face demolition…

Chicago’s Catholic churches are among the most prominent visual connections to the city’s past and the ethnic communities that once dominated the neighborhoods. They provide clues to what ethnic communities make up Chicago’s diverse population through the languages engraved on facades, the style of buildings, and the saints for whom they were named…

For most Chicagoans, the interiors of sacred places remain a mystery, but Seidel’s anecdote indicates that people still care a great deal about the buildings in their neighborhoods, even when they might not necessarily understand or fully appreciate the Latin, Polish, Hebrew, or Greek spoken inside.

And this is the exact point that preservationists believe to be the most important. Even if the number of people attending religious services drops, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace fails to recognize great architecture or stop using religious structures as spatial identifiers. It doesn’t mean that many of these struggling South Side neighborhoods don’t deserve to have culturally significant structures.

This comes after the archdiocese of Chicago announced it would close dozens of churches. This is interesting because historically it has been Protestant groups who have been happy to step away from their churches in big cities. Particularly after white flight, many of those Protestant churches were sold to other religious groups, converted to other uses, or demolished over recent decades. But, many Catholic churches stayed because of a commitment Catholics had to the building and neighborhoods as well as providing worship spaces to new waves of immigrants. The archdiocese suggests this is no longer tenable:

In his announcement, Blase indicated that the church is faced with a perfect storm: a shortage of priests joining the seminary, declining mass attendance, and the deferral of maintenance bills for churches that are in need of attention. All of these issues combined has put a squeeze on archdiocese resources and will force many parishes to either close or consolidate. And with the looming closure of potentially dozens of churches, there is now a threat of demolition for some of the city’s most important cultural and architectural icons.

But, I would guess it may be hard to mobilize many neighborhoods (and the necessary resources) to save old churches from religious groups that few attend or adhere to in those places. How many Americans are willing to sacrifice something to save old buildings for the sake of keeping them around? The argument laid out above is a typical one from preservationists: losing the buildings means losing a physical part of the place’s heritage. But, where are the resources to preserve these buildings if market forces – both in the economy and in American religion where attendees can choose among hundreds of options – are suggesting they are not worth much?

The 21 remaining post-Chicago Fire buildings in The Loop

Gabriel Michael has a list of all the buildings in Chicago’s Loop that were built after the 1871 Chicago Fire:

Within Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, among the urban canyons of soaring glass & steel office buildings, there is a unique and rare collection of architecture: the commercial buildings erected in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire. These are commonly referred to as the “Post-Fire” era buildings, built from 1872 up until the advent of modern building materials and advanced construction techniques. These unprecedented approaches to commercial architecture facilitated the birth of the multi-story “skyscraper” in the early-mid 1880s, notably William Le Baron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building erected in 1883.

Post-Fire buildings’ architectural style is typically Italianate in varying degrees, and virtually identical to those destroyed in the fire. This is significant as it aesthetically forms a portal to the look of the “Pre-Fire” downtown Chicago building stock before it was completely obliterated. Functionally, the majority of the buildings served as wholesale commercial lofts, with each floor housing a different manufacturer of products appropriate for the era: leather goods, textiles, household amenities like pianos, steam heaters and boilers, and iron & woodworking machinery…

According to City of Chicago’s Landmarks Commission surveys, 75 of these buildings still remained in 1975. Fourteen years later, a new survey was done (prompted by the highly controversial “un-landmarking” and demolition of the McCarthy Building for Block 37 development) and showed less than 25 remaining: a staggering number of 50 had been demolished in just a decade and a half, during the “dark ages” of decay in Chicago’s downtown area. These occurred even with growing historic preservation awareness and municipal measures and ordinances in place to “protect” Chicago’s vulnerable historic architecture. Twenty-five years later in 2015, I have been able to identify 21 surviving buildings, displayed in the map below.

Of these 21, only 10 are recognized and protected as Chicago Landmarks. Some of the other 11 are “orange-rated” (or recognized as “historically significant” in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey [CHRS]), and a handful are not even “buildings” proper, but preserved façades with the original building demolished in recent redevelopment on the site. The rest hold no historic recognition, or even inclusion in the CHRS for unknown reasons.

The piece ends with a call for preserving more of these buildings. It would be interesting to have a broader discussion in Chicago regarding this: how many leaders and residents would support such preservation? Is Chicago so committed to economic and residential growth in the Loop that some of these buildings could be “sacrificed”? On the other hand, the preservationists could make a public case for why going beyond these 10 protected buildings is necessary. And would it be better to make a case one by one for the remaining buildings or to argue for all of them at once? Of course, the process of preserving buildings doesn’t just rest on the merits of individual structures but involves a social and political process.

Future of customized heat for each person in every building?

A MIT lab is working on heat that follows people in buildings:

Energy-eating buildings are a global issue. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every year buildings in the country account for 36% of domestic energy demand and 65% of electricity demand.

The MIT SENSEable City Laboratory is studying a “customised climate” in buildings. An infrared heating system, called Local Warming, tracks the presence of people in a space and generates a collimated infrared energy beam, which follows the steps of users. The system allows energy savings of up to 90%. A further development will allow each person to customise his/her ‘climate area’ in the building.

“European and US buildings have different problems in terms of dimensions and efficiency,” explains Carlo Ratti, director of the Laboratory. “In Europe, older buildings are smaller and sometimes less efficient, while the USA still suffers from the big McMansion wave. But in both cases a staggering amount of energy is wasted on heating or cooling empty offices or partially occupied buildings.” The McMansion architectural style, born in the 1980s, is characterised by oversized homes and an attempt to produce a luxury effect.

Today, according to Ratti, homes are also able to benefit from smart thermostats such as Nest, property of Google, and these are like low-hanging fruit: “They are very easy to install”, he explains, “and can make a traditional heating system responsive to people’s habits and seasonal changes. They are primarily being used in private homes but they would work very well in public building too.”

It would be fascinating to see how customized heat for each person might work – do we all get our tractor beam? – though I imagine it is prohibitively expensive at this point. Additionally, rehabbing old buildings is a difficult task. Still, there is a lot of progress to be made in the area of energy efficiency: heating whole buildings, particularly homes, can be inefficient. The trick may be guaranteeing owners that they will save money in the long run after paying so much up front for the new technologies.