Lately, it seems that mid-century Modern design is too, well, modern, to be taken seriously in the realm of historical preservation. Custom Home caught up with Lisa DiChiera, advocacy director at Chicago-based architectural preservation group Landmarks Illinois, to talk about what she’s able to glean from developing her organization’s statewide list of endangered structures and her work leading Chicago preservationists’ charge to landmark a university-owned, mid-century Bertrand Goldberg hospital downtown.
How do you decide which homes make the list?
We look for houses that, if not by a notable architect, are at least of an important style. Often locals bring issues to our attention, but we don’t want to fight them about what they think is important in their town. We want to make sure that locals agree that the endangered house is a valuable resource to their community.
You’re doing that now, with Keck & Keck’s 1955 Blair House in Lake Bluff, Ill.?
In this case, locals brought the issue to our attention. The house is on a spectacular waterfront site overlooking Lake Michigan, making it vulnerable as a target for demolition because it’s not yet a historic landmark. The Village of Lake Bluff’s preservation ordinance requires owner consent and the family of the couple who had the house built is now trying to sell it. Landmarking the house would technically rule out demolition because the local preservation commission would be able to review future work to the building.
The process seems to have worked with the now-landmarked 1961 Ancel House in nearby Glencoe.
It’s an exceptional story. Rarely when a property, which has a historical home on it, is bought with the intent to build new are we able to change the new owners’ minds—unless the municipality is willing to step up to the plate, but Glencoe doesn’t have a strong preservation ordinance. It took us about six months, during which time we showed the owners original drawings and photographs of the house to prove that it was a great example of architect Edward Dart’s work, was still structurally sound, and retained nearly all of its original character. They were sort of taken aback, not realizing the historic merits of the home they’d just purchased. We were fortunate that the couple was willing to listen.
But most mid-century Modern architecture is still getting short shrift. Why?
There’s a need to educate the public that buildings of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, while they may seem young, are worthy of preservation now, while they’re still in decent shape. Many people can’t get beyond the notion that these homes qualify as historic, given that they were alive when they were built. More important, many people think historic means Classical design. So when they look at this type of architecture, it doesn’t immediately translate as something deserving of landmark protection.
Are those your strongest critics?
The biggest pushback we get is from folks who strongly believe in private property rights. Landmark designation usually translates into protection from demolition, and some homeowners fear that it’ll either lower their property values or disable them from selling to a developer or anyone who wants to knock down the house. In those circumstances, landmarking becomes a lot like zoning. It’s a tool for land-use planning that reviews the best way for a community to develop and grow, and that’s what we try to communicate to locals.
How far along is Chicago’s discussion about preserving the period’s architecture?
The Chicago area is a little later to the game than cities like Los Angeles or Miami whose warmer climates originally inspired more ranch and mid-century houses. But Chicago’s been known as a center of innovative architecture and design, and it’s finally recognizing that the distinction doesn’t just apply to its downtown commercial center, but that it also applies to its residential architecture.
That mid-century design is increasingly referenced in popular culture could be having some influence—more so in terms of furnishings and clothing than decisions made by home buyers looking at homes built in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. But we’re finding more realtors that specialize in this period and they’re catering to a wonderful collection of era homes throughout Chicago’s suburbs.
Which suburbs are the best places to find some of these homes?
North Shore communities such as Glencoe, Lake Bluff, and Lake Forest, as well as the southern suburbs of Flossmoor and Olympia Fields are where the best work is located. Places like Oak Park and the inner-ring suburbs were already built up by the mid-20th century; the farther-out suburbs still had lots large enough to build the kind of sprawling, ranch-style homes that define the mid-century aesthetic. Now, these communities are thriving areas where people want to live, increasing the likelihood that the homes would be targeted for demolition to be replaced with newer, contemporary styles. I come from Detroit, which has long-struggled with decay and the need for revitalization. That’s helped me better understand how architecture helps communities bounce back by giving them an anchor to build around. It’s the opposite with residential architecture.