Category Archives: historic preservation

Isaac Bell House, Newport


The Isaac Bell House in Newport, Rhode Island, in June 2015.

During the warmer months, hordes of Newport visitors converge on the Marble House and Breakers, a pair of former summer homes turned house museums now owned by the Preservation Society of Newport County. The buildings exemplify the excesses of the Gilded Age with their sublime architecture, sprawling grounds, and sensational ocean views.

To get to the two Bellevue Avenue landmarks, most patrons pass the Isaac Bell House, another Preservation Society property from the same era. Unlike its comrades down Bellevue, the more modest Bell House lacks features such as gold leaf ballrooms, saltwater baths, and Japanese tea house outbuildings. Instead, it is located on garden lot set back from the avenue and blends in nicely with its leafy neighborhood setting. What it lacks in showiness, it more than makes up for in taste and superior design.

The building takes its name from its first owner, Issac Bell Jr., a member of an established New York family who made a name for himself in the cotton business. In 1879, Bell’s brother-in-law, New York World newspaper owner James Gordon Bennett, commissioned fledgling architectural firm McKim, Mead, and White to design the Newport Casino. The Shingle style playground for the East Coast hoity toity proved popular, so Bell hired the same firm to design a summer getaway for himself on a lot a few blocks away.

McKim, Mead, and White created a Shingle style masterpiece that fuses colonial, European, and Japanese elements. Completed in 1883, the three-story building is distinguished by its steeply pitched gable roofs and two conical towers. The stone and brick cladding on the lower level gives way to cedar shakes on the upper floors. Deep porches and expansive windows allow plenty of shade and opportunities to catch breezes. Soaring brick chimneys top off the building.

The imaginative design continues inside. The layout has an open floor plan, a Japanese design feature rare at the time in that part of the world. Frank Lloyd Wright would embrace this layout a few years later in his Prairie Houses, and the floor plan is a must for homes today. A fireplace with seating area with dark wood walls is located at the center of the house. Rooms with sliding doors radiate off the central hall. An intricate stained glass window is located along the central stair with an equally alluring skylight above.

Bell’s ownership of the house was brief.  He died in 1889 at the age of 42 after he served two years as the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands. New York attorney Samuel Barger rented the house while Bell was overseas, and Bargar bought it from Bell’s widow in 1891, renaming it the Edna Villa after his own wife. It remained in the Barger family until 1952. In the latter half of the 20th century, the building was used first as a nursing home and then divided into apartments. The Preservation Society of Newport purchased it in 1994 and commenced its restoration. The Bell House became a National Historic Landmark in 1997.

I first encountered the house in 2009 when I visited as part of Preservation Institute: Nantucket. Our two-day stay in Newport also included tours of the Hunter House, Marble House, Breakers, Chateur-sur-Mer, and Kingscote. All are richly furnished with not a cockeyed painting in sight. All also present a false sense of history. In contrast, the Isaac Bell has hardly any furniture, curtains, paintings, or the like; it instead is interpreted to allow its timeless design to stand for itself.

Note: Most of the photos below are from my latest visit in June 2015. Despite my request, I was not granted permission to capture interior shots during my latest visit. The Preservation Society has a backward policy that bans interior photos–unless one is part of a tour group. They claim it is to protect the interiors, but non-flash photography has no effect on historic elements, and the effect of flashes is negligible at best. If they want to be safe, they should ban flashes, but the blanket interior photography ban for amateur photographers is ridiculous. 



East facade facing Bellevue Avenue.


Even the downspout system is beautifully designed.


Deep front porch with floor to ceiling windows.



Bamboo inspired columns.




The side entry porch bottom stairs are two heights for both arrivals by carriage and foot.


Also note the dragon head canopy braces, another Japanese design inspiration.




Side entry porch and tower.


View of the building’s rear elevation.




The interior of the house is centered around the first floor firelpace, called an inglenook. Source: courtesy Gavin Ashworth/The Preservation Society of Newport County

The interior of the Bell House. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

Bedroom. Source: Instagram user miphall

Interior from my 2009 visit.

Stained-glass ceiling detail from 2009.

Stained glass window detail. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County

Door roller detail. Source: The Preservation Society of Newport County


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Filed under historic places, historic preservation, Newport

Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct

Roebling’s Delaware Aqueduct from Pennsylvania facing New York earlier this month.

In an era before flight corridors, interstates, and railroads, the Delaware and Hudson Canal was one of many manmade waterways dug in 19th century America to connect the fledging country’s coastal cities to its raw materials in the interior. The D&H Canal, which linked New York City to the coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania, took three years to dig and opened in 1828.

The journey was arduous. Mules dragged canal boats down the 108-mile-long tow path and had to pass through 108 locks as the elevation rose 1,075 feet. Dams originally were built where the canal crossed Rondout Creek and the Lackawaxen, Delaware, Neversink rivers. At these dams the mules and their drivers crossed on a rope ferry. Traffic jams plagued those four crossings, so in the 1840s the D&H Canal Company hired engineer John Augustus Roebling, fresh off his designs for two wire cable suspension bridges in Pittsburgh, to design aqueducts over the four waterways.

Completed in 1847, the wire cable suspension bridge over the Delaware River, known as the Delaware Aqueduct, consisted of four spans of a 134 feet each that ties Minisink Ford, New York, to Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania. The four stone piers were shaped like a V where they face upriver in order to break up ice floes before they smashed into the bridge. The wooden superstructure on top had a trough in the middle to hold the canal’s water and towpaths along the rim on both sides where the mules and drives walked. The canal operated until 1898. Shortly thereafter, water was drained from the aqueduct, and it was converted into a toll bridge first for wagons and then automobiles.

The bridge looked nothing like Roebling’s design by the time the National Park Service purchased the span in 1980. No longer needed to hold water, the trunk walls had long since been removed, and flimsy wood guardrails stood in their place. The stone piers and cable suspension’s remained, however.

The NPS undertook a restoration of the bridge’s superstructure in the 1980s and 1990s to return it to its original appearance while remaining a vehicular bridge. Of the four aqueducts that Roebling designed for the Delaware and Hudson Canal, the Delaware Aqueduct is the only still in existence. It’s also the oldest wire cable suspension bridge in the United States and a National Civil Engineering Landmark. The entire former D&H Canal system was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968.

Roebling went on to engineer the Brooklyn Bridge, though he died in 1869 after he suffered injuries sustained while planning that landmark’s construction. His son Washington Roebling oversaw the bridge’s completion 14 years later.

Though nowhere near as grand and as celebrated as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Delaware Aqueduct is still a fascinating remnant of engineering history sympathetically rehabilitated to suit modern needs.

The aqueduct as it looked before the truck walls were removed. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Underside. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Aerial of the bridge after it was an aqueduct and before its rehabilitation in the 1980s. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Pre-rehabilitation. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA


Looking toward New York from Pennsylvania. The road and middle of the bridge was once the Delaware and Hudson Canal.


The original cables still support the bridge. The wood trunk walls have been rebuilt to match what the bridge looked like in its aqueduct days.


Three pieces are pointed facing upriver to break up ice.


The north walkway. This is where the mules and drivers would have walked.


Only one car can pass at a time.


Early March ice on the Delaware River.


Driving to New York.


This toll house was built after the bridge switched form canal boats to wagons. It’s now a small museum.


New York state historic markers are simple and to the point.

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Filed under Adaptive reuse, historic preservation

Hermitage Artist Retreat, Manasota Key

Sarasota County, Florida, had grand plans for the Hermitage and its associated buildings when they bought the property in 1986: they wanted to replace them with a parking lot.

It seemed like a practical decision at the time. The Gulf of Mexico had crept up on the Hermitage, a rambling board and batten residence erected in 1907, and was about to devour it. The other structures, built in the 1930s and 40s, weren’t doing much better after decades of abuse from the sun, sand, and water. So it must have come as a surprise to county officials when a vocal pro-preservation continent responded with a loud “nuh-uh” to their plans to add more parking at the Blind Pass public beach.

In 1907, Sweden-born Carl Johanson built a one-and-a-half story pine and cypress cottage on Manasota Key. He chose a site Calusa Indians had used as a midden, archaeologist speak for “trash dump.” The humble, 2.75 acre waterfront estate had a name befitting its remoteness: the Hermitage.

Johanson, his wife, and three youngest children lived on Manasota Key until 1913. They added a detached kitchen to the north elevation shortly after construction that is today a bedroom. A sleeping porch was also tacked on about 10 years after construction. That space is now the living room. The stone fireplace there was built in the 1920s. Other additions followed through the 1940s, including the current kitchen and two bathrooms.

The property earned its lasting reputation in the 1930s when it was operated as Florida Sea Island Sanctuary, an ambiguous name for a nudist resort. The Hermitage was only accessible by boat then, so Adam and Evan wannabes could frolic in the sand and sea without judgement. But the prude-free environment turned later in the 1930s when a shell road was laid on the key. Nudists packed their very light suitcases, and the Hermitage transitioned into a hotel, owned by former patron Louise Plummer.

In 1941, retired naval engineer Alfred Whitney, by all accounts a jerk, had an elevated house built on the parcel south to the Hermitage. His self-designed home, called Liability Lodge, included a corresponding pump house, garage, and cypress water cisterns. Whitney’s property was combined with the Hermitage’s after he died in 1946, and the tracts–totaling 8.5 acres–have remained joined ever since.

Writer Ruth Swayze, most famous for writing some episodes of the TV show “Taxi” starring the erudite Tony Danza, leased the Hermitage from the late 1970s until 1990. She and her daughter Carroll Swayze, a painter, invited their artist pals for stays in a foreshadowing of what was to come for the property.

Fine wine aged quicker than the time it took for the Hermitage’s revival. Shortly after Sarasota County bought the acreage in the 1980s, preservationists, including Ruth Swayze, implored officials to not clear the land for more beach parking. Surprisingly, they listened. Officials even appropriated $8,000 in 1992 to move the dilapidated Hermitage  away from the Gulf’s relentless tug until a plan for the building was in place. The general consensus at the time was that the Hermitage should be turned into a house museum to demonstrate to school children what life was like for early settlers–yawn. But the county wasn’t about to foot the bill for the work.

In the late 1990s, Syd Adler and others affiliated with the Sarasota Arts Council pushed the idea of converting the buildings into an artists retreat. Not only would the use preserve the structures, they said, but they would remain in an active use that would benefit the community. Works for us, county leaders said, and in 1999 the property was leased to the nonprofit Hermitage Artist Retreat Inc. for the princely sum of $1 per year.

The organization cobbled together funding, both grants and private donations. In all, the rehabs cost about $1.3 million, but none came from taxpayers. Work began on the main house in 2002. It was plopped on top of 4-foot tall concrete pilings and restored inside and out. The Hermitage welcomed its first artist, sculptor Malcolm Robertson, the following year. In 2009, the Beach Cottage was the last building to be completed, and earlier this year work wrapped on the pair of restored cisterns.

A nine member committee selects the established artists–painters, sculptors, writers, playwrights, poets, composers, among others–who are offered invitations to the Hermitage. Up to five artists stay at a time for up to six weeks, and their food is provided. Those who stay the six weeks are required to complete two acts of community service, such as a reading, exhibit, or performance. Not bad for an extended stay at such a scenic location.


The Hermitage, as seen from the dune that separates it from the Gulf of Mexico.



View of the south and west elevations.


View of the east elevation.


The Hermitage before its move.

Hermitage on the move in 1992. Source: The Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society and Ulysses Samuel (U.S.) Cleveland Collection

Hermitage on the move in 1992. Source: The Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society and Ulysses Samuel (U.S.) Cleveland Collection


The dining room is one of two original ground floor rooms.


Kitchen addition.



View into the former detached kitchen, now bedroom.


Tight quarters.


The living room was a sleeping porch addition.


I was there to do window restoration work. Source: Hermitage Artists Retreat Facebook page


Clip books chronicle the Hermitage’s rebirth.


Stairs to the 2nd floor.


Second floor bathroom, originally a bedroom.


View from the tub.

IMG_4101 (1)

Second floor bedroom.




Drift wood dolphin.


The Whitney Garage.


The Whitney Cisterns.


The Whitney Pumphouse, now studio space.


The Whitney House was built in 1941 and designed by a naval engineer to be hurricane resistant. So far, so good.

Whitney House interior. Source:


The Beach Cottage. It too was moved back from the dune.



The Beach Cottage before restoration.


View from the cottage’s front porch.

IMG_4134 (1)

Walkway over the dune to the beach.

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Filed under Florida, historic preservation

Saratoga Race Course, Saratoga Springs


Waiting for the races to start. These seats filled up quickly.

The hand-rung bell signaled that the next horse race at the Saratoga Race Course was 17 minutes away. This is just one of the many traditions at the historic venue, established in 1863 and the oldest of its kind in the United States. For the non-hardcore handicappers on the grounds that day–and there were many of them–the sound was their cue to put down their drink, pause their conversation, and pick up their program to quickly choose a horse to bet on.

For 40 days each summer, the thoroughbred horse racing syndicate converges on scenic Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Horse racing’s popularity is freefalling, but Saratoga Race Course seems to be OK considering the drastic drop in patronage and handles at other tracks. More than 20,000 people attended on the Thursday I visited earlier this month–a lot considering that Saratoga Springs, a town of 27,000 permanent residents, is surrounded by a whole lot more trees, hills, and lakes than people.

Unlike most tracks, Saratoga does not rely exclusively on gambling to spin the turnstiles.  The track has grown in spurts in its 150 years but has managed to cling to its Gilded Age appearance and feeling–all while accommodating modern conveniences. This commitment to historic preservation attracts people from all social realms, from the bigwigs in the clubhouse dressed in bespoke suits to the family in the picnic area dressed in T-shirts and jeans. Yes, some of the racegoers were there solely to try it hit it big. But the majority were there to enjoy the ambiance with their friends and family.

The tone for my day at track was set once I got out of the car. Usually, the journey from the parking lot to a venue the size of the Saratoga Race Course (capacity 70,000) is a hurried walk through a concrete maze of vehicles. Instead, on my way to the entrance, I walked down a grassy corridor beneath shady maples. To the north was the practice track, which was originally the main track for a year back in 1863 when Saratoga opened. Today it’s tongue-and-cheekily called Oklahoma because of its perceived distance to the main track, about a quarter mile away.  To the south were historic stables, filled by horses and tenders. Parking areas were marked not by numbers or letters but by the names of the many legendary thoroughbreds that have galloped on Saratoga’s hallowed dirt.

The harmonious design extended to the main track. The nonhistoric Union Avenue entrance was stately yet reserved and blended well with the other structures. The grandstand nearly doubled in size after a 1960s addition but it matches the original in scale and appearance, though it utilizes different materials. Flowers and decorative ironwork serve as decorative elements and are scattered throughout the grounds. The trademark peppermint-striped awnings added flair and provided additional covered seating areas. Everything is meticulously maintained.

The lag between races passed quickly with so much to explore on the 350-acre property. I observed the jockey-mounted horses trotting through the crowd on their way to the track, gulped my first Shake Shack milkshake, listened to a bluegrass band playing in the gazebo, and drank the putrid water spouting from the Big Red Spring. Not even rain showers kept me in my seat for long. This left little time to handicap, as evidenced by my lightened wallet by the time I left. All well. It was a wonderful day nonetheless.


Ca. 1900. Library of Congress. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection.

Enjoying the lawn in 1940. Source: Courtesy of Saratoga Springs Historical Museum, George S. Bolster collection

Racegoers in the 1954. Source: Times Union Archives

Affirmed, the last Triple Crown Winner. Times Union Archives


The Union Avenue entrance.


The grandstand, expanded in the 1960s, is a quarter-mile long.


The oldest portion of the grandstand and clubhouse.


A festival-like atmosphere permeates the grounds on other side of the grandstand. The area includes live music, food tents, and pop-up shops. Oh, and lots more betting windows.



Equestrian designs are everywhere.



TVs showing the races allow picnickers to watch the action while under the maples.


A spring bubbles up on the grounds and is named after Secretariat and Man O’War.


The water tasted like a metal pipe colada.


The paddocks are in view for racegoers.



The horses strut through the crowds on their way to the starting gate.


There are no shortage of betting windows.



Vintage signage.


Here they come.


View of the finish line from the grandstand.



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Filed under historic preservation, Historic sporting venues

Spaulding Wooden Boat Center



Sausalito, California, is a scenic waterfront community located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Once a fishing, transportation, and ship-building hub, Sausalito is now known for its trendy boutiques, pricey inns, and experimental eateries. Cutting-edge homes that appear out of the pages of “Architectural Digest” crowd its hillsides, and sleek fiberglass yachts pack the marinas.


The marina near the boat center. Fiberglass boats abound.

Amid the glamour is the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. The modest boat shop was established in 1951 by Myron Spaulding, a  violinist who was also a skilled sailor and boat designer and builder. For nearly a half-century, he constructed sailing yachts to his own specifications until his death in 2000 at the age of 94. A couple years later, his wife, Gladys, created the nonprofit Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. In addition to providing repairs and maintenance on wooden boats, the center holds cruises, demonstrations, and youth boat building and sailing programs. Since 2007, the center has also been home to the Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding, an apprenticeship program that teaches adults wooden boat construction.


I visited Spaulding the first Wednesday of this month while on my honeymoon in San Francisco. My wife and I biked over the Golden Gate Bridge that day, and I pedaled the extra mile up the Sausalito waterfront to the boat yard. I missed the weekly Wednesday open house by a few hours, but I called the office when I arrived and a cheery gentleman encouraged me to come on in to have a look around.


Life preservers and a photo of Myron Spaulding.


The interior of the shop has developed a patina from decades of rugged use. The floorboards creaked. Yellowed posters hung from the walls. Masts leaned in a corner. Antique power and hand tools sat primed for action. Scraps of lumber and rope were splayed throughout. Wood dust coated everything.


Antique power tools that are still in operation.

Freda rested on one of the two interior berths, beneath a latticework ceiling. The watercraft, built in 1885, is the oldest sailing yacht on the West Coast. She is undergoing a painstaking restoration that included cutting, milling, and drying the same type of wood used originally. So far, the project has cost about half a million dollars.


Freda was built in 1885 and is undergoing her third restoration.

Fiberglass boats are so much easier to create and maintain, and they can last indefinitely, so what’s the point of wooden boat shops? It’s because wooden boats are works of art. Compared to a fiberglass boat, a well-built wooden one is like a Jaguar next to a Jeep. But to build one requires skill–just as in painting, sculpting, and glassblowing–that takes years to perfect and then it must be practiced regularly in order to maintain. The continued existence of places like the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center ensure the art of wooden boat construction lives on.




The deck outside the shop, including the boatwork’s old crane.



Names of donors are etched on Freda’s planks



Boatbuilder at work.



For more information on the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center, see:

Or watch:

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Filed under Boatbuilding, historic preservation

Revere Quality House

The Revere Quality House should be in a landfill right. When its former owners sought to sell in 2003, the house’s age, condition, lack of value, location, lack of square footage, and the size of the land it sat on all pointed toward demolition. Fortunately, the Revere Quality House was not torn down. Instead, it was beautifully restored, and a larger residence with a similar design and material makeup was constructed next to it.

The Revere Quality House, built in 1948 on Siesta Key, was designed by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell–the fathers of the Sarasota School of Architecture. The house was a product of the Revere Quality House Institute, a housebuilding program sponsored by the Revere Copper and Brass Inc. and Architectural Forum magazine. The program’s goal was to showcase innovative yet affordable housing to meet the needs of postwar America, and eight houses were built throughout the country.

The Revere Quality House certainly met the program’s goals. The about 1,ooo-square-foot house was built by Lamolithic Industries and utilized their state-of-the-art monolithic concrete construction system said to be resistant to mildew, bugs, fire, and hurricanes. The concrete roof had a passive-cooling sprinkler system and was held up by a series of evenly placed lally columns. This roof structural system allowed for unlimited interior space configurations and walls of glass. The rectangular house had a carport, patio with roof cut out, a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and laundry room that was set off from the house. Architectural features included a copper stove hood and fireplace made by (who else) Revere Copper.

Photographed by Ezra Stoller. Courtesy ArtStor.

Photographed by Ezra Stoller. Courtesy ArtStor.

Photographed by Ezra Stoller. Courtesy ArtStor.

Photographed by Ezra Stoller. Courtesy ArtStor.

Photographed by Ezra Stoller. Courtesy ArtStor.

As I wrote about in my thesis, the house was quite the sensation after it was built as an estimated 16,000 people toured it. Furthermore, it was published in architectural periodicals throughout the world and brought much attention to Rudolph and Twitchell’s subtropical take on the International Style.

Architectural Forum October 1948

Architectural Review June 1949

House and Garden August 1949

The house was designed for Roberta Finney, and Twitchell liked his client so much he left his family and took up residence with her. (The Cocoon House was designed a few years later for her parents.) To meet the Twitchell/Finney family’s needs, the patio and carport were enclosed and a carport/guest house was built on the property. Roberta Finney died in 1966, and Twitchell remarried a third time and remained in the house until he died in 1978. His family continued to live there after his death.

Siesta Key in 2003 was hardly recognizable from Siesta Key in 1948. By that time, the island’s population had swelled, and a majority of the original houses on the island had been razed in favor of condos and monster Mediterranean Revival (Revival) mansions. Land values and property taxes soared, which forced many longtime Siesta Key residents to sell to developers. Twitchell’s descendants found themselves in just such a predicament. They had a crumbling, 53-year-old house on nearly an acre of land–huge for the north end of Siesta Key–with boat access to the Gulf of Mexico, just a couple hundred feet away. In other words, it was a developer’s dream.

But that’s when Doug Olson stepped up. He already lived in a Sarasota School house, so he recognized the Revere Quality House’s importance when he bought it from Twitchell’s descendants in 2003. His goal was to restore the house and construct an addition, but Olson realized he could not undertake the project alone and teamed up with–ironically–a developer, Howard Rooks.

Rooks asked Sarasota-based Modernist architect Guy Peterson for his opinion on the property, and Peterson came up with the plan to both restore the tiny Revere Quality House and build a new residence on the property. Peterson drew up plans for a 4,712-square-foot, three-story house that paid homage to the Revere Quality House with its design, colors, and materials. Then the Revere Quality House was restored nearly to its 1948 appearance, down to the paint colors. Furthermore, a pool was dug behind the historic dwelling so it could serve as a guest house/pool house for the new, much larger and taller main residence.

The restored Revere Quality House, right, and the new main residence. Courtesy of Guy Peterson OFA.

See more photos of the project here.

In April 2007, the completed project was on the market for $4,875,000, but Sarasota was so slammed by the real estate crash that it sat for more than four years. According to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser, the house finally sold for $2.1 million on August 31, 2011.

From a preservation point of view, I consider the Revere Quality House project to be a success overall. The building rests on a highly desirable land and it could have very easily been razed like so many other Sarasota School houses in favor of a soulless mega-mansion. Instead, the Revere was meticulously restored and a fairly compatible new primary residence was built next to it.

But from a financial point of view, the project was a failure. The developers of the project lost millions, and others will be wary of undertaking similar projects in the future. At least the Revere Quality House still stands as a reminder that even experimental modern buildings can be adapted to new uses as long as sympathetic people are involved. If only the numbers added up.


Filed under Florida, historic preservation, Mid-Century Modern, Paul Rudolph, Sarasota, Sarasota School of Architecture

Michael Reese Hospital

There’s an uphill battle to preserve Modernist buildings. First of all, most of the examples in the U.S. were built after World War II so non-preservationists often don’t see the point of saving them. And many people don’t like Modernist architecture because can seem cold with with the industrial materials and straight lines. The sustainability argument can only get you so far if people don’t like the architecture and adapting for a new use isn’t cost feasible. Invoking the importance of saving works by famous architects is a challenge, even if the architect’s name is Frank Lloyd Wright. But if preservationists concentrate on the human connections to Modernist buildings, they’re destined to be more successful. Oh, and having a viable preservation plan helps, too.

The recently shuttered Michael Reese Hospital campus in Chicago consists of 29 structures. Walter Gropius, the father of Modernist architecture, was the consulting architect and planner for eight of those buildings in the 1940s and 50s. The hospital’s 37 acres were to be the site of the Olympic Village had Chicago won the 2016 Games with all but one of the structures, the Prairie Style main hospital built in 1905, destined to meet the wrecking ball. The city bought the property for $80 million in preparation. Even though Chicago didn’t get the Olympics, the city plans to clear the land anyway and have it redeveloped as a residential area. A contractor was hired to demolish the buildings in the summer, and some work has already started.

The Gropius in Chicago Coalition is fighting to save the buildings overseen by Gropius. The eight structures are the only in Illinois to have ties to Gropius because he was based in Boston after leaving Germany during the rise of Hitler. With Michael Reese Hospital’s proximity to the Illinois Institute of Technology and its Mies van der Rohe designed campus, GCC wants a “Bauhaus Historic District” (Gropius and van der Rohe were the first two heads of the influential Bauhaus architecture school in Germany).

I applaud the GCC for calling attention to Gropius’ little known work in Chicago, but I think they need to alter their approach. Invoking Gropius is sure to get the attention of the design community, but outside of that tiny segment of the population how many people are aware of Walter Gropius? Plus, it’s easy to dismiss ties to him because he merely consulted on the project.

What the GCC needs to do is get the community members involved who couldn’t care less about Gropius. People should be reminded why the hospital was so important to the people it served, whether they worked or visited there. Maybe then they’ll be interested in keeping it around. GCC does a good job of quickly summing up the non-Gropius importance of Michael Reese Hospital in its flier, but the ideas aren’t fleshed out on their site.

If there’s enough support for preservation, GCC first needs to figure out how it’s going to be paid for. Next, a charrette or design competition should be held to come up with a plan for adaptive reuse of the buildings. I’m guessing there’s a reason it’s no longer seeing use as hospital. What about the non-Gropius buildings? Are they not worthy of preservation just because Gropius didn’t have a hand in them? The GCC needs to at least consider their preservation. They wouldn’t be responsible preservationists if they didn’t. And maybe if GCC lowers their expectations and just concentrate on saving the most architecturally important structures or the most adaptable for new use, they will find success. Something is better than nothing.

Here are Michael Reese Hospital buildings with all photos courtesy of

Main Sepia Sm

The main building from 1905 is the only structure being considered for preservation.

The Laundry Building was completed in 1949, the first to be constructed in the Gropius era.

The Laundry Building, 1949.

The Singer Pavilion was completed in 1950.

The Singer Pavilion, 1950.

The Power Plant was finished in 1953.

The Power Plant, 1953.

The Private Pavilion was finished in 1955.

The Private Pavilion, 1955.

The Serum Center was finished in 1956.

The Serum Center, 1956.

The Convalescent Home was done in 1957.

The Convalescent Home, 1957.

The Cummings Pavilion from 1958.

The Cummings Pavilion, 1958.

The Linear Accelerator finally completed as you see it in 1967.

The Linear Accelerator, 1967.

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Filed under Chicago, historic preservation, Modernism