Students make it their mission to preserve mid-century architecture

December 20, 2011

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Student preservationists are scouring Chicago suburbs to find examples of good architecture. They’re documenting all of suburban Cook County, including towns like Berwyn and Cicero that aren’t generally known for cutting-edge modern architecture. At least, not yet.

Three students and a professor from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are packed into a car, raring to go.

They joke they're the "Cicero crew." Their mission? To locate and survey every piece of religious, educational and commercial architecture from the 1930s to the 1970s.

"It’s definitely interesting that everybody’s idea of Cicero is crime, corruption and Capone. We want them to think of culture," says Dan O’Brien, the driver. Emily Wallrath enters the data. Charlie Pipal teaches historic preservation. Deb Carey is the navigator. She pulls out a map.

"It’s the wrong way," Carey says.

"Typical," O'Brien says. "That’s something we’ve learned, there’s so many one-way streets."

"But we’re not afraid of an alley," Wallrath says.

"We’ll do alleys," Carey agrees.

Their instructor, Charlie Pipal, says people know of stellar buildings from the era like Inland Steel or the Hancock Building.  But he says they're much less familiar are the mid-century fire stations, schools, motels and even neon signs these students are identifying. So far, Pipal says, over the past six years, students have surveyed more than 50 communities, and at least 1,700 buildings. All of that work can be viewed online at Landmarks Illinois.

"This is an aspect of an architecture that’s slowly but surely vanishing from the metro area that we live in, so it’s nice we’re documenting it and hopefully we’re building some sort of constituency for the preservation of these buildings," Pipal says.

"This period of architecture is also kind of a love it or hate it type thing," says Jim Peters, who started the Recent Past Survey. He’s the former head of Landmarks Illinois.

"For as many people who loved the 1950s, 60s, there are an equal number who say I didn’t like it when it was built, and I’m glad it’s going to be demolished."

Peters says he was struck to realize how many suburbs think that only their old buildings are important. But he says the story of the suburbs is what happened after World War II. That’s when the baby boom hit, interstates grew up, and people flocked to the 'burbs. Peters says that led to new styles of buildings to reflect the abundant land, and different materials like glass walls and steel instead of stone and wood.

Yet students often encounter people who are puzzled as to why anyone is interested in preserving these buildings.

"That’s always a challenge," Peters says. "We had that challenge as preservationists with Art Deco architecture. We had that challenge with Victorian. It wasn’t that long ago the movie Psycho in the 1950s came out and the hideous house was the Victorian house on the hill."

First up for the students is Victory Outreach Church of Chicagoland, formerly St. Attracta. It’s in the middle of a neighborhood, surrounded by bungalows. The roofline looks like a bunch of conjoined W’s.

"It’s just kind of tucked away, and then it hits you: bam," Carey says.

"It’s fabulous," Pipal says.

"Ooh, we can go inside," Wallrath says.

A maintenance worker for the church, Christian Thompson, turns on the lights so they can see better. The ceiling looks like the inside of a shell.

"Whoa!"

Thompson is visibly proud of his church.

"For something that is 51 years old, the architecture is so modern. It’s amazing," he says. "They had vision at the time."

The students head to other destinations: schools, a bar, another church. They drive by a storefront they’d wanted to document. Wallrath is distressed.

"When we started the survey, that was all glass, and now it’s all boarded up," Wallrath says. "Maybe they’re replacing the glass, maybe they’re not taking them out entirely. It’s those little details that once they’re lost, no one will ever know that was ever there."

She says that’s why it’s essential to act now; they never know what a building owner might do the next day.