Preservation Futures is set to explore the future of historic preservation through research, action and design—but the Chicago-based firm does things differently. Founded by architectural historian, writer and photographer Elizabeth Blasius, and Jonathan Solomon, architect and associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Preservation Futures goes beyond historic preservation’s traditional approach to saving buildings, to identify and shepherd future landmarks that elevate the social and cultural history embedded in places and spaces. “Our work includes preservation of public buildings and spaces; preservation of the recent past; and preservation as a tool to increase justice, equity and resiliency in the built environment,” say the founders, stressing the importance of working in the present and looking to the future. “We believe in maintenance and care as values in society and in a built environment in which more is appreciated and less is forgone, and we think that preservation can help lead us there. Gratitude is our attitude!”
Tell us about Preservation Futures and its mission .
We founded Preservation Futures to [affect] historic preservation through research, action and design. Our mission includes preservation of public buildings and spaces; preservation of the recent past, and preservation for the public good, as a tool to increase justice, equity and resiliency in the built environment.
We work with the existing tools of preservation, but try to use them better. We prepare landmark register nominations and navigate tax incentives and benefits related to preservation for clients that might not have access to. We produce research that informs public processes and policy decisions for the public good. We also work to expand preservation’s range and purview. We go beyond historic preservation’s traditional approach to saving buildings to identify and shepherd future landmarks that elevate the social and cultural history embedded in places and spaces. We plan programming and design creative interventions that develop audiences and engage communities.
Collaboration is important to us, and we are very aware that there are no firsts in preservation. Everything we do is built on the work of others. We believe that preservation is a futurist profession, that we need to always be working in the present and looking to the future.
What do you do differently when it comes to advocating for Chicago’s architectural heritage?
History is always a moving target, but preservation in Chicago has not been keeping up. The city’s last survey, The Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS), was completed in 1995, and it has not been updated. Moreover, it was completed in a way that left out a lot of important history. The CHRS focused on buildings fifty years old or older, with very few exceptions made for buildings by well-known mid-century modern architects. Most buildings built after 1940 were not included, leaving [examples of] neighborhood modernism like Pride Cleaners in Chatham, or the catalogs of the work of architects like John Moutoussamy and Gertrude Kerbis not recognized as historic or covered by Chicago’s Demolition Delay ordinance for historic structures. Moreover, by focusing architectural value and other majority narratives, the CHRS left out Chicago’s Black and Latinx heritage, the work of female architects, its indigenous heritage and other histories no less deserving of preservation.
We are trying to remedy this. In the 2020s, the 1970s will turn fifty. What about the next ten years? And the next? Preservation needs to continually develop research and scholarship, test tools and techniques, and engage public interest that will enable us to preserve the 1980s, the 1990s and beyond.
Instead of thinking about preservation as limited and precious, we think it should be popular and widespread, the standard, not the exception. Henri Lefebvre wrote “La Droit à la Ville,” the right to the city; we believe part of that right is a right to history, to have our stories held and elevated collectively in our built environment.
In what ways does preservation shape cultural values in our contemporary society?
Preservation is very much a part of the public conversation right now, think about the debate in Chicago and nationally about monuments, and who gets to decide what histories and historical figures represent them and their community. Preservation is also a part of the conversation about housing and affordability; as in Chicago’s recent demolition fee pilot in Pilsen and along the 606. Preservation is also part of the conversation about access to public health and services, in how communities in the city responded to plans to close Mercy Hospital.
We absolutely believe that preservation can help shape these values. What happens when you consider just a few things “historic” and declare everything else expendable; when you fetishize the new and make it easier to abandon the existing than to care for it? Look at American cities and the tremendous losses they’ve suffered, all the dispossession and alienation this has enabled. We believe in maintenance and care as values in society and in a built environment in which more is appreciated and less is forgone, and we think that preservation can help lead us there. Gratitude is our attitude!
What are you most excited about moving forward?
Right now we are working, with Landmarks Illinois and AJ LaTrace, to nominate the James R. Thompson Center to the National Register of Historic Places. This postmodern gem is a vitally important part of Chicago’s architectural history and although it was only completed in 1985 it is under threat from demolition. We will be elated to see this building become a national landmark and hope that it will be a watershed for the preservation of postmodernism in Chicago and the nation. While the building is an important work of postmodernism in Chicago, it also engages with the public as a site of protest and activism, and speaks on the relationship between citizenship, government and commerce.
We are also working with Blacks in Green and Pax Design on a National Register nomination for the Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley House, which was only recently granted status as a Chicago landmark. We are grateful to be part of the work to elevate the history of Chicago as a Great Migration metropolis in this way. We are also excited by our broader collaboration with Traci Sanders at Pax Design, which includes a pilot cultural heritage survey of Woodlawn.
Finally, we are about to kick off a Preservation Clinic, in partnership with Preservation Chicago, to serve members of the public who qualify for tax credits and other incentives but don’t have access to the expertise to claim them. If we can help even a small group of property owners improve their homes or shops, they can help show others, and on and on, and we can have a big impact. We are excited about all these projects and delighted to be a part of the future of historic preservation in Chicago!
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