Saturday, February 9, 2013

Historical Preservation and Chicago's Judge of History

It has come to my attention that the University of Chicago plans to demolish a childhood home of Ronald Reagan to build a parking garage. As a kid, my Dad would take the family off the main road, up winding and dirt roads to former Presidents' houses, usually a log cabin with a flagpost and a sign (a la President Buchanan). So that's why I took a little bit more than a cursory glance at the issue. While it makes for a sensational headline that Obama intends to clear Reagan's house out of the way for his own Presidential library, this is absolute fiction. But Reagan's house may be short lived. It just feels a little uncharacteristic that a University like U. Chicago would contemplate tearing down this tasteful looking building, especially since gentrification and adaptive reuse are in vogue. And when the building is gone, perhaps there will be a 4-by-6 inch plaque reading “On this site…”, and maybe a little flower garden. Some would say that the inconsideration given to this century-old building is because Reagan’s politics were incongruent with Chicago machine politics. Although the machine may have had beef with the Gipper, it’s a fact of history that he won the hearts of the majority of voters in states with granola, bookish reputations (I mean this with positive connotations), like Oregon and Vermont (In fact, Minnesota is the only state Reagan did not win). And who in academia is to judge history? After putting disgraced Vice President (and former Maryland Governor) Spiro Agnew’s painting back up on the statehouse wall in 1995, then- Governor Parris Glendening, once a school teacher, stated: "It is not up to us to alter history. This is not an Orwellian future where history can change. We learn from history, warts and all." But in Chicago, there probably is nothing to do with politics; rather, Reagan’s childhood apartment is a low-rise building that can be knocked down with a few swings of the wrecking ball. Profit can be maximized by building a high-rise parking lot. Universities are businesses, too. Throughout my childhood, I watched as my neighborhood university, George Washington University (GWU), buy townhouses and build large buildings. Some townhouses they preserved; others were demolished to make way for premium-rate dormitory towers. In the most recent case, GWU had a hand in the construction of a 12-story commercial office and luxury apartment building. One might call this mission drift, but the University had the interest of students in mind: the Whole Foods in the basement provides students’ kitchens with organic food on days when the farmer’s market across the street is not open. As for the University of Chicago and Reagan, the city government of Chicago is standing on the sidelines, allowing laissez-faire to take the day. Perhaps it’s just my DC bias to find tearing down buildings as unusual. DC is the city where just about every building is defended fiercely by the Preservation Board. Not particularly Reagan’s values. So maybe it’s an expected end for the home of a pro-market advocate. Then again… “You don't know what you got till it's gone They paved paradise to put up a parking lot” Reference: