Guest blog post by Thea Liberty Nichols
Email interview conducted with Susannah Ribstein
Susannah Ribstein is the director of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Wicker Park. She is also completing an M.S. in Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute. Her thesis for that degree focuses on the origins and development of the late modern architectural style known as Brutalism. She received a B.A in art history from the University of Chicago in 2005.
TLN: Congratulations on the recent unanimous acceptance of your historic landmark nomination! Can you tell us a little bit more about the nomination itself— what it is, what you were nominating and what went into writing it?
SR: Gee, thanks Thea! I’ll try to be as concise as possible here, but it’s a long process and one that’s probably pretty unfamiliar to most BaS readers. I think that anyone with an interest in fine art could benefit from a better understanding of how preservation can be used to support investigations into all kinds of cultural history. Although this project required a lot of art history, I’m going to talk more about the preservation-specific parts because that might actually be news to someone.
In the summer of 2009 Lisa Stone, the curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection, asked me to nominate the collection’s building (Brown’s former home and studio, now owned by the Art Institute) to the National Register of Historic Places. I was in the middle of SAIC’s master’s program in Historic Preservation, and I’m the gallery director at Corbett vs. Dempsey (specializing in modern and contemporary art from Chicago) so I thought writing the nomination would be a good way to combine my interests in architectural preservation and Chicago art history.
The Study Collection is one of Chicago’s greatest architectural, art historical, and cultural landmarks. The building, which dates from 1888, is located in Lincoln Park, at 1926 N. Halsted Street. Brown bought the building in 1974 and with his partner, the architect George Veronda, converted it from a rundown storefront with 3 apartments to a modern studio for him on the first floor and an apartment for both of them on the second floor. Over the years the apartment filled with Brown’s incredible collection of art and artifacts, which is now preserved in one of the best house museums you’ve ever seen. All of Brown’s great Chicago Imagist colleagues are represented in the collection (Jim Nutt, Christina Ramberg, Ed Paschke, Philip Hanson, Karl Wirsum, etc. etc.) as well as work by self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum and Jesse Howard, vintage toys and ephemera, and modernist furniture. The building and its contents are still essentially as Brown left them when he moved out in 1995, two years before his death in 1997. (Read more about the collection here, and plan a visit!) As wonderful as the art collection is, it’s not technically part of my nomination, which is limited to the building itself, the backyard that Brown landscaped, and the frame garage he built out back to house his 1967 Mustang.
TLN: Can you tell us a little more about what the National Register is?
SR: It’s a program overseen by the National Park Service, created in 1966 at the dawn of the modern preservation movement as part of the National Historic Preservation Act. It’s intended to be a method for building an inventory of American architectural, archeological, and cultural landmarks, and anyone can nominate a property, or a collection of properties (as a district) for listing. Every state has a Historic Preservation Office with at least one staff member responsible for helping people with the listing process. It is in theory a very egalitarian program, but in reality the process is quite involved and requires a particular approach to writing the nomination that I think would be hard for a layman to navigate. Most property owners – both individual and corporate – hire historical consultants to do the nominations for them because they are so time-consuming and really do require a relationship with the preservation bureaucracy in order for them to go smoothly.
TLN: So tell us more about what comprises a nomination.
SR: The main written components of the nomination are a description and a statement of significance. The description is supposed to be detailed enough that you could re-create the place without pictures if it fell down. That’s a pretty rough task. Even with an undergraduate specialization in architectural history and (at that point) half of a master’s degree in preservation, I found I still had plenty to learn about building descriptions. As mind-numbing as descriptive writing can be, it’s also a kind of great exercise for a writer to really focus on how to create an accurate diagram of something using only words. Finding the right vocabulary, figuring out how to organize the parts in space – it’s like a puzzle.
The statement of significance is where you make your historical argument for the property’s significance. Coming from a family of lawyers made this a really delicious prospect for me. Using historical narrative and context to build a clear and convincing case for something’s significance is a pretty foundational skill for an historian. In the nomination process it gets stripped down to the essentials: use the facts, make your case, convince someone. It’s fun, especially when you think you’ve got a resistant audience, as I did. Several years ago, based on a much shorter submission, the Illinois preservation office said they didn’t think Brown was significant enough to justify pursuing the entire nomination. That really lit a fire under Lisa (Stone), and under me to prove them wrong. I think most of the problem with their initial understanding was that there are very few art historical landmarks in this state, despite its incredible art history, and preservationists generally don’t know as much about art as they do about architecture and political history. On top of that, the National Register is not friendly to landmarks that have achieved significance within the last 50 years. The period of significance for Brown’s home and studio was 1974 to 1995, which is absurdly recent to preservationists who are used to evaluating buildings that are a century old – and many of whom personally remember 1995 like it was last week. In order to list properties less than 50 years old you have to prove that they are exceptionally significant, either because they are a unique remnant or because the history that they represent is crucially important to American civilization. So I felt like I had my rhetorical work cut out for me with this project.
TLN: So how did you make your case for the significance of the Study Collection within the larger historical, and specifically preservationist perspective, the Council was coming from?
SR: Preservation activism in general relies heavily on establishing historical context, and the statement of significance in a National Register nomination is a great example of this. The emphasis on contextualization is one of my favorite things about preservation writing. I love setting up an environment in which people can come to appreciate buildings and landmarks. It’s no use to try to appeal to taste and nostalgia – those things are too idiosyncratic to provide a solid foundation for the kinds of funding and legislation that support preservation work. You have to paint a picture of a moment in the past, and situate your landmark within it in order to give an objective view of its status and meaning.
In the case of this nomination, I argued for its significance based on its association with Brown because he was an important and well-known American artist, and based on its connection to Chicago Imagism because that was arguably this city’s most important contribution to 20th century American art. Although detailing the history and proving the significance of Brown and Imagism took up most of my nomination, I also wanted to make a case for the importance of the building as representative of the historical evolution of Chicago’s industrial production. Like so much of this city, it began its life as a commercial and residential property built during the city’s population boom in the late-19th century. It then served a variety of retail and light-industrial purposes before (with Brown’s tenancy) becoming a focal point for the kind of cultural production that replaced manufacturing as this city’s most vital export. I love that this one building will always be a way for people to touch and feel the story of how Chicago has changed over the course of the century. Rather than being a pure, embalmed example of an architectural style, it’s a building that testifies to a much broader historical narrative. I think it’s an incredibly valuable place for that reason alone. Preservation is traditionally geared to value landmarks that have impeccable integrity to their original form. Valuing buildings because their alterations tell a story is a practice that is relatively new to the field, and I think one of the more exciting directions it is taking. (I have to also give credit here to Anthony Rubano, an architect in the state preservation office who was an indispensable resource to me throughout this process. He first suggested the idea of adding a discussion of this kind of evolutionary significance to the nomination – among a million other wonderful suggestions.)
The main surprise to me about this nomination process was that the writing was actually a relatively small portion of it, time-wise. I finished the bulk of the writing in the summer of 2009. Corresponding with the National Register coordinator for the state (in Springfield) and going through multiple rounds of editing took many months. Finally, in the fall of 2010, the nomination was presented to the City of Chicago Landmarks Commission. When you nominate a landmark in a city that’s big enough to have its own historic preservation office, like Chicago, they are allowed to weigh in first even though it’s the state that has the final say. The Chicago Commission was really enthusiastic. It was so gratifying to hear from these historians who perhaps didn’t know much about their city’s amazing art history. They really got how important Brown and the Imagists were to Chicago, and made great associations between the art and other social and cultural elements of the city’s history with which they were more familiar. One commissioner picked up on a mention I made of Brown and his colleagues Ray Yoshida, Christina Ramberg and Philip Hanson going to the Maxwell Street market to find artistic inspiration. He knew a bit about some of the Imagists already, and knew a lot about Maxwell Street, but didn’t realize that there was an important relationship there. Learning about connections like that is what makes being an historian in this city great.
After the Chicago commission, the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council votes on it in one of their quarterly meetings. Lisa and I traveled to the meeting in Springfield last December to make a short presentation and see the vote. I was still worried that the council would not understand how something that happened so recently (in geological time, anyway) and in an area of history with which they might not be familiar could be exceptionally significant. But again, they responded enthusiastically and favorably and all voted in support of the nomination (with the exception of one abstainer). Now it’s winding its way through the rest of the process with the National Parks Service, and will be officially designated in the coming months.
I do want to say something about what listing on the National Register actually means for the building. It’s a very common misconception that listing confers some kind of protection for a property. It doesn’t. If federal money is going to be used to demolish or alter a listed property, the responsible agency is supposed to go through a mitigation procedure in which they make some attempt to find an alternative to alteration/demolition. But they can always decide it’s not possible and go ahead with whatever work they want. And if it’s private money you don’t have to ask anyone before you knock the whole thing down. The Register is more of a carrot than a stick. The main reason that people pursue listing (apart from the prestige) is that it makes the property eligible for a variety of tax incentives.
Brown’s home and studio is already a prestigious site as a house museum and there is no danger of alteration or destruction since the Art Institute is a committed steward. So I saw the nomination process mostly as an opportunity to produce a piece of writing that made a case for the broad historical significance of Brown, his colleagues in Chicago, and the building as a cultural landmark. It was also important to me that my product would be available for study at the building and online (via the National Park Service, eventually. They’re in the process of digitizing nominations here. The database is incomplete and buggy, but still a gold mine of historical information). Preservation usually only comes onto the radar of the general public when there’s a heroic effort underway to save an endangered building. That aspect of preservation is of course really important. But I think it’s equally important for people to know that its mechanisms have the potential to support cultural investigations that are much wider, richer, and less desperately functional than architectural maintenance alone.
Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator and freelance writer.