Wednesday, July 21, 2004

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My rare agreement with the preservationists

In the fall of 2003, Chicago unveiled the newly-renovated Soldier Field. The new stadium grafted a futuristic-looking bowl onto a classic structure of Doric colonnades.

The result? From the outside, it's a butt-ugly effect. Soldier Field now looks like an alien spaceship humping the Parthenon. Blair Kamin, The Tribune's excellent architecture critic, described it as "an architectural close encounter of the worst kind."

Think I'm exaggerating? Go take the official virtual tour and notice that the only exterior picture of the stadium is partially obstructed by trees. By all accounts, I hear that the interior of the stadium is actually quite nice. Driving by it on Lake Shore Drive, however, most people just shudder in revulsion.

So I can't say I'm shocked to read the following story by Hal Dardick and David Mendell in today's Chicago Tribune:

Setting a flying saucer stadium inside the classical columns of Soldier Field destroyed its historic character, so the structure should be stripped of its National Historic Landmark status, federal architecture analysts said this week.

The National Park Service on Tuesday sent its recommendation to withdraw landmark status, the highest honor the government bestows on buildings and places, from the Chicago Park District, which owns the structure. Federal officials also recommended removing the venerable stadium from the National Register of Historic Places.

That was the first step in a monthslong process to decide whether the stadium will lose its historic designations, something historic preservationists warned would be triggered by the controversial $660 million renovation of the Bears' home.

Soldier Field "no longer retains its historic integrity," states a three-page report written by staff for the National Park System Advisory Board. "The futuristic new stadium bowl is visually incompatible with the classical colonnades and the perimeter wall of the historic stadium."

"During the process of new construction, many historic features and spaces were obliterated," it continues. "With the exception of the colonnades, exterior walls and a small seating area on the south end of the bowl, very little of the historic fabric remains."

The report now goes to the Advisory Board Landmarks Committee, which in September will make a recommendation to the full board, which will forward its recommendation to the U.S. secretary of the interior for a decision.

All I can add is, good for the National Park Service.

posted by Dan on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM


I sort of thought the purpose behind historic designation was to prevent things like this from happening in the first place.

When I've lived in historic neighborhoods, even matters as trivial as the kind of front door, or the color it could be painted were subject to prior approval.

Were the preservationists asleeep at the switch here?

Looks as though the people who did the refurbishing have found a significant loophole in the regs. Now all they have to do is make it so nasty that historic designation gets stripped and, voila, no more niggling regulations to negotiate.

posted by: Hatcher on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]


You can't project the limitations placed upon ordinary citizens by a historical designation to "Da Mayor". There are distinct advantages to having the city council, county board, judicial branch, state legislature, governor, mafia and local business communities in your pocket. The Soldier Field legislation and approvals took about........a week.

posted by: Stefan on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

What is this, amateur architecture critic week? :)

Of course, you're right, though.

posted by: praktike on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

The new Soldier's Field is undeniably hideous, and the Feds are right to strike this hybrid house o horrors from its good books. But...who cares? This isn't a museum, it's not a Burnham landmark, it's not a place where anything of historical value took place. What is it? A football stadium. The old one had ceased to please AS SUCH. The new one (I'm no football fan, so I'll leave this to others) is better suited to modern needs. I don't see that anyone needs to get excercised about this. The Parthenon, it ain't. Never was. Next kvetch?

posted by: Kelli on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

Historic preservation restrictions aren't usually intended to protect public buildings. Preservation laws are primarily intended to prevent private property owners from taking private actions that adversely affect the communities' interest in historic preservation. Publicly-owned buildings are essentially owned by the community, and their custodians are already accountable to community values at the ballot box.

That said, what is going on at Soldier's Field is nothing more than a collective finger-waiving exercise with no physical or economic significance. Probably why Dan appreciates it.

posted by: PD Shaw on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

> I sort of thought the purpose behind historic
> designation was to prevent things like this from
> happening in the first place.

Daley violated 10-15 federal laws when he tore up Meigs Field with bulldozers at midnight. Zero action was taken against him or the city.

Laws only apply to little people.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

I go down to Burnham Harbor a lot and agree that it looks like a spaceship plopped into Soldier Field. However, it could have been a lot worse. When driving through Seattle last year, I saw Safeco and Seahawks stadiums together. Compared to them, the new Soldier field is beautiful. Check out the pictures

posted by: Greg on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]


Those Seattle stadiums really detract from the intrinsic beauty of the elevated freeways in front of them... :-)

posted by: Barry P. on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

I appreciate the education about Chicago's politics. Oddly enough, I had sort of assumed that those days were past. Sorry to see I'm wrong.

posted by: Hatcher on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

I don't know what the fuss is about. They could have turned Soldier Field into an architectural showpiece and the Bears still wouldn't be able to beat the Packers.

posted by: Zathras on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

The Soldier Field renovation architects, IMHO, did a commendable job retaining the historical features that people swoon over ("Oooh, the columns of Old Soldier Field") while renovating the stadim aspects of the structure with a reasonable sense of scale. (Look how high above the "column" entrances the stadim proper goes...not very. In scale, the design works well with the East and West sets of columns.) There are no huge ugly arms with banks of lights jutting up into the air, no single overbearing facade with a corporate logo, it doesn't dominate the skyline, etc. It is really an elegant design that, for what people may dislike about it for their own personal tastes, solves the problem it was intended to address.

The fact is, without significant renovations to the structure of the stadium aspects themselves (the field, seats, etc.), there is little doubt that the Bears owners would have pulled the Bears out of Chicago (since there really isn't place for another stadium inside city limites), and perhaps out of Illinois altogether. Leaving us with something far worse than bad architecture -- abandoned architecture.

posted by: Brett R. on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

Other than prestige, what's the point of a landmark designation? It doesn't prevent modification or funding.

posted by: Sean Hackbarth on 07.21.04 at 10:47 AM [permalink]

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