Preservation is much in the news these days, both nationally and locally. In Evanston, it has been the subject of heated debate, resounding accomplishments, a referendum and even a lawsuit.

Its critics say it is just a cover for anti-development people, or a ladies-who-lunch hobby for those who want to turn Evanston into a museum, or is pushed by those who want everything old to be a landmark to feed their nostalgia for the “good old days.” There are also opponents who say “preservationistas” are harmful because they want to tell property owners what color they can paint their trim, and besides, preservation costs too much.

I am on the other side, as one who believes that retaining the visible elements of our built heritage is vital for a variety of reasons.

  • We study history from grade school through college, and in recent decades, great interest has developed in the built artifacts of our past. Heritage tourism is booming across the U.S. By the way, when you go to Europe, do you go to see the uniformly bland 1950s and ’60s apartment blocks on the outskirts of Rome, Paris or Prague, or do you go to see the historic centers with their 300-plus-year-old buildings? Would you rather read a guide book about “Olde Evanston,” or see the actual living artifacts?

  • When people build a large new house on the site of a tear-down, what styles do they mostly use? Modified Queen Anne or Tudor with an occasional Georgian thrown in from time to time. It is the older historic styles that seem to appeal to people. The number of new houses built in the International, Prairie or other modern styles is very small. Is it the abundance of interesting detail and texture in the façade, the human scale of a two or two-and-a-half story building, or the warmth of brick and clapboard siding vs. concrete and glass that encourage building in these revival styles? I would say all three, which are of course found in abundance in historically significant buildings.
  • The current green movement has highlighted the environmental pluses of adaptive reuse of historic buildings. The energy and materials used to build the original building are retained when it is retro-fitted for modern uses, as opposed to dumping all that material in a landfill and starting over with new petroleum-related products. This argument is currently being made in the ongoing discussion between Friends of the Civic Center and the Civic Center Committee of City Council on the fate of the Civic Center building.
  • We do harm to our shared civic life when we indiscriminately destroy our historic buildings, cutting ourselves off from the valuable aspects of our past that can delight and inform our present. We don’t throw out 17th century paintings and sculptures because they are no longer modern or need refurbishing. Our historic buildings are the only works of art in which we live, work and play.
  • Thoughtful development that preserves the best of the old while creating exciting new uses should be the goal of every municipality with as rich a legacy as Evanston’s.
  • Even the U.S. government, under many administrations, has created the National Trust for Historic Places (now independent), passed and updated the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and has set aside a variety of funds and tax deductions to support rehabilitation of historic buildings. Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott store in Chicago has benefited from these incentives. Mayor Richard M. Daley established the Historic Bungalow Initiative (which includes small grants) to encourage owners of these classic 1920-era houses to learn about them and to fix them up.

    Interestingly, every important top-tier landmark building or district we have in the United States was created when demolition and development were threatened. This list includes Mt. Vernon, Va; Savannah, Ga; Charleston, S.C; and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, Fla. These excellent places were saved by tremendous grass-roots efforts largely by, I am proud to say, groups of local women. Would you really rather have had the parking lots and office buildings that were proposed and have lost these priceless treasures forever?

    Next time I will describe the preservation situation in Evanston, with discussion of landmarks, historic districts and the standards used to nominate them.

    Please send your ideas, comments and questions to: or I hope to hear from you.