Chiaravalle’s new addition provides a much needed and well designed space to accommodate its burgeoning academic programs, but raises questions about the the difficulty of adding onto existing buildings.Photo by Stuart Cohen

Anyone who owns a home that is a designated Evanston Landmark or that is located in an historic district must appear before the Evanston Preservation Commission to receive permission to alter the exterior.

The Preservation Commission will review the project and, if it is approved, grant a Certificate of Appropriateness.

Those who have been through this process may be wondering about the recently completed addition to the Chiaravalle Montessori School on Dempster Street, a block east of Chicago Avenue.

Chiaravalle was originally the Miller School. It was built in 1898 and is the work of Daniel Burnham’s firm, famous for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the 1909 Plan of Chicago. It is a designated Evanston Landmark.

The Chiaravalle addition is the work of Cannon Design and their former partner Trung Le, co-author of “The Third Teacher,” a book about the impact that architecture can have on education. Cannon’s addition provides a much needed and well designed space to accommodate Chiaravalle’s burgeoning academic programs.

However, the building raises questions, not only about the difficult issues of adding onto existing buildings, but the integrity and public value of buildings that are historic landmarks.

Contemporary architects are of two minds: First, that an addition should have its own stylistic integrity to be determined by the architect. Second, that an addition needs to respect and somehow value the visual integrity of the existing historic building.  

To cite an extreme example, the addition to Chicago’s Soldier Field was deemed sufficiently destructive to the character of the original structure that its status as a nationally listed landmark was withdrawn.

The attitude toward adding on to historic structures has been changing since the 1960s, when the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for additions to landmark structures asked that additions be identifiably different in design and capable of being removed to facilitate future restoration of the original building. These reflected the architectural ideology of the time. Today most local Landmark or Preservation Commissions have either substituted their own criteria or expanded the existing federal guidelines.

Evanston’s Preservation Guidelines have 17 points for judging appropriateness. These include, among other criteria, that an addition be “visually” compatible with regard to: height; roof shape and style; height to width proportions of windows and doors; and exterior materials and textures.  

Evanston’s standards also state, “Contemporary design for additions to existing properties shall not be discouraged when such additions do not destroy significant, historic, cultural or architectural material, and such design is compatible with the size, scale, color, material and character of the property neighborhood or environment.”

In examining the Chiaravalle addition in relation to the above standards, the building’s cornice line, the point where the roof begins, matches that of the Burnham building.

Here, in my opinion, any sympathetic relationship to the existing building
ends and we are dealing with how the Commission members chose to define compatibility.

The pitch of the roof and the shape of its north end, called a gambrel, are dramatically different from the hipped roof of the historic building.

The roof material, standing seam metal, silver in color, has a tenuous visual relationship to the red tile roof of the historic building. While the seams in the metal roof panels create vertical lines, the spacing of these are at a totally different scale from the old roof tiles.  

The windows are continuous horizontal areas of glass and are not visually compatible with the window openings in the historic building.

Even the random vertical divisions of the new windows, in my opinion, fail to relate to the vertical proportions and subdivisions of the old double hung windows.

The entrances to Burnham’s building are arches cut into the surface of the building and are framed in limestone, while the entrance to the addition is a projecting cube of glass, a volume rather than a void.

This is a radically different idea of how to enter a building.  

Are the colors, materials, and textures of the exterior really compatible? The horizontal wall panels (which appear to have a wood grain texture) are stained a red, and this could be seen as compatible with the brick of the old building but is just different enough that we are forced to ask, “Is the difference on purpose,” or, “Is the color mismatch just a mistake?”

The buff-colored concrete block used below the north corner window divides the north face of the addition in half.

While it may have been selected to recall the color of Burnham’s limestone trim, perhaps its other purpose is to distract from the awkward shape of this side of the building. Further, while it is masonry, it is at a much larger scale than the brickwork of the historic building.

While the Burnham building has a texture and scale that results from the projecting horizontal brick courses on the first floor, the addition, no doubt due to budget constraints, has an impoverished flatness by comparison.

 The east, or alley, side of the building leaves one at a loss for words, but perhaps the hardest feature to explain is the west facing connection of the addition to the older structure.

This design feature, hardly original to Cannon’s design, is inexplicable to one not trained as an architect. Let me try to explain: Early 20th century modern architecture had the self-ascribed purpose of improving the world by ushering in a better future.

This required that all new buildings be unique looking, suggestive of that better future to come, and freestanding, thus telling us that they have nothing to do with what came before them.

This was a real dilemma if a designer or architect had to connect a new modern structure to an old obsolete building from the past. The answer, taught to architects, was to make their new building look free-standing by attaching it to the older building with a linking structure made of glass. Since glass is transparent, this link would be
“invisible,” maintaining the desired fiction that the new addition was totally separate.     

I believe that building additions to significant architecture have a moral obligation to sympathetically acknowledge the architecture that they are attached to. Is it possible to make a sympathetic contemporary addition to a historic building?

I believe so, but in my opinion, Chiaravalle’s architects were either unwilling or ill equipped to take on this difficult challenge.

On Oct. 15, 2013, the Preservation Commission voted 6 to 1 to approve the construction of the addition by granting it a Certificate of Appropriateness. The decision was based on the Commission members’ interpretation of their published standards.  

Stuart Cohen is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects; a partner in Cohen & Hacker Architects LLC of Evanston; Professor of Architecture Emeritus University of Illinois Chicago; and the author of North Shore Chicago: Houses of the Lakefront Suburbs 1890-1940 and Inventing the New American House: Howard Van Doren Shaw, Architect.