In the last week, with the city and state flailing around in their twin oceans of debt and the future of our Paris on the Prairie looking particularly grim, two of Chicago’s most distinctive characters hosted sunny celebrations that were all about making things better through thoughtful redevelopment.
Albeit at opposite ends of the geographic and income spectrum.
Up on the Evanston lakefront, Jennifer Pritzker opened a handsome new five-suite bed-and-breakfast she’s calling Stone Terrace. Looking a bit like Golda Meir (I’m an admirer of this grande dame style) in sensible boots and bright blue jacket, Pritzker sliced a ceremonial ribbon with a Civil War saber before inviting the public in to see what she’s done with a Victorian mansion facing the lake at 1622 Forest Place.
The multimillion-dollar restoration by Evanston architect Paul Janicki is true to a Tudor-revival makeover the onetime Queen Anne style home got in 1910. Original flooring, window frames, and woodwork have been preserved with the attention to detail characteristic of other Pritzker projects like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Emil Bach House, the Mayne Stage, and the Pritzker Military Library.
This is the second Evanston home Pritzker has turned into a luxury B&B; its sister property, Stone Porch, two doors down at 300 Church Street, won a city preservation award last year. But neither is the biggest Evanston project she envisioned. That would be the Harley Clarke mansion, longtime home of the Evanston Art Center—owned and neglected by the city, and standing empty since the art center was booted from it and moved last year.
Pritzker would have remade the Clarke mansion as a 52-room boutique hotel with underground parking; enough Evanston residents objected to that plan that it sank in a city council vote. Foremost among their objections: the loss of affordable public access to what had been a public facility.
It’s a safe bet that most of the locals who tromped through Stone Terrace last week won’t be putting their out-of-town guests up there, either. A tour guide estimated that a one-night stay would cost between $250 and $450. But unlike the Clarke mansion, Stone Terrace was never a public property.
In a brief speech, Pritzker said the ribbon cutting made her “wistful” for her grandfather’s house on Wellington in Chicago: “It had such a rich family history—and sadly a 20-story condo building stands there now.”
“I see this happening to so many houses in the Chicago area—fine mansions of the 19th and early 20th centuries that have decayed to the point of condemnation,” she said. “A building is only as good as the people who build it, use it, and assume responsibility for its maintenance. . . . We seek ways to bring new life to old houses by finding creative ways to make them community assets and viable long-term investments.”
She could be channeling artist and urban development phenom Theaster Gates, who wants to save, reuse, and creatively reinvent buildings too. Except, maybe, for the “fine mansions” part. And the neighborhood.
Three days after the Stone Terrace opening, the ubiquitous, laid-back Gates, sporting what could now be the art world’s most familiar mug, hosted a panel discussion and party at his own restored (and artfully distressed) Stony Island Arts Bank in South Shore. The occasion was the announcement of a new partnership between his University of Chicago Place Lab project and the university’s Harris School of Public Policy.
Looking over the crowd, Gates said he “hasn’t seen so many white people on Stony Island Avenue for years.”
Created in 2014 and run with major support from the Knight Foundation, Place Lab basically exists to export Gates’s brand of arts-based, community-driven redevelopment projects—originated when he bought up abandoned buildings in his own Grand Crossing neighborhood—to other cities. Now the Harris School’s faculty and graduate students will ride along, providing academic analysis of the process.
As part of the new arrangement, the university’s once-active 16-year-old Cultural Policy Center has been “merged” with Place Lab and disappeared. According to a statement on the Place Lab website, the merger is intended to “elevate UChicago’s global profile and enable a uniquely powerful combination of research and praxis unparalleled by any other major university or city.”
Newly retired Cultural Policy Center director Betty Farrell, reached by phone this week, said she is “very proud of the research the Cultural Policy Center produced over the past 16 years. It was intended to be work that strengthened arts organizations and the lives of artists.”
You can’t see the record of that work right now; the Cultural Policy Center’s website has also disappeared. A university spokesperson says the information will eventually show up at the Place Lab site.