Originally posted at Innovative Reuse in the Post-Industrial City, the blog for our working group at the 2014 NCPH Conference.

Cuneo Hospital Building, Chicago (2013)

Cuneo Hospital Building, Chicago (Hunter)

This is one of seven case studies by members of “Innovative Re-Use in the Post-Industrial City,” a working group at the 2014 National Council on Public History annual conference. Read more about the working group here

When the topic of re-use and preservation of post-industrial urban buildings arises, we most often think of abandoned factories, warehouses, and transportation infrastructure. But “post-industrial” relates to a broader theme of the city in the age of de-industrialization: an era typified by employment and population loss, economic decentralization, and the under-funding of urban public institutions. Population loss has had a particular impact on the built environment of cities formerly defined by the industrialized economy.

I am interested in the fates of buildings that once proved integral to the lives of those who lived in densely populated areas. The re-use and preservation–specifically–of spaces that once housed hospitals, schools, and funeral homes, presents a series of vexing issues. Throw in the fact that many of these buildings were built during the burst of postwar construction, and preservationists face an additional challenge–overcoming the perception of Mid-Century Modernism as ‘ugly,’ ‘soulless,’ or ‘cold.’ Sometimes abandoned hospitals, schools, and funeral homes occupy spaces long-coveted by developers. Other times they languish in neighborhoods completely devastated by de-industrialization, left to the ignominious fate of surrounding empty lots and unmarketable housing.

This case study looks at the efforts to preserve and re-use the Cuneo Memorial Hospital in Chicago, a Mid-Century Modernist marvel that sits on a premium corner in an area ripe for economic re-development. Although not the headline-grabber of the unsuccessful fight to save Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital a few miles to the south, the effort to stave off Cuneo’s demise has involved preservationists, sustainable re-use innovators, and advocates for affordable housing. Unfortunately, Cuneo’s fate is dire. The subsidized plans for luxury apartments to replace the empty hospital have proven impervious to Cuneo defenders; the local alderman sides with the developers, and the Chicago Landmarks Commission denied landmark status for the building. Even an innovative plan for community-focused re-use that preserved Cuneo’s architectural integrity with an eye towards environmental sustainability failed on the launching pad. For those invested in sustainable historic preservation and re-use in the post-industrial city, Cuneo’s plight is both informative and sobering.


From Civil War Memory.

Cross-posted at The Lakefront Historian.

An unexpected media and political discourse has emerged as the Federal government nears a second week of being ‘shutdown.’ Access to sites under the watch of the National Park Service (NPS) became a political football. The conversation started almost simultaneous to the actual shutdown, when a squad of octo- and nonagenarian Mississippians stormed the barricades of the World War II Memorial in the middle of the National Mall. An irresistible media story, for certain. Politicians–as they do–seized  the spectacle. The next day a GOP Congressman berated an NPS ranger charged with manning the barricades, in truly a pathetic display even for Washington politics.


NPS closures became highly visible, with signs, barriers, and traffic cones juxtaposed against heritage sites and natural treasures. GOP congressmen offered the President a “compromise” that would have reopened the NPS sites while budget talks continued. President Obama turned down the proposal, and his rivals immediately attempted to seize the moral high ground. Some pundits ran with the idea that preventing access to “open-air monuments” was unconscionable, if not outright illegal.

Let’s turn to a bona fide, PhD’d historian for further discussion on the matter:

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Originally posted on The Lakefront Historian, the blog of Loyola public history graduate students.

Anyone with the least amount of training or education related to the management of historical resources knows the importance of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (1966). Section 106 is deceptively complicated and vague, resulting in negotiations between preservation ideals, community desires, and economic development.

The head of any Federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed Federal or federally assisted undertaking in any State and the head of any Federal department or independent agency having authority to license any undertaking shall, prior to the approval of the expenditure of any Federal funds on the undertaking or prior to the issuance of any license, as the case may be, take into account the effect of the undertaking on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register. The head of any such Federal agency shall afford the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation established under Title II of this Act a reasonable opportunity to comment with regard to such undertaking.—[16 U.S.C. 470f — Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, comment on Federal undertakings]

Section 106 handouts from the CTA. In this day and age, a link to their PowerPoint deck would have been nice.

As public history graduate students, we are well-versed in the letter and spirit of Section 106. But rarely do we have the opportunity to observe the process in all its messy and contentious glory. Recently I attended a Section 106 public hearing related to the $203 million reconstruction of the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Wilson Station. The Wilson Station project is using tens of millions of dollars from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and sits in the Uptown Square Historic district—-thus triggering the 106 process.  Uptown is a neighborhood well-versed in community political participation, and has long served host to very diverse expectations of development, preservation, and economic and political justice (Hey, someone should write a dissertation about that). The CTA, FTA, the alderman’s office, and the City of Chicago have an enormous stake in the project that is deemed a necessary infrastructure upgrade and an essential key to the eternally-incipient ‘revival’ of Uptown. These factors, combined with the minimalist and impressionistic nature of Section 106 itself, promised to make for an interesting evening. This initial 106 meeting lived up to my expectations.


An animatronic exhibit based on the infamous hillbilly intruders, at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.

An animatronic exhibit based on the infamous hillbilly intruders, at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.

“A Christmas Story” (1983) has achieved iconic status that belies its initially modest critical and commercial reception: selection to the National Film Registry, a cottage industry of gifts based on products in the movie, a house museum for its external set, and–most significantly–an annual 24-hour broadcasting block. Much of the film’s popularity comes from a plot steeped in nostalgia. And like all nostalgic cultural products, “A Christmas Story” contains subtle yet profound themes related to social and economic history. The most obvious of these themes is Ralphie’s struggle to fulfill expectations of masculine behavior through consumption. However, as someone who recently gave a conference presentation about the enlistment of ‘exotic’ folk culture into the pursuit of modern urban desires (“Chicken Teriyaki and a Blind Woodcarver with a Fake Southern Accent”), I’m most interested in the film’s depiction of the ‘urban hillbilly’ menace. The specter of the Bumpus hounds–and the Parker family’s subsequent retreat into exotic orientalism at the movie’s conclusion–show how the white, urban middle class selected certain pre-modern pasts while rejecting others, all in the context of consumption.

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A Lincoln statue, on Lincoln Avenue, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, in the Land of Lincoln. (Flickr/Brad Heird)

Originally posted at The Lakefront Historian, as part of a five-part series of reviews of Lincoln.

Like all texts, Steven  Spielberg’s Lincoln should be critiqued on several levels. Film scholars will analyze the script and cinematography, while popular press movie critics will judge the work as both a creative and commercial product. Being a historical film, Lincoln has also attracted the attention of academic scholars. But what about Lincoln as a piece of public history? And what are its implications for public historians? These are no easy questions–and their answers can easily morph into an unwieldy meta-narrative of aesthetics, commercial production, and speculation on reception. Here, I offer a just an introduction to the public history context of Lincoln and encourage any expansion or complications of these impressions in comments below.

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Postcard for the exhibit opening, depicting Conservative Vice Lords, an alderman, and the Illinois State’s Attorney in front of a CVL social club, 1969. (Hull-House)

The horrific killing of 7-year old Heaven Sutton dominated the July 27 Chicago news, an inauspicious backdrop for my visit that day to a museum exhibit about the Conservative Vice Lords (CVL)—a West Side Chicago gang that went ‘legitimate’ in the 1960s. Today’s crime statistics demand that only shootings involving extraordinary circumstances warrant significant attention from the mainstream media. In the Heaven Sutton case, these heart-wrenching details include the victim’s young age and that she was a victim of cross-fire while selling candy with her family—just after having her hair styled in anticipation of an upcoming trip to Disney World. There have been over 200 Chicago homicides thus far this year. During the 2011-2012 school year, 24 Chicago Public School children were killed, and an additional 319 were wounded by gunfire. Whether media coverage of shootings consists of short blurbs in the metro section or a Pulitzer-worthy serial expose, one theme remains: the vast majority of shootings are flatly depicted as “gang-related.” This persistent motif trains us to understand loose associations of urban youth (“gangs”) as the inevitable cause of violence and disruption, a convenient—even if unthinking—way to avoid many of the structural social and economic foundations of inner-city violence.

Continual “gang violence” also makes it difficult to remember a time when some street gangs shifted from illicit activities and violence to community service and legitimate political activity. History shows that gangs often embodied complex notions of resistance, consciousness-building, empowerment, and community. At times, dominant political and economic forces have even enlisted gangs in collaborative social welfare efforts. Certainly the actions of Heaven Sutton’s killers fall far from such aspects of gangs. And it could be argued that the positive potential of street gangs happened in a historical moment, long since occluded by the national cocaine and heroin epidemic and the precipitous decline of Federal and municipal funding for urban social programs. Regardless, “Report to the Public: An Untold Story of the Conservative Vice Lords,” an offsite exhibit curated by the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, looks back to the 1960s when the urban crisis called for innovative partnerships between legitimate institutions and some of the gangs once assumed to be among the root causes of that very crisis. This timely exhibit questions the absolute ties between street gangs and destructive violence, suggesting that groups of frustrated young people are not destined to wreak the community havoc so prevalent on the evening news. More »