None of the four appointees Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks in early July have formal architectural or historic preservation training, leaving some members of the city’s architecture community puzzled about the picks and concerned about the loss of technical expertise on an important advisory group.
Newcomers to the commission include James Houlihan, the former property tax assessor of Cook County, Anita Blanchard, an obstetrician, Mary Ann Smith, recently retired from Chicago’s city council, and Tony Hu, a restaurateur.
“I’m sure they are all very intelligent and well-intended people, but it’s not the same as having architects versed in the complexities of what we’re trying to do,” said Gunny Harboe, principal at Harboe Architects, a practice that specializes in historic preservation.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity,” said Vincent Michael, who directs the historic preservation program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommends historic status for buildings and broader districts, and its Permit Review Committee reviews alterations to landmarked structures. The future of the Bertrand Goldberg Prentice Hospital is expected to be a flashpoint for the commission in the coming months.
Turnover among the commission’s membership comes as architect Eleanor Gorski takes over the top preservation role within city government.
In a statement, Emanuel spokesman Tom Alexander wrote, “The appointments by Mayor Emanuel ensure that each member of the Landmarks Commission offers the commission a different point of view, with no two members representing the same discipline and all of the members speaking to part of the broad spectrum of challenges facing the Commission.” He added, “The new members offer diverse, valuable, and essential perspectives to the Commission, and the Commission is ready to weigh the important questions and decisions it will face going forward.”
But Ben Weese, principal at Weese Langley Weese and a 13-year Commission member before his replacement earlier this summer, said the group was no place for a “trainee.” “If you boiled it down, you do need people who understand what the issues are, with a commission that has to do with complex issues,” he said. That’s especially true, according to Weese, for the Permit Review Committee.
Houlihan, one of the new commissioners, told AN he’s been involved in landmark issues since the 1970s, when he worked on legislation designed to protect historic courthouses in Illinois, and more recently as Cook County assessor.
Asked if political considerations might have played a role in his selection—Houlihan endorsed Emanuel’s successful mayoral bid—the former assessor said he presumes he was chosen for the perspectives he will bring to the commission. Houlihan said he would try to balance preservation with new development considerations during his stint on the commission. “It takes a reasoned and measured approach so that the commission itself adds to the preservation and vitality of the city,” he said.
Jonathan Fine, head of Preservation Chicago, said the new commissioners should be welcomed. “My attitude is before we jump to conclusions, it’s important to let the new commissioners do their job,” he said.