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Photographer's work may soon be all that's left of buildings

By Jamie Francisco
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 12, 2005

Shadows move across the facade of the Queen Anne-style three-flat with peeling gray paint on West Roscoe Street in the Lakeview neighborhood.

It isn't the best light, but freelance photographer Brian Palm readies his large-format camera across the street and takes a picture. Experience has taught him that there isn't time to wait for sunshine.

"I've made the mistake of postponing for a better day--and then they'd be gone," he said.

Palm's photographs could be the final records of buildings that once gave character to Chicago neighborhoods. Many of these buildings are being torn down, mostly to make room for condominiums.

Palm is the latest in a line of Chicago photographers including Richard Nickel and Bob Thall who have documented historic buildings as part of an effort to preserve the city's architectural heritage.

Palm focuses on buildings that are scheduled to be torn down but are under review by the city for up to 90 days to determine if they are worth preserving because of historic value. In January 2003, the Chicago City Council decided to put the brakes on the rapid destruction of old buildings by requiring the Department of Planning and Development to assess the historical import of buildings destined to meet the wrecking ball.

Even with the additional 90 days for review, most of the buildings photographed by Palm will not be saved.

"He is photographing things that won't be seen again," said Jim Peters, development director for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. "He's documenting the lost history of Chicago."

The project began after Palm contacted Peters to ask if they needed help taking pictures of historic buildings. The organization couldn't afford to pay him, but Palm was intrigued and agreed to take the pictures for free after he was told about the new law that delays demolition.

"Some of [the buildings] are really interesting, and it's a shame," he said, after shooting photos of the Roscoe Street three-flat's detailed cornices, which have weathered with time. "You look at them, and you wonder why anyone would tear them down."

A portfolio of Palm's project is on his Web site, The 41 black-and-white photos feature mostly residential properties throughout Chicago, including solid brick two-flats and three-flats and Queen Anne-style single-family homes.

Palm earns his living taking architectural photos of commercial real estate, but he spends his spare time taking pictures of the buildings on the 90-day list. Palm, 28, grew up in a brick two-flat on the North Side, an experience that sparked his love of historical architecture. Many of the buildings he has photographed have since been demolished, he said."A lot of times when I'm shooting these things, it's like the death watch," Palm said.

The architecture that once defined Chicago's neighborhoods is disappearing to make way for cookie-cutter condominiums, said Johnathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago. For example, the Queen Anne-style three-flat on West Roscoe Street reflects a period when Lakeview was populated by blue-collar workers instead of young, upscale professionals, he said.

"What's sad about the destruction of buildings like 902 W. Roscoe St. is they really tell the story of what Lakeview was like 100 years ago," Fine said. "It wasn't a bastion of millionaires and entrepreneurs. It was a working-class neighborhood."

Buildings on the city's 90-day-demolition list are often "orphan landmarks," the final holdouts of certain types of architecture in redevelopment areas, Fine said. Although these buildings may be an example of housing that once made city neighborhoods unique, as individual structures they do not have enough cachet for most property owners to preserve them when developers are offering large sums to buy their land, Fine said.

In 1995, the city released its Chicago Historic Resources Survey, a catalog of more than 17,000 buildings citywide that included a color-coded system indicating a building's historical significance. The system ranges from "Blue," which includes buildings constructed after 1940 that are too recent to be considered historically significant, to "Red," the highest rank, which includes buildings with architectural features or historical ties that make them significant within the city, state or country.

Palm often takes photos of structures that are classified "Orange," meaning they are potentially historically significant. He has lugged his large-format camera all over the city to take pictures of buildings in various conditions, from complete disrepair to newly rehabbed structures.Palm said he is saddened to see buildings disappear that he, his wife and two children would love to call home. "I see people throwing away buildings that I would die to have," Palm said.

He studied photography at Columbia College in Chicago after a stint in the Coast Guard. He was drawn to architectural photography after witnessing preservationists trying to save some of his favorite Chicago buildings, including the Uptown Theater and the now-demolished Mercantile Exchange Building.

So far, Palm's efforts have saved at least one building, a Queen Anne-style house in the 4600 block of North Paulina Street. Palm's photographs give preservationists a tangible picture they can present when they argue why a building should be saved, said Peters of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois.

"He's able to communicate how great some of these buildings are," Peters said. "It's not just an address on a page, or a snapshot on an assessor's Web site. He's really showing the building."

The scope of Palm's project follows the tradition of Chicago architectural photographers such as Nickel and Thall, who is chair of Columbia College's photography department, said Richard Cahan, author of "They All Fall Down," a book chronicling Nickel's efforts to save architecturally significant buildings and ornamentation.

Nickel was an ardent preservationist who disappeared on April 13, 1972. His body was found a month later in the wreckage of the old Chicago Stock Exchange building, part of which had collapsed on him.

Nickel began taking architectural photographs in the late 1950s. In 1960, he picketed in front of the Garrick Theater to protest its demolition and sparked an interest in saving the city's historical buildings, a movement that continues today, Cahan said.

Noting Palm's use of a large-format camera--the negatives are 4 inches by 5 inches--Cahan said Palm can capture the details of old buildings in a way a smaller camera can't.

"He's adding to our knowledge of the city that we're slowly tearing down," Cahan said. "I think that anyone who does it in a serious manner really gives us a legacy."

When Palm catches a building before it is demolished, it gives him a sense of peace, he said. When he doesn't do so, that's another story.

"That's what hurts the most, when I'm too late," Palm said. "Then I kick myself for not turning to it earlier."

1,188 Posts
It's very sad but true. I used to live at 903 W. Roscoe, right across the street from the Lakeview building in the article. It also was a beautiful old wood framed structure, the kind you see so few of in Chicago. I lived in the garden apt. before being forced to move out because the landlord who lived above me decided to retire after being offered a ton of money for the building. It was then torn down to make way for a brand new condo building.

242 Posts
^Well, if you tear down a 2 1/2 story building and replace it with a 3 1/2 or even 4 1/2 story building (which is definitely being done in Lakeview), you have more space to sell on the same plot of land. Plus, you can more easily add the modern amenities that command the highest prices from today's condo buyers: in-unit W/D, 2 baths, larger bedrooms, more closets, etc. It all adds up to more profit for the developer. That's the motivation behind these tear downs.
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