Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Mies’s Gotham

“We were given access to these great modernist floors and we felt that era of architecture was better suited for what we were trying to convey emotionally.”

Nathan Crowley, production designer for The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan’s 2005 rebooting of the Batman movie franchise Batman Begins is set in the fictional “Gotham City” which is based on a dystopian vision of modern-day Chicago. The set design features a futuristic version of the famous elevated train and Holabird and Root’s 1930 Board of Trade Building re-imagined as the headquarters of “Wayne Enterprises.”

For the next installment of the series, 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley once again based Gotham’s look on “the city of big shoulders.” This time, instead of creating a highly stylized fantasy version of Chicago they decided to focus on the “second Chicago School” era of the city’s architecture which they felt best represented the “cold and vacant” feel of the world that the movie’s characters inhabit. Although many older and more recent Chicago landmarks play major parts in the movie (Old Post Office, McCormick Place, Navy Pier, the unfinished Trump Tower and the actual implosion of the Brach’s Candy Factory, portrayed as a hospital destroyed by the villainous Joker) the majority of the on location interior scenes take place in buildings designed by the late modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Mies’s posthumous IBM Building (1971) is the setting for multiple scenes serving as the lobby and office of the District Attorney, the office of the mayor and the police commissioner’s office.

Designed by Mies’s former student Jaques Brownson of C.F. Murphy and Associates, the Richard J. Daley Center (1965) serves as the exterior of Bruce Wayne’s corporate headquarters (Wayne Tower), while the IBM building once again is used for the interior scenes, particularly the board room of Wayne Enterprises. The difference between the two buildings used for these scenes can be seen in the closely spaced, Travertine clad perimeter columns and normal ceiling height of the board room when compared to the Daley Center, which is known for its 87 foot wide structural bays and super-tall floors that allows a building of only 31 stories to reach a height of 648 feet as well as its self – weathering Cor-Ten structural material. For reference, our XeroxTower in downtown Rochester, an office building of 30 stories, is “only” about 450 feet tall and is a typical example of the 12-15 foot average floor height found in most skyscrapers.

To create Bruce Wayne’s luxurious and isolated penthouse apartment in downtown Gotham CityOne Illinois Center (1970), the production team shot scenes in the lobby of another posthumously finished Mies building. The lobby features massive core walls/elevator banks sheathed in Mies’s favored Travertine and his famous “striped” base columns, similar in style to the Seagram Building’s, surrounded by tall glass windows.

The outside of the lobby was wrapped in “green screens” allowing the visual - effects staff to insert views from the 39th floor penthouse suite of Milton M. Schwartz & Associates’ Hotel at 71 East Wacker Drive, completed in 1960 and situated across the river from Bertrand Goldberg’s legendary complex built between 1959 and 1967, Marina City, which is seen in the background throughout the movie. The exterior shots of Wayne’s apartment resemble a one story Miesian house placed on top of a bright aluminum and blue tinted ribbon - window tower of contrasting design. This clashing of styles is similar to the visual effect of the new penthouse apartments being grafted on to the roofs of old loft buildings in New York City’s Tribeca and SOHO neighborhoods and, to a smaller degree, in Rochester.

If the (hopefully older) children in your family drag you to this highly engaging and violent summer blockbuster but you have no interest in superheroes, or the homicidal clowns they battle, you can at least keep yourself entertained playing building spotter!

I myself missed some dialogue because I was too busy trying to guess which Chicago building the scene was shot in. Enjoy!

Posted by Dan Palmer, Landmark Society volunteer and member of the Recent Past Committee


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Save Energy, Save Money - Save Your Windows!

Have you heard the myth about windows - that one of the best ways to improve your house's energy efficiency is by replacing old wood windows with high-tech new ones? We hear it all the time, and it drives us nuts, because we know that in most cases it is just that - a myth. We know that new replacement windows take so long to repay the investment that they wear out before homeowners ever see the savings on their energy bills. We know that the materials these windows are made from, like vinyl, are environmentally damaging to produce. We know that old-growth wood is one of the best materials out there, and that to send it to the landfill is not sustainability, it's waste.

But it's hard to get that message out when there's a lot more money to be made persuading homeowners to buy new windows than encouraging them to keep existing ones.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has produced an excellent new fact sheet that succinctly lays out the case for keeping old windows as a way to save energy and money. I can attest to that - when I bought my house six years ago, the windows either didn't open at all, flew up by themselves, or were so difficult to open as to be nearly non-functional. For the price of about three replacement windows, I had all 12 of the double-hung windows in my house repaired by old-house expert Steve Jordan. In doing so I kept what preservation architect John Bero calls "the best windows you can get" - old-growth wood windows with good-quality storms. I also kept my house's original design intent intact, saved a ton of money, and kept 12 high-quality wood windows out of the trash.

In addition to the National Trust's pamphlet, take a look at Rehab Rochester, our "owner's manual" for historic houses, which includes sections on window repair as well as many other common maintenance issues old-house owners (or any homeowner, for that matter) face.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator


Monday, July 21, 2008

New Fountains Downtown

Who says there's nothing new to see in downtown Rochester? Well, for those people who like to explore downtown on their lunch hour, during an evening stroll or on a weekend visit - you can now see the new fountains at Manhattan Square Park, next to the Strong National Museum of Play and a stone's throw from East Avenue. Here, in the newly renovated & redesigned former ice skating rink, the City of Rochester has added a warm weather feature: four fountain jets shooting sprays of water several stories into the air. Now that the ice in the rink has melted, the rink itsself serves as a lovely basin and reflecting pool for the new fountains. Anyone taking a stroll in the East Avenue/Broadway/Manhattan Square area during their lunch now has a wonderful, relaxing and picturesque site to visit that features the restful sound of splashing water and a great spot to spend some "down time" during the middle of the day. In addition to the attractive new design of the pool area, there is a terrific and unusual view of the Midtown/E. Broad St. skyline with some of the city's most interesting mid-20th skyscrapers as a backdrop. You'll feel like you're in a much larger city, such as New York or Chicago (which has it's own signature water feature: Millenium Fountain in the park of the same name). And, as an added bonus to visitors walking to the park via Broadway, be sure to notice the OTHER new fountain that's recently been added to the streetscape nearby : the brick fountain and splash pool directly in front of The Inn on Broadway at 26 Broadway (opposite Christ Church/behind Channel 10 News Building). A vastly smaller version of the fountain jets in Manhattan Square, this new pedestrian-scale fountain is directly adjacent to the public sidewalk and is a welcome addition to the former University Club property with its handsome 1920s Colonial Revival-style building. On-street parking is readily available for both fountain sites. After several failed attempts to create similar "fountain jet"-style public fountains downtown, these two new fountains are a welcome addition to our central business district. And just in time for warm weather visitors to enjoy them!

posted by Cynthia Howk, Architectural Research Coordinator (and a frequent lunchtime stroller in the central business district)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A River Runs Through It

Though the vast majority of my life has been spent in upstate NY (the Binghamton area) the majority of my adult and, before The Landmark Society, the entirety of my professional life was spent in the Austin area of the Republic of Texas. In Texas seven years of living together equals a common law marriage so I like to think that my seven years of living in Texas has made me a common law Texan. In Texas two prominent cities fairly close to one another - Austin and San Antonio - each have a river running either through the middle of the city. Sound familiar? Yes indeed, Rochester has a river running through it as well. Just in the short time that I have lived here it seems that many people forget this fact until they drive over one of the bridges, and even then the thoughts are momentary.

Since being in Rochester I have heard people talking about capitalizing on the river, making it more of a focal point for the city, more of an attraction...like the River Walk in San Antonio. When I hear people talking about a renewed focus on the river I silently cheer. When I hear the desired model for development is San Antonio I cringe.

It is true, the River Walk is a big tourist attraction and attracts a lot of tourist dollars but lets not be taken in by the flash and the hype and the tourists, let's take a closer look. San Antonio's economy is based on two things - tourism and the military. Because of this economic base the majority of jobs are in the service industry, minimum wage plus tips. Right now the military is big business (but we won't get into that). But how successful is tourism right now? With a recession approaching budgets are being slashed - both business and personal - tourism is an ephemeral business and one certain to be impacted by the current economic climate. The primary users of the River Walk won't be showing up in the same numbers this year. And, because it is a tourist destination, most people go once, maybe twice, but are not frequent users of the River Walk. Certainly it is not a place where the locals hang out.

Drive about 60 miles up IH35 and you are in Austin, with the Colorado River greenbelt. A hydroelectric damn to the northwest has slowed the river's pace in Austin where it is known as Town Lake. Rather than being utilized as a tourist attraction the area is more akin to Central Park in NYC. It is a bright green oasis in the middle of the city. Zoning laws prohibit development within a certain distance of the river so aside from the 1920's, Art Deco, Seaholm Power Plant, there are no buildings along the banks. But there are very active hike and bike trails, canoe rental stands, soccer fields, baseball fields, disc golf courses, gazebos, picnic benches, panoramic views to and from downtown, playgrounds, the Zilker Zephyr children's train and many little nooks and crannies perfect for fishing, reading, napping, you name it. Unless there is a good-old Texas thunderstorm going on these amenities are packed...and they are packed with Austinites, not tourists. Don't get me wrong, there are tourists, too, especially when Zilker Park is over run by the Austin City Limits Music Festival. But the river is being utilized as a resource and amenity for the area residents, something to be used and appreciated every day. Not as a tourist trap with $10 pints of Bud Light and $20 hamburgers.

This would be my chosen model for river development/redevelopment. Why don't I see canoes on the Genesee at Corn Hill Landing every day in the summer? Hike and bike trails that are enveloped in green space as often as possible and not in a sea of concrete. If we use the Genesee as a recreational amenity that will attract new residents than we have given it its highest and best use. If we slap some lipstick on it with over priced, kitschy restaurants and t-shirt stands how long will those businesses last? If we can extend the beauty of Turning Point Park into the rest of the city, turn it into a frequently used recreational area, then restaurants and shops will organically occur to service the users, just as they have in Austin.

I guess that is it in a nutshell...an organic use/reuse of the river rather than an inorganic use.

No, I'm not opinionated at all.

Please note, I am not trying to disparage the River Walk at all, I had many good times there. It is simply a difference in planning philosophy. If Rochester focuses on becoming a place that people really want to live than it will naturally be a place that people also want to visit.

posted by Rebecca Rowe, Preservation Program Coordinator for The Landmark Society

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A 3-year-old's take on Midtown

Now that Laura’s raised the fascinating topic of Midtown (see below), I can’t help sharing my own son’s observations when he heard last winter that the complex could be demolished. He was almost four at the time, and, being subjected to car rides with me on a daily basis, he is pretty adept at noticing and commenting on his surroundings. But his indignant reaction to the idea that Midtown could be demolished took my breath away, because he had never heard me mention this particular project and had no idea what I thought about it. Fortunately I had a pencil and paper right on hand, so almost as soon as he started his commentary I started writing:

"It's a very nice building, because it has lots of fancy lights and everything. Do they have a skyway? They shouldn't tear it down because people need to get in the skyway... That's not very nice to do, because people might want to keep going there. Will they move the train to a different one? It's very hard to tear buildings down, so they can't just tear buildings down. They can't."

Fortunately, he didn’t ask what would happen to Santa…

By the way, if you're interested in following Midtown news, check out the City of Rochester's new website devoted to the project.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Advocacy Coordinator, with the assistance of Benjamin, now age 4


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Speaking of Mansard roofs...

I just can not start a sentence with that line enough.

Okay, this is the first time I have started a sentence like that. A recent line heard our car was, "I wish you liked Mansard roofs as much as I do," from my husband bemoaning the fact that I prefer the Times Square Building to the Powers Building...but I digress.

It was a warm summer day a few weeks ago as Cynthia was touring the Preservation Division and our interns around Corn Hill. We were on Plymouth looking at some beautiful homes, fortunate to escape the DOT and Urban Renewal wrecking ball, and commenting on Second Empire style and Mansard roofs.

"Speaking of Mansard roofs," I said to no one in particular, "Did anyone watch Psycho on tv last night?" No one had. A shame.

It got me to thinking, though, about popular culture and my internal filter as a preservationist. Now, I'm not talking about overt connections, like the subject of Katie's recent article in The Landmark Society Summer Special newsletter, where architecture or historic preservation are the theme, but more how their appearance in general films, etc. piques me interest.

Psycho is a perfect example. Beautiful old "mansion" where a homicidal woman "lives" with her son. Have you ever noticed the woodwork in the house? The railings on the stairway down to the basement? The roadside architecture of the motel itself, built before the highway diverted traffic from the country roads.

Have you ever seen Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte? What a great house. I can't possibly be the only person ever to watch it thinking, "This is exactly why we have Section 106 review now, to keep these kinds of resources from being lost to highway projects." I wished that Charlotte had found some other way to kill her scheming cousin than pushing the urn onto her from the second floor balcony. Don't take it out on the house!

And Stephen King movies! Rose Red was a good story turned into a really crappy movie but who can resist a ghost story in a mansion? Not me. I watch it just for the architecture. You might not know it, considering the movies that I've listed so far, but I don't really like scary movies - but I love Ghost Ship, just for the ship. It is as if the Titanic hadn't sank but was merely haunted. Its also the closest I am likely to ever get to that kind of floating opulence.

Even modern comedies have their place in this discussion. Two ridiculous guilty pleasures - Old School and Saving Silverman - feature stunning historic craftsman style homes for the main characters. The directors are choosing these sites for the films because these houses have so much more life and style to them then suburbia. I am probably the only person to watch Old School just for the fireplace and mantle.

Casablanca for the staircase leading up to Rick's office, The Orient Express for...well...for the Orient Express, The Quiet Man for the little Irish cottages.

Yes, Laura, I am a preservation dork.

posted by Rebecca Rowe, Preservation Program Coordinator for The Landmark Society and old movie buff

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Bittersweet memories and the preservation of art

Midtown Plaza. The mere mention of those two words in this city tend to generate an immediate outpouring of opinion. This isn’t an op-ed piece on whether or not I think it should or shouldn’t be torn down. This is about memories and preserving what we can....and there are some pretty spiffy photos down below too for you to enjoy.

As with most native Rochesterians, I have many memories of Midtown. This past Sunday, all these memories and more came flooding back as I stood in the cavernous courtyard of a near-empty Midtown Plaza. The fountains were dry and the escalators still. The flags of the nations still adorned the mezzanine level , displaying their colors for no one. The monorail cars sat abandoned on their tracks, no more full of the squeals of delight from the children riders. The only evidence of the grand clock was a shaded imprint on the tile floor of where it once stood.

Flashback: sweet recollections of holding my grandmother’s delicate gloved hand as we made our way through the splendor of B. Forman’s...having our traditional nosh at the lunch counter (where I could get a milkshake if I liked) ... strolling through the grandeur of Midtown Plaza to the glorious Clock of Nations, where I saw the world come to life through dance and costume from lands I one day hoped to see firsthand.

I was there last Sunday to photograph the removal of a massive ceramic mural (see slideshow of photos below). The mural – displayed on the mezzanine level since shortly after the plaza opened – is made up of over 200 individually mounted ceramic pieces. It’s one of those public art works that may have gone unnoticed, located above the eye level of the crowds that once frequented the mall. In fact, from my viewpoint as a child I thought it was wood, fashioned like the driftwood sculptures I used to make from of findings at Lake Ontario.

To remove the mural was no small feat. A dedicated group of volunteers took turns on a huge lift, helping to steady each piece so could Peter Monacelli could wield a giant electrical saw (I’m sure it has a better name than “giant electrical saw” but whatever) and cut through the metal posts mounting each to the wall. Each piece was carefully handed down to another group who vacuumed up years of accumulated dust bunnies and then marked the back of piece to keep them in order.

The pieces will be stored at Rochester Contemporary Arts Center (RoCo) until a permanent home can be found where the mural can be reinstalled in its original form. (How sweet is that action? Three cheers for RoCo!)

I snapped a few photos of the mural removal, and then my attention was diverted by the many architectural wonders of Midtown. Just think – it was the FIRST INDOOR MALL in the nation! Not many things can brag about being the first. Camera in hand, I went exploring. Even better, I gave my son a camera too. I wanted to see Midtown through his eyes.

The unique angles, reflective surfaces and skylights made for some definite fun. We snapped away. The lighting was wonky – sun streamed through the ceiling slats, creating shadows not very well handled with the little point-and-shoot cameras we were armed with, however we captured some semi-decent shots.

My son asked if we could come back sometime with my professional equipment and take some “really cool photos of all the cool stuff in the mall.”
No, we can’t, kiddo. I’m sorry. It’s going to be torn down. A new building will be here in a few years. He was horrified....“but this is history, Mom.”

I explained about the steady decline of Midtown, about suburbs and malls, white flight and the impact on downtown. I also explained about the importance of revitalizing the area where Midtown stands, and the jobs it will create, the influx of all things positive for a downtown that desperately needs a shot in the arm.

His response was something pretty insightful ... about how that’s all good stuff but doesn’t his generation deserve to know the history of it all?

As we left, he thanked me sincerely for taking him to see it – more than just the normal grunt of acknowledgment for a teenager. I asked him his thoughts. His answer? “Because it was a part of your history that I got to see now, Mom. When things go away, we always have our memories, and now I have a memory of Midtown too...”

Kind of sums it all up, doesn’t it? Glad to see progress, revitalization and jobs; sad to see it destroyed. Either way, the magic and vision will live on in the memories, and we have some new ones made just this weekend.

Here's a slideshow of the process of dismantling the mural:

And here's a slideshow of scenes of an empty Midtown Plaza:

(All photos copyrighted, so if you want to use any of these photos, please send me an email.)

Posted by Laura Keeney Zavala, Director of Marketing