Historical Preservation In The Color Grey : Lunch Talks @ CAF

What’s your home’s story? Or your neighborhood’s?

On January 9th, Lunch Talks @ CAF (Chicago Architecture Foundation), held a talk titled “Historic Preservation and Neighborhood Change.” This was a presentation of stories. Leading the talk was a lone Matt Cole, Project Coordinator of the Historic Greystone Initiative with Neighborhood Housing Services in Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing Services

For readers unfamiliar, greystones are typical masonry buildings clad with a limestone façade. They remain architecturally significant to the urban fabric of Chicago, and were mostly built between 1890-1920, following the Columbian Exposition and the “White City” ideal. However, greystones slowly lost favor to new housing types, such as the bungalow and cottage styles. Greystones are less a style of architecture and more a building type, as differing styles (eg. Romanesque, Neo-Classical) were adapted using greystone materials, mostly quarried from Indiana.

Matt Cole’s role in Chicago is very much tied to this historic building stock, one that is at once threatened by vacancies, physical deterioration, the City’s wrecking ball AND a loss of the traditional building knowledge required to adequately maintain these structures. (How many contractors do you know frequently point to limestone blocks as a part of their business model?).

Herein lies the danger: physical deterioration affects perception of place, as well as the fabric of the neighborhood.

NHS to the Rescue

Working extensively in the Lawndale neighborhood—a predominantly African-American neighborhood with an extensive stock of greystone buildings on Chicago’s southwest side—Cole and NHS must combat the negative associations made by outsiders and insiders alike about the neighborhood. In Chicago, drug-riddle, dangerous, and desolate are words conjured by the mere mention of Lawndale - but the reality is never so simple, or so negative.

Lawndale has a rich, often-unexpressed history, including waves of European immigration—including a substantial and active Jewish community in the early 20th century—as well as a pulsating, musically tinged black history. Yet this richness of past is shrouded by the negative. How can this be changed? According to Matt Cole, it’s simple: tell a story.

Getting the Word Out

Cole and NHS began by telling the greystones’ story, getting residents of Lawndale and other Chicago neighborhoods like it to understand why greystone history should be highlighted. Darting back and forth from block clubs to neighborhood association meetings and even to summits abroad (the country of Jordan, as Matt mentioned in his presentation), Cole and his team have told the story of Chicago’s greystones to more than 10,000 people. But why so much chatter for a building style?

“They are an infrastructure of memory,” suggests Matt. They tie neighborhoods to the past and present. They’ve been a part of the neighborhood fabric longer than any one individual or family, and they represent a way to have a conversation about the neighborhood: how it began, what it’s composed of, and where is it going. Greystones tell us stories. And thus, they can help residents tell their stories too.

Perhaps you’re still unconvinced as to how stories make change. Cole hopes that by getting residents to tell their stories, they will better connect to their neighborhood/communities and make repairs. This will create a positive feedback loop in which positive change begets positive change, one which residents can see unfold before them. Focusing on narrative, Cole believes, roots people into their homes and communities, making residents want to stay (e.g., move from being a renter to a buyer, as their financial situation changes).

Photo courtesy of Neighborhood Housing ServicesResults?

It appears to be working. Since 2006, even when hit by a severe economic crisis and even more abysmal housing market, NHS has helped more than 200 homeowners buy, keep, and/or fix their greystones, a more than $6 million financial investment. They’ve done this by providing people with the tools to own, repair, and renovate their greystones, connecting them with financiers, contractors, and specialists. NHS holds 16-20 workshops a year on topics related to greystone owning and maintenance.

Cole hopes this year to a launch a “What Is Your Greystone Story” initiative, sharing brighter stories from those who call a historic greystone their home. Additionally, he’d like to connect the database of 600 greystones situated along the Chicago Park and Boulevard System with that system, eventually creating a Chicago-wide repository.

As a resident of a greystone myself, I sympathize with Matt Cole’s mission. Greystone neighborhoods are some of the most attractive, appealing places to walk in Chicago. In fact, they engender Chicago. May the City retain its architectural greystone heritage, and may it be saved from dereliction and wrecking ball alike. We’re not all want to live in bungalows and high-rises.

This talk (below), and select past Lunch Talks @ CAF, can be viewed at architecture.org in their entirety.

Matt shared some general wisdom from a colleague, Michael Allen, a Saint Louis-based historical preservationist with the audience: “Buildings are collections of people.” Remember this the next time you walk past a typical masonry building with a limestone-clad façade in your neighborhood...because you’re one of those people.


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