If you like old buildings, this decades-old gift keeps on giving

The Chicago Historical Resources Survey needs a refresh, but it’s still a first stop for anybody researching a property.

SHARE If you like old buildings, this decades-old gift keeps on giving
The cover of the Chicago Historical Resources Survey, published in 1996.

The cover of the Chicago Historical Resources Survey, published in 1996.

City of Chicago

It was back in 1983, around the start of the Harold Washington administration, that city officials began the fieldwork on a long-term project. They probably didn’t realize exactly what that meant.

In the cubicles of government work, “long-term” can mean just until the next election or until some controversy blows away. But this became a labor of love that involved many people for more than a decade. And in this season of counting our blessings, it’s worth noting that what they produced became an enduring gift for Chicagoans, especially anyone who has ever admired its architecture or just wondered about an old building in their neighborhood, maybe their own house.

It’s the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, unusual in its time. It involved eyeballing and categorizing every building on every block for its design or historic merit. In the days before Google Street View, that meant outfitting three staffers at a time with film cameras, four-block-by-four-block section maps of the city from the Zoning Department and lots of markers.

The staffers, some new to their professions, cruised the city and categorized buildings by a color-coding system still used today. In the early days, they piled into somebody’s Chevy Chevette, said Jim Peters, who worked in the city’s landmarks division for about a decade and today is a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “You made an initial judgment and colored in your choice on the maps. It was one place you could apply your training as a kindergartener and color within the lines,” Peters said.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Charles Pipal, who did the fieldwork in the 1990s, said the driver took the left side and the passenger the right side of the street, calling out observations to the person in the rear. “The conversations went something like this. ‘Green. Green. Yellow. Blue. Orange,’” he said. In the city’s scheme, “red” and “orange” buildings have the greatest significance and could not be torn down without a fight. Other colors denote buildings too altered for preservation purposes. “Blue” is for buildings mostly after World War II that are too new for consideration.

But the fieldwork, completed in 1995, was just part of the job. Staffers dug into building permits and other historical sources to verify or correct their street observations. They collected information about neighborhoods and architectural styles. In 1996, Peters and others were ready with a book that was distributed to libraries.

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Jim Peters, lecturer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

School of the Art Institute of Chicago

The end product included notations on more than 17,000 buildings — many with the architect, date of construction, the style and the historic use. The information was later digitized and can now be searched online.

Time has passed and many entries are out of date. But the survey remains an essential first stop for anyone seeking background about a property or a neighborhood with historical character. It also added to the knowledge base of planners at City Hall, which led to revisions in a nifty booklet called “Your House has a History.” It’s a guide to the library collections, neighborhood historical societies and other sources for information about old properties. The direct link to it seems to have vanished from the city’s website, but you’ll find the .pdf if you search for the title on Google.

The Chicago Historic Resources Survey is still available in print, but the group Preservation Chicago has posted it on its website. Be patient, though, because the file can take a long time to load.

Over the years, developers and their lawyers chafed at the city’s color ratings. Why, in their view, should they have to justify a demolition because somebody fresh out of school years ago called their building “orange?” The system was imperfect, but it recognized and prioritized civic assets. Other cities since have completed their own surveys.

“Many, many people contributed to this effort. The survey employed a lot of people early in their careers,” Peters said. He said the disciplines of urban planning and preservation “are not big money-making professions. The people doing this were invested in the outcome.”

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Charlie Pipal, adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

School of the Art Institute of Chicago

He said the information they compiled helped later landmarking movements, such as the protection enacted for downtown’s Michigan Boulevard streetwall, the typical postcard view of Chicago.

Pipal, an adjunct professor at the Art Institute’s school, said the city should start updating the old survey, particularly for those buildings once considered too new for proper evaluation. A city planning official said the agency has looked more at designating landmark areas by theme, such as the Old Town and Motor Row districts or the Boystown Legacy Walk.

Maybe there’s a federal grant available. Pipal said the original survey got help from money secured by former U.S. Rep. Sidney Yates. He said toward the end of the fieldwork, staffers were no longer in a Chevette. They got to use a Ford Taurus wagon from the city fleet. Those bureaucrats — always living high.

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