Going in all directions

Kimra McPherson

The southernmost stretch of Orrington Avenue looks like something out of a movie set. The houses along the west side of the block sit are each painted a different pastel: mint, yellow, slate, cream.

Their porches face into the street with carved railings and matching trim. You might expect to find old folks chatting with their neighbors on a warm, summer Evanston evening in 1903.

This is less true across the street, home of the Foster-Walker Undergraduate Housing Complex, a 1972 dormitory with towers that stretch out from its center like legs off a gigantic brick spider. Persisent rumors aside, the building certainly looks like a prison compared with the stately single-family homes running parallel to it on the other side of the street. It’s ugly.

This is the Northeast Evanston Historic District, where political — if not architectural — history comes alive.

1. The majesty of brick and reinforced concrete

“I heard the architect purposely built it in a circle,” Stephanie Liu, a Weinberg junior and Foster-Walker resident said of her dorm. “You can just walk around and around and around and never get out.”

The Plex and its neighboring houses hardly look like they belong on the same street together, much less in the same historic district. But the inclusion of the Plex in the Northeast Evanston Historic District has caused a controversy which has symbolized the outcry over the district as a whole: When historic buildings are lumped in with recent structures, is the district still historic?

Of course it is, says Judy Fiske of the Northeast Evanston Historic District Association. She notes that Foster-Walker and other, more modern buildings that sit within district lines — for example, Blomquist Memorial Recreation Center and the Transportation Institute (the latter built 1999) — are listed as non-contributing structures within the district. And, in fact, the national historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places doesn’t include these non-contributing Northwestern properties at all.

“When we were first doing the National Register district, the state came up and set the boundaries,” Fiske says. “At the time they drew the boundaries, everyone agreed that the 1900 and 2000 blocks of Sheridan Road (consisting mostly of department houses including the Weinberg College Office of Studies) should be included.”

But because the state could not jump over parking lots and concrete institutional buildings — like Plex and Blomquist gymnasium — to capture the historic houses around them, the houses were left off the National Register, Fiske says.

When it came time to draw the boundaries for the local historic district, Fiske says association members planned to add in the “discontiguous properties” they could not include in the national district. But they soon found they could not cut across NU tax parcels, and all of the included university property was placed under the regulations of the historic district, limiting the university’s ability to change the properties.

“We can’t draw the lines,” Fiske says. “We’ve got to include Foster-Walker in the 1900 block there because we can’t cut it out. We can’t draw an arbitrary line in the middle of that tax parcel.”

From there, things get political. Fiske says her organization asked NU to draw a property line that would cut out Plex and the other modern buildings. The university then sued the city, saying the ordinance establishing the district unfairly governed the use of more than 40 university properties.

“No supporters ever asked us to redraw the boundaries for any reason,” says Eugene Sunshine, NU’s vice president for business and finance. “We wish they had asked us to propose changes because then we could have perhaps reached some kind of compromise.”

Despite the controversy, Fiske says the dorm doesn’t compromise the district’s integrity of the district.

“The building is nice and fits in well on Orrington Avenue,” she says. “While it’s certainly not a single-family home, it fits in a lot better than a high-rise dormitory would.”

But David Cherry, one of the leaders of the opposition group Evanstonians for Responsible Preservation, says the inclusion of modern buildings doesn’t stop at Foster-Walker.

“(A historic district) is like going to Williamsburg, and they’re all there in Williamsburg garb and you say, ‘Oh, that’s the world of 1790,'” Cherry says. But Evanston’s district — created “to preserve the transition from the 1890s to the 1950s,” he says with a scoff — falls short of establishing that sort of cohesive atmosphere.

“As an urban historian, that one leaves me cold,” he says. “As someone who grew up here, I don’t see the theme.”

2. Up Sherman

Walking one block west of the Plex and heading north along Sherman Avenue leaves much of the controversy behind.

Cherry acknowledges that much of the district is the world of the 1890s, and many of the houses along Sherman Avenue whisk the neighborhood back to that era. Each of the houses lining the road has its own quirk: big bay windows, fancy trellises, brownstone-style steps and wide porches.

Melinda Snider and her family own one of the home along the block, a white house with round windows framing the porch, built in 1895.

“When we went looking for houses, we knew we wanted an older house with some history,” Snider says. “I’m a big proponent of preserving history and what this town used to be.”

Snider says she understands NU’s unwillingness to have university properties regulated by the district. But she supported the district because she didn’t want to see physical representations of the area’s history destroyed. In fact, before the historic district was implemented, Snider’s own house was altered when a previous owner added aluminum siding — “which I never would have done,” she says — to make the house more modern.

In a designated historic district, changes like adding siding, swapping old windows for new or changing the design of a porch are much more difficult to make. Any planned alterations visible from the outside of the building must be proposed to and approved by Evanston’s Planning Commission.

Snider says this portion of the ordinance doesn’t worry her: She wasn’t planning on making any major changes to the home, and any project she did decide to take on would aim to restore the house to its original look.

“People get so extreme,” she says. “They get so black-and-white. ‘Oh, you’re going to have to ask permission to change your windows.’ City Council doesn’t have time for that.”

Other residents within the district took issue with that statement. Kim Yee, an Orrington Avenue homeowner currently refurbishing her historic house, says the council most definitely has the time.

“(The process) is quite elaborate,” Yee says. When she decided to fix up her home, she hired an architect to make drawings of the house to demonstrate that the changes would keep with the original structure. She then took the drawings to the eight-member Preservation Commission — a board of architects, urban planners and others with a knowledge of building history or design — for approval to follow through with her plans.

Despite the hassle, Yee, a supporter of the historic district, says the commission’s review will help ensure that the character of the area stays constant.

“The result is a house that hopefully will look a little more in keeping with the times,” Yee says.

Not every change has to be reviewed, says Carlos Ruiz, Evanston’s senior planner and preservation coordinator. But things beyond routine maintenance or painting generally do require obtaining an appropriateness certificate.

Even seemingly small changes like replacing windows could come under review, Ruiz says. Changing from windows that slide open vertically to windows that crank open outwards, for example, could change the overall look of a home.

“If replacement is necessary, it should be in kind so you don’t change the character of a building,” Ruiz says. Anything visible from the exterior of a house, be it a new roof
or a new door, a fence or a railing, should maintain the character of the home.

Even the non-contributing structures within the district are subject to the same standards of review, Ruiz says — so a building like Blomquist would have to bring any plans for major alterations to the commission, though the standards would likely not be so strictly applied.

“You may have a modern house between two historic homes, and the expectation is not to make the house historic,” Ruiz says. “There is more flexibility with what can be done or what cannot be done, keeping in mind that you still want to maintain the integrity of the house.”

3. North of Lincoln: No Alderman’s Land

A few blocks up Sherman, Lincoln Street serves as the district’s cutoff. Up here, the story isn’t the mix of houses in the district. It’s the number of old wood-frame houses and stone mansions left out.

When the historic district was first proposed, the boundary followed Ridge Avenue north to the city limits. But many residents north of Lincoln protested, taking issue with a clause in the historic district regulations that allows homeowners who spend 25 percent of the market value of their houses on repairs to take a property tax freeze for several years while they refurbish their homes in accordance with the preservation commission guidelines, Cherry says.

This posed two problems for many members of the ERP, Cherry says: First, residents were worried they would be restricted from tearing down all or part of their dilapidated — yet “historic” — homes because of commission regulations. And second, nobody wanted to pay extra property taxes while their neighbors took a freeze to re-shingle the roof.

“And then I go and sell the house after I’ve improved it,” Cherry says. “Wow, what a deal. That’s a business.”

The ERP fought the historic district designation, Cherry says, chalking much of the battle up to politics and posturing within the Evanston City Council.

“God, you can’t even tell the players with the scorecard here,” he says. “You don’t even know what game they’re playing.”

And in the end, the boundaries were redrawn to exclude properties north of Lincoln.

“(Residents) wanted the ability to do what they wanted with their investments,” Cherry says, especially in the case of ’40s and ’50s houses that were run-down and not congruous with the remainder of the district.

“Anything can be historified,” he adds. “But to put it into a legal covenant, you better have good reason.”

4. From Kendall south: more brick, metal and glass

As with Foster-Walker in the south, the Kendall College building at the north end of the district seems out of place amid all the history of the area, a several-story mass of metal and glass capping a line of historic single-family homes. The school’s courtyard is a far cry from the houses’ manicured lawns and the building’s narrow, institutional windows can’t measure up to the wide panes of glass peering out from neighboring homes.

Outside, four Kendell seniors say they knew many of the nearby houses were historic but had no idea but had no idea that their school was included in the district.

“Well,” says one, puffing on his cigarette and looking up at the boxy building around him. “It does smell old.”

Facing south on the corner of Lincol and Sherman, the district ends much as it began. Rows of turn-of-the-century houses sit bracketed by Kendall and Plex, institutional facilities incongruous with the stately mansions in between.

Confusion over the district’s aims has only gotten more muddled since its creation. On Nov. 20, 2000, NU filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming Evanston had violated NU’s 14th Amendment rights to due process.

NU questioned the inclusion of Plex and Blomquist in the district and called the district “arbitrary, capricious and irrational.” The suit asks the court to invalidate the historic district but does not seek damages.

According to the Evanston Preservation Committee’s March 6, 2000, report, the variety of styles included in the district only increases its value.

But with turn-of-the-century structutres battling modern monstrosities for attention, the district’s greatest value might be its emphatic reflection not of Evanston’s past, but of its recent history instead. nyou