“When I started out, preservationists were really seen as freaks,” said Jim Peters, FAICP, instructor in the Historic Preservation graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
As Peters, tells it, he didn’t “catch the preservation bug” until he began working through happenstance on a historic resource survey in his hometown of Indianapolis. He had an undergraduate architecture degree, but had been working at a newspaper.
“This was in the mid-1970s, right after the [federal Rehabilitation] Tax Act. It was a really inspirational time to be in the field, and there was that first big rush of surveys…I basically survived off of surveys for a few years.”
Peters saw preservation as a natural career path when he realized how well it combined his various interests and skills – architecture, history, community development, and writing – and soon earned a Master’s degree in Urban Planning with a concentration in Historic Preservation from the University of Illinois. Peters was particularly inspired by an instructor in the program, Lachlan Blair, who had pioneered the use of economic incentives as a preservation tool.
“As you often find,” Peters said, “the connections and mentors you find in graduate school are critical to your life and will not go away.” Through Blair, Peters got a position with the American Planning Association in Chicago after graduation. Drawing on his prior stint in journalism, Peters was an editor for the organization’s monthly magazine, Planning.
“I was out of the preservation field briefly, but looking back, I gained a lot of skills that contributed to my preservation work later,” Peters recalled. “Nobody on the outside really understands this, but preservation is a great generalist career. Yes, you need passion for architecture and history, but you also need a number of skills to be successful.”
When Peters returned to preservation, it was as a consultant and later as a planner and Deputy Commissioner for the City of Chicago. He entered the landmarks division just as the Chicago Historic Resource Survey (CHRS) came to a close, and he and his team published the survey findings in his first year. Peters was also adamant that the finished survey, which documented over 500,000 buildings in 77 community areas, should be distributed to each of the city’s aldermen.
“You need to know how to work with people,” Peters said. “We figured if every alderman knows what’s in his or her ward, it could become a point of pride so they might be more open to us designating landmarks and give us their support.” Twenty years later, the publication of the CHRS is still one of Peters’ proudest professional accomplishments.
Peters worked in the city’s Department of Planning and Development for 11 years, and during that time, he participated in landmark designation and assisted in the creation of economic tools for preservation such as the Cook County Class L Property Tax Incentive and the East Loop Tax Increment Financing district. Much of the preservation-related development which has occurred in Chicago in the last 20 years has hinged on these incentives.
Following his time at the city, Peters joined the staff of Landmarks Illinois, a statewide-non-profit preservation advocacy organization in which he had been active, and he also remained in this role for 11 years. Over the past five years, Peters has focused on teaching and consulting. One of his most recent consulting projects was researching the industrial history of the Bloomingdale Trail for interpretation on The 606, one of the city’s newest and most popular pieces of public land. He has also contributed to a World Heritage nomination for the Midwest’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed sites, and the Society of Architectural Historians’ 100 Most Significant Buildings in Illinois. Peters has also remained very active in the American Planning Association, and was recently named a Fellow of the APA’s Institute of Certified Planners. He also serves as the organization’s national Ethics Officer.
Peters began teaching in SAIC’s Historic Preservation program in 2000. In his Preservation Planning Studio course, Peters developed the Suburban Cook County Recent Past Survey, which has been undertaken annually by SAIC students. The survey looks specifically at commercial or institutional resources constructed between 1930 and 1970, resources which Peters and other field practitioners feel are under-appreciated and therefore prone to demolition. The survey was developed well before the Mid-Century Modern Movement began, and is one of few that is run entirely by students.
Although Peters took time away from the classroom when he was named President of Landmarks Illinois, he has since returned to SAIC to teach the first-year Preservation Planning course. He also teaches a similar preservation elective to graduate students in the Urban Planning department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Through his many occupational experiences, Chicago has been a constant in Peters’ professional life. While he is quick to echo others’ statements about the city’s rich architectural stock, Peters also values the city’s toughness.
“This is a city with an incredible architectural heritage, but it’s also a very real place in terms of dealing with challenges. Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Charleston – those cities have a lot more of a culture of ‘Of course we’ll save it.’ The lessons you get out of Chicago are more applicable in a broad sense than those you get out of other cities…You really have to prove it. You learn how preservation actually gets done.”
Story by Monica Giacomucci (MSHP, 2015)