Graduate Division: Grad Journal
Life After Restoration: Bethany Widick's study of the Chicago Athletic Association
Following her love of old buildings, Bethany Widick left her career in law to pursue her Master’s in Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Her education at the school would lead to a number of opportunities. A site visit to the Chicago Athletic Association (CAA) would lead to a fruitful thesis project, as well as an enduring relationship between the school and the Historic Preservation department.
Since its reopening, the Chicago Athletic Association has become an acclaimed example of architectural restoration, and a well-frequented hotel, restaurant and bar. It is precisely this positive transformation that interested Widick. While the building was the subject of her thesis, Widick has also written the history of building for the CAA, and was instrumental in developing a tour program, led by students from SAIC. In this interview, Widick spoke to the Grad Journal about the CAA, and its potential impact on preservation practices.
Amie Soudien: Do you find that your work in policy and law have impacted what you’re doing now?
Bethany Widick: Definitely! Some of the work I did before was regulatory compliance: making sure that banks follow the law, and figuring out what the law is. This same kind of thing figures in historic preservation. There’s a regulatory environment, you have to navigate it. All the skills translate, although it’s clearly different subject matter.
AS: Has that knowledge, in turn, impacted your thesis?
BW: A little bit. I tend to get sucked into public records. I was writing about it, and talking about how they declared bankruptcy, and my thesis advisor was like, “move on, nobody cares except for you!” My thesis is much more of a history. Telling the story of the building was important to me. It’s the part that I love. The buildings house the histories of the people, and that’s what’s interesting to me. What did people do in these spaces?
AS: How did you go about selecting the Chicago Athletic Association for your thesis?
BW: Last summer the department chair of Historic Preservation reached out to me to say that the CAA, because they had just opened, was looking to create a partnership with the school. They wanted somebody to write a tour. I took that on. I wrote a tour and then, at the time, they were interested in getting a history written of the building. I thought I could do my thesis on it. They really liked that idea. I also did an independent study in the fall to put together this documentation. I did a docent manual for more reference material.
I’m also putting together a booklet that they’re going to put in each room, that will be a very brief, shiny version of my thesis: an abridged history, what the CAA used to look like, the restoration and now. They will also have a copy of my thesis for their library. I also got the CAA established with the school to do student tours, with students from Historic Preservation and architecture, and they get a certificate. People have been giving tours all year.
AS: How did you go about assessing the reuse of the Athletic Association? You’ve spoken about the conversion from the club to a hotel and a restaurant.
BW: What is nice, is that the CAA was completed recently, and there is still work being done. It has been really successful from a public standpoint: it has a huge presence, and it’s always busy. They did everything the right way. They invested the money, and they did the restoration work in a really sensitive way. The developers were very thoughtful about the historic research. One of the arguments that people make against historic preservation and adaptive reuse is that you can’t make money from it, because it costs so much to retrofit the buildings, that it’s not profitable. What struck me is that it really does seem to be profitable. They won’t tell me their numbers, but they seem to be doing very well. It is a model of how wonderfully adaptive reuse can be done if people invest the money.
AS: You mentioned that you interviewed some key players in the building’s restoration. Could you elaborate on that process?
BW: I spoke with the lead architect Paul Alessandro. Cindy Rubick, from the city, she’s works on the permit review side. When any building or landmark is listed as architecturally or historically significant, it has to be reviewed by the city—so that’s her. She was the one that did all the work for the CAA. She was invaluable in talking about the ins and outs from the beginning: the structural problems the building had, the challenges of adding floors to building, for instance. They dealt with building codes which are difficult for historic buildings to meet.
AS: How do you hope your research, or some of the approaches you have developed, will help your career after graduation?
BW: I hope that this project will establish me as someone who can be an architectural historian, if that’s the direction that I want to go. When you can tell the story of the people and the building, it helps get people involved. That’s part of what makes historic preservation work—when you can engage people in telling a story. I hope this can show others—hopefully developers who are interested—that preservation can be done in the right way, whilst remaining profitable.