Roger Brown Study Collection: Historic Preservation
Preserving the RBSC at 1926: Playing House Museum
Built in 1888, the storefront at 1926 North Halsted Street (figs. 1, 2) was used variously as a tobacconist shop, a book bindery, a grocery and meat market, a confectionary, and later a plastics manufacturing outlet, all before becoming Roger Brown's home and studio in 1974. In 1996 Brown gave his seminal collection at 1926 to SAIC, when it became the Roger Brown Study Collection, encapsulating a defining moment in Chicago's art history.
When the RBSC became an official SAIC resource, the initial priorities were to integrate the RBSC into SAIC academic programming, to organize collection documentation, to establish historic site management procedures, and to address site preservation.
With the SAIC's decision to keep the collection in its most meaningful context (rather than move it to another location), preservation of the building (fig. 3) and collections as integrated entities became a key element of the RBSC mission.
The RBSC applied for and received a Conservation Assessment Project (CAP) grant, enabling SAIC to retain a preservation architect and an art conservator to survey and assess the building and collections. Both reports positioned us to begin preservation planning.
Responding to the recommendations in both CAP reports, SAIC retained preservation architect Anne McGuire and Associates to conduct the Schematic Design (fig. 4) for a building renovation. The schematic design report outlined renovation activities and costs, and provided the framework for long range development planning.
The RBSC was selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to participate in the Historic Artists' Homes and Studios (HAHS) program. HAHS is focused on identifying and helping selected American art-related historic sites to preserve, document and interpret their collections and buildings. Association with HAHS expanded the RBSC's identity into a national context.
The RBSC received a planning grant from HAHS to retain consultants to conduct a comprehensive documentation, packing, moving, storage, and reinstallation plan to prepare for the eventual, temporary removal of the collection during the renovation project. The preservation plan (fig. 5) outlined a major component of the building renovation.
A cornice replacement (fig. 6) and roof and parapet repairs necessitated the temporary de-installation and storage of nearly half of the collection. The project was successfully completed in summer 2003, giving 1926 North Halsted Street a handsome new cornice (fig. 7), and stabilizing the building and improving its appearance significantly.
SAIC undertook a code and occupancy study. The RBSC received a grant from the HAHS program organize the RBSC archival materials and re-house them into archival storage, while improving the conditions of the physical archive space. The project addressed an important component of our preservation plan and served our mission to engage students meaningfully in every aspect of the organization and preservation of the site and collections.
Neal Vogel, faculty in Historic Preservation, taught the Restoration Methods Summer Institute, offering students hands-on experience in preserving elements of an important historic property. The class (fig. 8) addressed the restoration of the historic storefront (fig. 9) at 1926. Working alongside professionals in the field, students worked intensively, translating historic preservation theory into practice. Project activities included: extensive research into the storefront's history; instruction in the erection of scaffolding; paint removal methods for wood and cast iron (over 100 years of paint layers were removed from the storefront); examination of changes in the bulkhead design; assisting with construction of the new bulkhead; replacing the window sashes; examination of historic masonry; and examination of glass, glazing, and paint. The ailing storefront at 1926 North Halsted Street was vastly improved by Vogel's students (fig. 10), structurally and visually.
The RBSC was one of 25 historic sites in the Chicago area to participate in Partners in Preservation, a program sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The RBSC applied for $50,000 to replace the roof, restore the historic storefront doors, and do masonry stabilization. The public was invited to vote online, daily, for the sites deemed most deserving of funding. The RBSC received $5,000 for participating, which funded brickwork stabilization.
After removing encroaching ivy from the garage (fig. 11) (which houses Brown's 1967 Ford Mustang), the soffits and gutter were repaired and the building was repainted. An industrial dehumidifier was installed in the building's basement to counteract high humidity levels during spring, summer, and fall. New chimney liners were installed in both south chimneys, solving the problem of interior leaks in the RBSC living room. The living room chimney wall was paired and repainted.
New electrical power was brought to the building, and lighting in the basement and archive was replaced. Estimates for re-roofing and re-pointing the north elevation while preserving the historic Daily News advertisement and replacing the limestone sills were solicited for work that commenced in 2010. In December, the ailing furnaces were replaced. Historic Preservation graduate Susannah Ribstein began work on the nomination for 1926 to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
New track lights were installed in the storefront windows, the gallery, the workroom, and the garage. All layers of the roof, from 1880 to the present, were torn off and a much needed new roof (fig. 12) was installed. The north and south elevations were re-pointed and parapets were repaired. The ghost of the Daily News (fig. 13) advertisement on the north façade, a prominent historical feature of the building, was restored. The Building Conservation Lab class taught by Anne Sullivan (Chair, Historic Preservation program) conducted a window survey and report, which will guide work done to restore the historic windows and improve energy efficiency.
The RBSC received a grant from the HAHS program to conduct an energy audit (fig. 14). Neal Vogel (Restoric LLC) conducted the energy audit and their report, which includes new measured drawings of the basement, first floor, second floor, and section, provides an excellent road map for upgrading energy efficiency in this sturdy 1888 building.
In December, the National Register for Historic Places nomination was reviewed by the Chicago City Council and the Illinois Historic Preservation Advisory Council. It passed both reviews unanimously.
1926 North Halsted Street was entered in the National Register of Historic Places for Roger Brown's (fig. 15) significance as an American artist.
The RBSC received a generous and welcome grant ($50,000) from the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation for building renovation. An advisory committee of SAIC Historic Preservation faculty was formed to work with RBSC and Instructional Resources and Facilities Management staff and guide building repair and renovation projects.
Restoric prepared and coated the cast iron entry porch and threshold with an epoxy coating, a seemingly minor but significant improvement.
A late July flood was a calamity turned blessing in disguise. The basement was completely emptied, cleaned, and sanitized and much detritus that had accumulated over the years was discarded. The basement was transformed from a dismal crypt (fig. 16) into a clean space (fig. 17) with epoxy-painted floor, new wire shelving, and expanded storage and workspace, all elevated high enough to weather any future storms.
Architect Tom Bassett-Dilley was retained to conduct an updated Code and Occupancy Study. His report outlines necessary modifications to the building organized into two phases.
The storefront entry doors (fig. 18) and apartment door (fig. 19), 123 years old and perhaps the most used and abused elements of the building, had deteriorated over the years to much diminished functionality. The Code and Occupancy Study determined that the door swing did not need to be reversed. Restoric removed the doors and began the restoration project.
The storefront doors (fig. 20) and north doors (fig. 21) were expertly restored with carpentry and installation by Andrew Delarosa and finishes by Anthony Kartsonas, both of Restoric. The original bronze handles and plates were restored to functionality. The doors are now far more impervious to the weather and began their next 100 years in excellent, refreshed condition. This major improvement completes restoration of the east elevation. This project was funded by the generous grant from the Goldschmidt Family Foundation. For a complete project description click here.
1926 received a new security system. Dim, insufficient incandescent lighting in the den, living/dining rooms, and front hall were replaced with LED. The collection is now brilliantly visible for the first time, and its energy efficiency is much improved. LEDs will be installed in the central hall and storefront windows.
Requests for proposals were reviewed for the replacement of the rear porch and stairway. The project commenced in summer 2014.
SAIC’s IRFM team and Structures Construction first created a design that would accommodate the two conifer trees planted by Brown in 1974, but after much consideration we realized that the design would be incoherent if the trees died and were removed. We settled on a straight-run stair design (fig. 24), similar to the original. The new stairway and porch, completed in August (fig. 25), transformed the garden into an enchanting and much more usable space, with fluid circulation between the floors.
The exterior surfaces of the side and rear doors (fig. 27), and all windows and transoms (fig. 26), were in poor condition, with peeling paint, deteriorated wood, and storm windows that had outlived their useful lives. Treatments were outlined to preserve most elements as they were during Roger Brown’s time as a resident at 1926 N. Halsted St., 1974-1995. Exceptions were made by replacing worn, barely functional aluminum storm windows with new, wood framed, UV filtering storm windows on the 2nd floor.
Funded by a generous grant from the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation, this project entailed the restoration of 23 windows, 3 transoms, and 3 doors, and creation of new, wood framed, UV filtering storm windows. Neal Vogel’s Restoric LLC crew, lead by Elizabeth Fisher, worked from July through early December on the project. The crew (fig. 28) did an outstanding job of scraping, restoring areas with damage or loss, priming, and painting all doors, windows, and transoms.
Doors were modified to work properly (fig. 29,30), with new weather-stripping. Rescued from their ailing, weather-beaten state, all components are now close to their original condition (fig. 31,32), when first constructed and installed, 127 years ago. The side doors to the gangway were removed for restoration and will be completed and installed in summer 2015. This milestone project greatly improves the building’s appearance and will extend the life of its 1888 features well into the 21st century.
The south double doors to the gangway were very worn and had many air gaps and the original swing didn’t accommodate wheelchair entry or exit comfortably. If they were modified to open out, the doors would have blocked egress to the ramp west, to the alley, and the ramp east, to the sidewalk. Restoric’s solution was to remove the doors and modify the jambs so they provide more room for comfortable wheelchair egress. The surfaces were beautifully restored and painted, inside and out. The large transom over the apartment door was replaced with an Insulated Glass Unit, which will improve energy efficiency in the north stairway.
The ailing wood accessibility ramp was removed and a new concrete sidewalk and ramp was installed. New security gates will be installed to the east/Halsted St. and west/alley. A security camera and accessible doorbell were also installed at the southeast corner of the building.
After years of work hindered by spotty internet, lack of networking capability, and insufficient back up of significant quantities of data, IRFM, IT, and Security staff responded robustly. 1926 received all new internet equipment which functions throughout the building. Bandwidth was boosted and is networked to SAIC. Computers are now networked and a new HDMI digital projector was installed. Six security cameras were installed on the first and second floors, and 2 were installed outside, at the front sidewalk and in the rear/garden. The cameras directly feed to SAIC security, who can monitor activities in real time. These improvements greatly improved security and internet. Lighting on the first floor was upgraded with new LED fixtures, lamps, and dimmer switches.
The project to replace the 1888 wood columns and beam in the basement, that have supported the upper floors of 1926 up for 129 years, commenced in September. The project was necessary to structurally stabilize the building and comply with City of Chicago building codes. The 12 wood columns were in varying states of deterioration near their bases, resting on odd and insufficient footings.
Artworks in the central stairway were deinstalled to protect from possible vibration impact, and garden sculptures and furniture were protected. The basement was accessed through the well under the back porch; a concrete block wall was temporarily removed. Footings for new steel columns were excavated and poured. Custom fabricated steel columns, installed on the new footings, support the custom fabricated steel ceiling beam–-all stabilizing the building for the next few hundred years!
The project was roundly criticized by a prominent historic preservation contractor, because we didn’t replace the original wood with new wood––a more orthodox preservation approach. We made the decision to replace wood with steel because we don’t interpret the basement, and we inherently trust IRFMs’ and our contractors’, architects’, and engineers’ judgement. Additionally, we thought about George Veronda’s approach to the renovation of the building, back in 1974. His design preserves many of the 1888 features and incorporates his modernist vocabulary throughout the building. Rather than choosing one period over another, 1926 presents elements of its entire history. Roger wrote, “It just never occurred to me that you could do the things George suggested. Spatially he turned an 1880’s building into a place appropriate for modern living, but he didn’t destroy the character of the old building.” We think George and Roger would have marveled at the sleek, sturdy structural improvements.
Roger’s extensive home library had been packed away and inaccessible, in the RBSC Archive for nearly 20 years. A capital assets improvement was approved and custom bookcases, created by Chicago’s 57th Street Bookcases, now occupy the entire west wall in the orientation/project space. For years, researchers and others have inquired about Brown’s libraries. With access to Brown’s library we can finally provide endless insights into his intellectual life.
Significant Developments at the New Buffalo Property
Recognizing that Brown's first gift to SAIC—his home, studio, collection and landscape at 415 Marquette Drive, New Buffalo, Michigan—is a significant, historic landscape and an essential dimension of Roger Brown's artistic expression, the need for a landscape preservation was finally addressed in 2007. Graduate students from SAIC's Historic Preservation program, in the Historic Site and Landscape Studio class (fig. 33) taught by Carol Yetken, embarked on a preservation study of the property in the 2007 spring semester. The project scope included extensive research on the landscape history, design, and plantings related to the property, as well as historical research regarding the buildings and sculpture. Much of the research was conducted at the Roger Brown Study Collection (RBSC) archive.
This class created an outstanding, professional preservation plan, at a time when the landscape at 415 Marquette Drive was at a critical juncture. The plan guides ongoing preservation of the site and landscape. Activities since 2008 have included:
- Removal of 40 trees to return the site to its original open condition (fig. 37)
- Removal of poison ivy, honeysuckle and other overgrowth
- Reestablishment of the stone path from the studio to the boardwalk
- Cleaning, repair, and creating new footings for outdoor sculptures (fig. 34)
- Clearing much overgrowth throughout the site, especially at the river's edge (fig. 36)
- Reestablishing native plantings (fig. 35)
- Installation of a much-needed shed for garden tools and misc (fig. 38)
Preservation of the buildings and collections has also been ongoing. In 2008 most of George Veronda's furniture in both pavilions was reupholstered. The floors were refinished in both pavilions, and new shades were installed. The buildings received new roofs. In fall 2009 the outdoor sculptures were treated and conserved, many of which received new in-ground footings. In 2009 both decks and both pergolas on the River Pavilion were rebuilt, and in 2010 the deck and pergolas on the Studio and Guest House were rebuilt and the building was painted. In 2011 the entire collection and all furnishings were removed from the River Pavilion so the walls could be repainted and the floors refinished.