Restoring Vintage Buildings When Home is History

Your home defines you. It’s where you spend most of your time. It’s where you hang your hat. It’s where you make precious memories with friends and family. And what your home looks like – whether it’s made of glass and steel or terracotta and brick, and what era it’s from – speaks volumes about you as a person. 

In major cities with rich cultural and architectural histories like Chicago, the mix of old and new is something to behold. Many types of architectural styles are represented across town, from Queen Anne and bungalow single-family homes to towers and prewar condo buildings. And also like other cities, while Chicago grows and new developments are approved, the city also protects and preserves architectural reminders of the past through the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Those include historical sites, places of worship, and commercial and residential buildings. 

Landmarked residential buildings are highly desirable places to live, indeed. They are historic reminders of the past, and feature vintage charm that can’t be replicated. And their value can often be extremely high. But living in an historic property or building also comes with its own set of potential headaches. If you want to fix something, it’s not always a simple process. Many maintenance and restoration projects, especially on the facade of a building, must be approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. 

History and How It Works

The Commission on Chicago Landmarks was created by the City Council in 1957 as an advisory board whose purpose it was to compile a list of “significant buildings,” according to the rules and regulations of the city’s Landmarks Ordinance. In 1968, the Commission was officially established by city ordinance, with members appointed by the City Council and the mayor. The Commission’s responsibility is to recommend to the Council that individual buildings and even entire districts, in addition to sites and objects, be designated as landmarks, thus providing legal protections. 

“The ordinance also gave the Commission the authority to review building permits for landmarks, to ensure that any proposed alterations would not negatively affect the character of the landmark,” the document continues. 

In order to receive landmark designation, the location or building must meet at least two of these criteria: “value as an example of city, state or national heritage; location a site of a significant historic event, identification with a significant person, exemplary architecture, work of a significant architect or designer, representation of a significant theme and a unique or distinctive visual feature.” 

The path to landmark designation is long: in order for a property to be designated, there is an eight-step process. 

• First, Commission staff research the historic and architectural significance of the building or district, and then submit a report to the whole Commission. 

•  Next, the Commission votes on whether to “initiate the consideration process.” If the vote is positive, the Commission has the authority to start reviewing building permits within that district or at that site. 

• The Department of Housing and Economic Development issues a report stating how the proposed designation might affect neighborhood plans and policies. 

• Then, the Commission contacts owners and requests consent to designate, which is not required except for houses of worship. When an owner does not consent, a public hearing is held.

• A public hearing is then held to gather facts and information intended to assist the Commission in its consideration. 

• The Commission then issues its final recommendation based on an internal vote.

• The City Council’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards then holds a hearing and votes whether to send the Commission’s recommendation to the full City Council.

• Finally, the City Council votes on the designation, which is a legislative act. 

In Chicago, the largest landmark districts by size are: Kenwood (163 acres), Logan Square Boulevards (150 acres), Pullman (125 acres) and Wicker Park (92 acres), said Deputy Commissioner Peter Strazzabosco of the Department of Planning and Development.

The Permitting Process 

Once a site is designated as a landmark or is being considered for a designation, it is subject to the Landmarks Ordinance, which requires that alterations, renovations, reconstruction, and even demolition receive approval by the Commission. The pre-permit review process is detailed and can sometimes turn a project into a more time-consuming endeavor. 

“The purpose of the Commission’s review is to ensure that the proposed work will not adversely affect any significant historical or architectural features of the improvement or the landmark district,” read the pre-permit review guidelines issued by the Commission.  

Typically, a contractor, architect or engineer, depending on the project, brings the plans for the restoration or maintenance to the Commission for review and approval, says John Holton, vice president at Holton Bros. Inc., a company that specializes in masonry restoration, tuckpointing and more, with offices in Arlington Heights as well as Wisconsin. 

“The approval process takes typically about a month,” he says, depending on the extent of the project.

Chris Rice, sales manager at JSL Restoration, a complete exterior building restoration company in Franklin Park, says the full extent of the scope of work must “go through the city for permits.” 

“[The] city would approve all the materials being used to make sure it doesn’t damage the facade. Even when it comes to cleaning, you have to get approval,” he says. “Deep historic or restoration clean, you have to use different products … Landmarks has to approve the list of products.”

Just like most projects, maintenance or otherwise, bids are accepted by boards and other governing parties for the work. After a bid is accepted and plans drawn up, the review is next.

Restoration Is Delicate and Detailed 

When restoring an architectural aspect of a property instead of replacing it, contractors and workers need to take extra special care, says Holton. “It takes a lot more craftsmanship than a typical project,” he says. “[It takes] skilled labor to install to original condition.” 

The details, too, are extremely important. 

“Essentially you’re trying to match the existing conditions to a T so it looks as it originally did,” says Rice. “You want to match mortar, every little thing. With landmarked objects you have to get a lot approved.”

John Cichy, owner of Lakeside Restoration, puts it more bluntly: “You’re dealing with something that’s 100-plus years old!”

In essence, the restoration must satisfy two parties: the homeowners and the Commission. “It’s the guidelines … That’s what can make it difficult. They have somebody that’s in charge of the project and those are the guidelines we have to follow,” says Cichy. “[It’s] everything: how they want it done, how they want the finish, how the work should be done.”

And It Can Be More Costly...

Working on landmarked buildings as opposed to those that aren’t protected by any regulations, can make a project more costly, says Holton.

“It takes more time and it’s more labor involved. It takes more time because you need to be more delicate with the removal and the insulation of the new products,” he says. “Material costs can be more expensive.”

According to Rice, restoration as opposed to replacement, which is often how the maintenance and repair of the exterior of landmarked buildings proceeds, is “definitely more expensive.”

“[When you] clean and reuse the existing brick, you’re salvaging it and cleaning it like new again and putting it back in,” he says.

The materials needed can be more expensive, too.

If the mortar isn’t standard, says Rice – if, for example, you need to use lime mortar, which was used more in the early 1900s – the price of materials can double. “It depends on the building, scenario and status,” he says.

Who to Hire?

While the city Commission does not dictate who boards can hire to perform work on landmarked properties, there are trainings and certifications that can be acquired.

“We do hands-on training,” says Holton. “Our guys will possibly go to school and we do seminars to train them to use certain types of materials … Some of them are not common.”

Cichy says Lakeside Restoration trains its own, too. “We train our people and bring them up within. [The expertise] is passed down.” 

Holton says some certification is needed. “Certain patching materials, you need to be a certified installer and certain mortar types you need to be certified to apply them.”

Holton adds the manufacturer of the products often provides training sessions. “Some are expensive, some are free,” he says. “Supply houses where we get them will put them on. The reason they’re doing that is so we purchase from them.”

Labor of Love

And just like some homeowners and shareholders are willing to withstand the potential waits, costs and other headaches related to restoring their landmarked dwelling, contractors, and workers as well consider the work a labor of love.

“I actually would rather do a landmarked historical building,” says Holton. “Certain employees would rather work on projects of this style, too. The reason why is this is why we’re in business! We like to go back to the original. There’s a sense of accomplishment if you can match something that’s been up there for 100 years.” 

For more information about the Landmark Permit Review and the application process on work for designated and proposed projects on Chicago landmarks and districts, visit www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/dcd/provdrs/hist/svcs/permit_review.html. You can also contact the city’s Planning, Design & Historic Preservation Division at 312-744-3200, or email landmarks@cityofchicago.org.         

Georgia Kral is a staff writer and reporter for The Chicagoland Cooperator.