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Jeanette Fields on architecture and integration

Thu, Sep 26, 2013

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Jeanette Fields spearheaded Chicago’s first architectural tours and promoted low-income communities and integration in South Shore through her tours. A Frank Lloyd Wright homeowner, Fields played a vital role in the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, as well as in the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the South Shore Commission, Pleasant Home Foundation, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, and many other organizations. In addition to her preservation and community work, she wrote for the Hyde Park Herald and continues to write about architecture for The Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest.

StreetWise: You’ve worked with a lot of different foundations and organizations over the years preserving Chicago’s architectural history. Which was most fulfilling or rewarding for you, and why?

Jeanette Fields: That’s the Chicago Architecture Foundation because I was able to start their tour program [in the 1970s]. I felt the need for it because people had said to me, “Will you give me or my group an architectural tour?” and I said, “Well, sure.” When I started it, there were no [architectural] tours of Chicago, none at all. Tours like Grey Line and American Sightseeing didn’t touch architecture.

SW: How would you choose the route of the tour and which buildings would you look at?

JF: Well, it depends on what they wanted to see. I mean, if they’re primarily interested in the Loop or if they wanted to see more slummy areas or residential or Frank Lloyd Wright or whatever they wanted. I would make the tour for them.

SW: How did you build your familiarity with Chicago architecture?

JF: Well, by being among them. The funny thing is, I really didn’t know much about Chicago architecture until I lived in London for a year with my husband. During that time, I took a course in modern architecture, and they spent so much time on Chicago’s buildings that it opened my eyes. That was 1962. As a result, I said, “Well, I’ve got to get to know Chicago architecture!”

SW: What’s the most exciting part about giving an architectural tour?

JF: It’s interesting because everyone is different. Every group is different. Some are interested in one thing, and some are just there because they had to be there. But it’s fun, reacting to people and getting their responses. Some of them get turned on and get so excited that they say, “Were these buildings here all the time? I never saw them before.” That was what happened with my brother when I gave him a tour. He said, “My gosh, I’ve never seen these buildings here before.” I said, “Honey, they’ve been here a long time.”

SW: While you were in South Shore, you worked for a long time to integrate the community. What motivated you to do that work at a time when integration was very controversial?

JF: I’ve always been interested in integration, and I’ve always thought, it’s a goal. And it’s very hard to achieve. I’ve wanted the community that I live in to be an integrated community. [South Shore] was a community surrounded by blacks—to the east was the lake, to the north was the Woodlawn community, to the south was South Chicago. It would be a very good thing if we could be integrated because otherwise, the other communities would take us over and become an all-black community, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it would certainly be a big success if we could keep whites there. So that’s what I worked on. I was on the Board of Directors of the South Shore Commission, which designed all kinds of methods to induce and perpetuate integration. It was a very hard thing and not completely successful.

SW: What were some of the methods that the Commission used?

JF: We had block groups and would have lectures throughout the community on our goals. The problem was that most of the white people would say, “Well, we don’t think integration will work because it has never been done successfully.” They refused to believe it could be. And I said, “Yes it can be.” I mean, look, Hyde Park is doing it. And Oak Park was trying to do it. It can be done, it’s a question of getting the whites to stay. In the beginning, we’d get a few whites to stay, but then as they saw more blacks moving in, well, they weren’t sure. It was a very, very hard battle.

SW: How do you feel you did, looking back at the battle, in terms of how successful it was and how you feel the Commission ultimately shaped the community?

JF: I think that we were just ahead of our time. I think that there are some whites still there, but not as many as I’d like to have seen. I mean, a lot of the blacks who moved in were better [off] than the whites who were there. And we tried to get that concept across.

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SW: Did you do any work with architecture in South Shore to promote the community and convince people to stay?

JF: I presented architectural tours in South Shore. I had a committee of mainly architects who were able to distinguish the most important buildings. And we had an architectural competition where we played up the best buildings and had an exhibit of those. The American Industry of Architects judged it, so it was good. We were able to focus on that.

SW: Do you think that showing these buildings off to the community helped some people stay?

JF: I do.

SW: You also started tours for the Chicago Architectural Assistance Center (CAAC), which drew people to low-income areas whose value was underappreciated. What kind of services did the organization provide, and how did your tours convince people to go to these areas?

Jeanette calls over Vicki Haas, a close friend and a member of CAAC.

Vicki Haas: The CAAC started as a project of the Legal Assistance Foundation. If tenants were being sued for eviction, the lawyers could go and have an architect provide expert testimony on the condition of the building so the judge would say the owner, “Well, you have to fix this up.” So it started as a project of legal aid. Then it grew into its own separate non-profit and drew more into providing free architectural services to low-income homeowners and non-profit organizations. Most were operating in very old buildings.

SW: How did CAAC get people to come visit?

VH: Our board decided we needed a newsletter because we were doing all these projects around the city, [for] a lot of individual homeowners and community organizations. So they brought in Jeanette. And she said, “Well, you have to have something to write about.” And they were thinking, ‘We do all these great things, so that’s what you could write about.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, you need a tour.’ I remember the president of the board at the time was Janet Sherman, and she was like, ‘Really? Who is going to pay to tour these impoverished areas?’ At that time, communities were much more insular. The South Side was much less likely to know about the West Side, and certainly, people in Highland Park didn’t come downtown that much. So it was a really novel idea that Jeanette had. The organizations were very receptive. They also were very surprised, but they were perfectly willing. They thought, if she could bring a bus full of people to see their program and their place, then…

JF: And I did. I was able to give it for two years. The second year, there was twice as many as on the first year. It was really a great thing to do, and they enjoyed it. And they paid for it.

SW: How did you bring people in?

JF: It was newspaper publicity, and any way I could, you know? I did the PR. I got some mentions on the TV and the radio, and they came. It’s surprising.

VH: All before the internet!

SW: How long did you live in a Frank Lloyd Wright home?

JF: Oh gosh, about 35 years.

SW: Could you describe his style of architecture? What about the essence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural style made you want to live in his homes?

JF: Everything is based on nature. He wants the house to look as though it really grew up in that place. The style is simple in that it all relates to the ground and its environment. He usually had a kind of a horizontal look to it. I always loved Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s that one architect that everyone knows, and I was in love with his buildings long before I ever even saw them. I read about them and saw pictures of them. They looked like it was very easy to live in those houses, and they were.

SW: What do you think made Wright’s architecture a cornerstone of both Chicago architecture and modern architecture?

JF: I think the Midwest was the home of the Prairie Style. It’s interesting—the East has more or less followed the English, the more ornate style, whereas the Midwest, the architects were all influenced by nature. They were simpler. They relied on the materials and wood. Their architecture kind of talked to you, was more livable.

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SW: Do you have a favorite building or space in Chicago?

JF: I very much like the Reliance building. It’s white and terracotta, which I like as a material, and it has a simple façade, lots of windows, and it’s been restored in the last ten years. It’s on the corner of Washington and State. I like Carson Pirie Scott a lot, too. It’s a beautiful building.

SW: What drew you to preservation work?

JF: I think the fact that most of the world looks upon the new as the goal. When you look at Europe, their houses are over a hundred years old. They’re beautiful and [the people] respect them.

SW: Just to clarify—you’re interested in preservation work because you wanted to preserve the old and preserve this history, this humanity of a community?

JF: Yes, I think that preservation is a very, very important thing that has grown. I think that younger people are beginning to look at it, to think about preserving and restoring, whereas before, everything was ‘tear it down and put up a new one.’ Unity Temple in Oak Park is a very famous Wright building. I have a friend—and he was on the board with me—and he said, ‘We’re spending so much money in trying to restore that building, I think we ought to tear it down.’ The very idea of tearing something like that down just makes me shudder.

SW: Could you tell me a little about the changes you’ve seen in Chicago throughout your work?

JF: We’ve had to go through periods where we’ve had leaders who have been interested in architecture and those who couldn’t care a bit about it. Luckily, I think we’ve been able to save more—not as much as we’d like, I mean they tore down some wonderful buildings on Michigan Ave, but on the whole, we’ve done fairly well. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot, like Louis Sullivan, who was a fabulous architect. He had done, oh, maybe hundreds of building in the city, and there are only a few left. Carson Pirie Scott is a good example.

SW: When you talk about leaders, do you mean politicians? What kind of leaders are you referring to?

JF: Well, politicians certainly. You need to have help—people have to care. Leon Despres was a very good alderman, and he really tried to get the council aware of architecture and the need to save buildings. He worked hard at it, and he was successful. He was the alderman of the 5th ward, which was Hyde Park. There are now a few aldermen who care about these things, but the majority are interested in you know, money and ‘we’re going to build new ones’ rather than restoration.

SW: How do you think we can foster caring in other people? Do you think we can encourage people to care more about restoration instead of building new buildings?

JF: Some studies have been done that show that it’s financially to their advantage to restore. There have been lots of studies that have shown that people like to see a building restored rather than a new one and that it does pay. Of course, there are probably studies that show the other side, too [chuckles] because they always do, but I think more and more, people are more interested in restoration than 10 or 20 years ago. And I think lots of major cities are now having whole districts dedicated to restoration.

By Cindy Ji
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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