Theses Master's

Architectural Fragments: Curatorial Management of a Vanishing World: A Case Study of Demolished Structures in Post-World War II Chicago

Kointarangkul, Pitchaya

This thesis challenges the boundaries of historic preservation. As contemporary preservation criteria focus on the integrity, originality, and contextuality of places, it raises questions: Do fragments of a demolished structure that lack all of such qualities fall into the purview of historic preservation? If so, what are the roles and meanings of fragments since their original place no longer exists?

It is a standard practice to preserve fragments if their whole cannot be saved in its entirety. However, the preservation discipline apparently forgets that sometimes the preservation field itself is unable to identify the worth-preserving whole. As culture is constantly evolving, what is not identified as worth preserving today might become a must-be-preserved in the future. As a result, losses and fragmentations of possible future historic structures are unavoidable conditions that the preservation field must be aware of.

To press this further, this thesis continues to examine the question of what the roles and meanings of fragments that survived the losses are. It applies tracing and interpreting the biographies of fragments as a methodology. In order to understand how “not worth preserving” structures have evolved into “must-be-preserved” fragments, it analyzes every social interaction the studied fragments have been involved in – salvages, collections, acquisitions, distributions, reuses, and displays – and interprets the changes in the meanings that the original structures and their surviving fragments experienced.

This thesis identifies post-war Chicago as the scope of the study. Urban planning in Chicago during the 1950s -1980s was dominated by the urban renewal movement, and countless structures labeled as not worth preserving were torn down to “renew” Chicago. After the idea that newer is better declined, Chicago made a notable effort to preserve and present the fragments that survived urban renewal. The thesis selects six structures demolished during the post-war years, varied in their defined significances, as case studies: The Mecca Flats (demolished 1952), the Columbus Memorial Building (demolished 1959), the Garrick Theater (demolished 1961), the Federal Building (demolished 1965), the Francis Apartments (demolished 1971), and the National Pythian Temple (demolished 1980).

By analyzing the studied fragments’ biographies, this thesis identifies a pattern in the evolution of the meanings of the lost structures along with their surviving fragments’ journey: Individuals’ intuitive fragment salvages and reuses can reveal new meanings of the “not-worth-preserving” structures. Experts’ acquisitions and interpretations can change and define lost structures’ meanings and significance. Institutions’ collections, distributions, and displays, however, focus only on the fragments from the structures whose meanings and significance are well-established. Institutions play a role in amplifying, approving, and reiterating the mainstream meanings that the fragments carry. Such actions raise the monetary value of similar fragments, removing those fragments from individuals’ acquisitions and, in some cases, accessibility.

As demonstrated in this thesis, the meanings of the lost structures are continuously changing, as illustrated by the social interactions in which their fragments have been involved. Meanwhile, the names of the lost structures continuously live through these chains of interactions. In other words, fragments are curated by humans to remember the losses, and “the loss” varies depending on who frames it: For individuals who experienced the loss, it is a loss of the place they want to remember. For experts, it is a loss that they want to examine. For institutions, it is a loss that they want to acknowledge. Therefore, knowing that the preservation field cannot protect every possible future historic structure, this thesis argues that remembering, examining, and acknowledging unavoidable losses through surviving fragments must fall into the purview of historic preservation. Above all, it prompts the preservation field to think critically about this overlooked aspect of its mission: How to preserve the vanishing world through the preservation of its surviving fragments.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Historic Preservation
Thesis Advisors
Bollack, Francoise A.
M.S., Columbia University
Published Here
May 29, 2024