BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When asked one of the strengths of her organization, Bonnie McDonald, President and CEO of Landmarks Illinois, replies without pause, “Turning vacant places into vibrant places.”
Just as vibrant are the seven women leaders being honored next month at the organization’s gala, all working to create a more diverse, accessible, and powerful preservation movement in Illinois. And what could be a better location to hold the March 10 Preservation Forward gala than the 101-year-old Old Post Office, saved with the help of Landmarks Illinois’ sustained advocacy?
“Preservation Forward encapsulates the spirit and excitement around what preservation is becoming. Our 2022 Influencers are equally redefining preservation by showing how historic places are part of a just and inclusive future. In the past, women in preservation-related fields have been a minority. We’re excited to work with them to move preservation forward,” explains McDonald.
The seven 2022 Influencers are Mariah DiGrino, Partner, DLA Piper; Tiara Hughes, Chicago Landmarks Commissioner, FIRST 500 Founder, SOM Senior Urban Design; Cheryl Johnson, Executive Director, People for Community Recovery; Tonika Lewis Johnson, Social Justice Artist; Stacey Pfingsten, Executive Vice President, American Institute of Architects Illinois; Alicia Ponce, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP BD+C, Founding Principal, APMonarch; and Eleanor Esser Gorski, Executive Director, Cook County Land Bank Authority.
Gorski, through multiple leadership roles, has advanced historic preservation as an integral part of Chicago’s economic and community development strategy. The Land Bank, which owns more than 1,700 properties, works to return vacant places to productive use in underserved communities by partnering with community developers, small business owners, and prospective homebuyers.
Previously, Gorski played a leading role at the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development (DPD) as First Deputy Commissioner and Acting Commissioner of the DPD, as well as the department’s Bureau of Planning and Design lead and director of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.
“I have a long history of involvement with traditional preservation,” she says. “We are seeing now a broader perspective on preservation, and it is wonderful to be among my women colleagues who work in different aspects of the field. Preservation is lived, day in and day out, throughout Illinois. Going forward, the heart of preservation is in the community and the people who make up these places: what the people value, the historical touch points that ground us.”
She continues, “I am very proud in my work. We go into a neighborhood and hope to make properties productive again. In West Garfield Park, we just celebrated our 1000th restoration—a new family is now settling into a now-gorgeous home on West Adams, once again put it its historical context and to productive use.”
McDonald describes how the preservation movement in Chicago, created over 50 years ago by the Landmarks Preservation Council, an earlier incarnation of Landmarks Illinois, has changed over the years: “Historic places mean more than just buildings but encompass culture and the full history as well. These places are also about people’s identities—memories feed into it deeply. It is about places people are proud of and want to protect.”
As a child in Minneapolis, McDonald’s parents took her to many historic sites, including the 1819 Round House, where she has fond memories of eating rock candy and seeing its forge: “I loved reading the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and, of course, Laura Ingalls Wilder. My parents saw the tangible ways they could build a love and a sense of wonder for the people who lived before us in those places.”
She admires the work that 2022 Influencer Stacey Pfingsten has done in teaching children about historic sites. Pfingsten and her team recently published the AIA Illinois “Great Places Coloring Book,” featuring several Illinois landmark historic buildings chosen in 2018 to highlight the state bicentennial. The coloring book is engaging for all ages, highlighting the state’s architectural legacy and its importance in a way that is accessible.
Pfingsten also created a series of Springfield architecture scavenger hunts, bringing young and old alike together to explore the historic downtown. Further emphasizing the importance of education, AIA Illinois recently launched a pilot project with the Boys and Girls Club of Champaign to develop an ‘introduction to architecture’ program.”
McDonald says that the Old Post Office building, with its incredible 2.5 million square feet, is an example of what is possible. It stood vacant, deteriorating, for nearly two decades before opening in 2020 after an $800 million renovation. “Like the Cook County hospital, which is now restored, the Old Post Office is a symbol of just what is possible. The third of those great challenges is the Uptown Theater, which has a unique physical structure. In its day it held 5,000 people, and there are now very few theaters that have shows that might bring in that many people.”
Sure to (safely) draw in a crowd is the upcoming Preservation Forward celebration, which will feature a cocktail reception and interactive food stations in lieu of a sit-down dinner. The event’s short awards program will also give guests ample time for networking with preservation and professional peers. An afterparty will feature desserts from Chicago’s pastry chefs, late-night snacks, and music entertainment.
What else has Landmarks Illinois been up to lately? Since February there has been a great deal of “heart bombing,” the showering of affection via love letters sent and attached to historic buildings as tangible signs of heartfelt appreciation. The organization’s Skyline Council recently partnered with People for Community Recovery to heart bomb two historic buildings in Altgeld Gardens.
In November, Landmarks Illinois published its WWI Monuments of Illinois Database that contains detailed information on World War I monuments and memorials throughout the state. The first-of-its-kind database in Illinois was made possible through generous financial support from the Pritzker Military Foundation.
Click here to learn more about the 2022 Landmarks Illinois Influencers, to register for the event, and to learn about sponsorship opportunities. Reservations for the event are $500, and tickets for the event’s afterparty range from $40-$100. A virtual attendance option will also be available.