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Landmark building

image: Departments header We trust that future issues will feature more balanced coverage of the intense campus debate over the future of International House. Your short report reproduces administration press releases, without mentioning the letter of protest over the proposed closing of I-House, signed by 70 faculty members. It makes no mention of I-House residents' protest rallies, marches, and fund-raisers, nor does it report on their planned class-action suit (presumably announced after your deadline). As the best campus reporting has stressed, the University community is upset by the administration's apparent lack of transparency as well as by the decision itself. Only ten years ago, I-House was sufficiently popular to operate at full capacity, with a waiting list for students unable to be accommodated.

Forced to adopt an unpopular and expensive meal plan, the house began to lose residents, yet it still runs at a profit. Mandated by John Rockefeller's original gift to watch over I-House interests, the administration seems in retrospect to have failed this duty. While I-House has solicited University assistance in planning long-term structural improvements, and in launching a fund-raising campaign, the University appears to have planned the building's closure, perhaps even negotiating with the Graduate School of Business over a future sale of building and land (for the ridiculously low sum of $2 million). The administration claims that it is impossible to raise the $25-$30 million needed for major infrastructural improvements, and that even to spend $1-2 million for a fire-alarm system would be wrong at this point, yet they offer $12-$15 million to renovate a much smaller replacement building, which would house less than half the students that the present building contains, and whose location (on 61st Street) is so marginal that most people would be afraid to walk there at night. At the same time, the administration plans to spend $500 million on campus-wide capital improvements (from new dormitories to recreational facilities, including bowling-alley and skating rink) aimed primarily at improving the quality of undergraduate life. Given the lavish scale of these plans, the zero-sum arguments about I-House seem highly inappropriate, and the apparent lack of interest in the needs of foreign graduate students is striking.

To sever the International House program from the building conceived for it is to weaken the chances that, in the long run, either will survive. The administrators seem to have no sense of the symbolic and practical importance of public space; they act as if they are only getting rid of an old dormitory. Although they now claim there is no immediate threat to the building, they have not committed themselves to preservation either (and some scenarios for selling and reusing the land clearly presuppose razing instead). Over the 20th century, the city of Chicago failed to preserve an extraordinary number of extraordinary structures: the small remaining fragment of Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange behind the Art Institute should remind us of the folly of an earlier, raze-and-rebuild mentality. The University is an institution in part dedicated to the preservation of the past; it must not repeat the city's mistakes.

A building with I-House's historical, architectural, pedagogical, and sentimental significance should not be under threat, nor should the architectural integrity of the Midway it helps to anchor. The National Trust for Historic Preservation considers all these aspects crucial ones for making preservation decisions. In other words, an older building that is architecturally striking (even if not, in itself, a masterpiece), that forms part of an architectural ensemble, and that has been part of the fabric of the community for a long time should rightly be considered a landmark, and as such, protected from demolition or disfiguring reusage.

The facade, the exterior friezes, the silhouette, the extraordinary windows, and perhaps above all the ground floor interior, with its magnificent courtyard, remain choice period pieces; on other campuses, a building like this would be considered irreplaceable, esteemed as an architectural centerpiece, and used for ceremonial purposes. (Think of the reverence with which the University of Pittsburgh treats its Cathedral of Learning or Indiana University its Memorial Union.) If I-House goes, no feasible replacement could ever duplicate its strengths: the international student community, and the University community at large, will never get this kind of space again.

The best way to insure the survival and preservation of I-House is to see that it continues to be used for the purposes for which it was built. This structure and this institution represent an important, early attempt to expand the University's international presence and impact. At a moment marked by (often opportunistic) rhetoric about globalization, the preservation of International House and its mission seems to us a major symbolic and practical priority for the University. It is hard for us to believe that I-House alumni would be unwilling to contribute to a University-led campaign to ensure its renovation and survival as a center for international student life. Surely the thousands of U of C students who, since 1932, have lived, made lifelong international friendships, or simply attended cultural events at I-House would be extremely sorry to see this institution destroyed.

Richard Maxwell, AM'71, PhD'76,
Valparaiso, Indiana

Katie Trumpener,
Associate Professor of Germanic Studies,
English, and the College,
University of Chicago

  JUNE 2000

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Hyde Park revisited
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Hugo Sonnenschein
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Pan-Asian persuasion

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