Interview with Board Member Shelley Gorson

Board member Shelley Gorson is one of nine board members reaching their “sunset year” in June; that is, a mandatory year off from board service between six-year terms. In her 13 years as a volunteer, Shelley has served as a board member, event, committee, and board chair, and organizational visionary. We sat down with her to ask her about her experience.

How and why did you begin volunteering with Landmarks Illinois (LI)?

As a recent transplant from Miami in 2002, and just retired from real estate sales, I needed a new direction and decided that the most compelling aspect of Chicago for me was the architecture. I enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Master’s program in Historic Preservation and met Richard Friedman, who was my preservation law professor. He recruited me to the board of LI, and I immediately felt like I had found my second “career”.

You’re now ending your second six-year term on the Board of Directors. After volunteering for the organization in roles include board, committee, and event chair, how have you seen LI evolve in that time?

LI has evolved from an organization focused on saving architecturally important buildings to one which utilizes preservation as a tool for economic and community development. Under our president and CEO, Bonnie McDonald, LI is now truly a statewide organization, with a strong staff positioned to strategically strengthen the impact of LI across the state.

Is there a program or project that you are most proud of and how did the Board of Directors contribute to that success?

To be honest, I am proud of everything I was able to accomplish, all of them with the continuous and strong support of many others on the board and the staff.

My most important accomplishment is recruiting and hiring Bonnie McDonald, who is a true game-changer for LI and beyond. She is a one-woman tour de force who is making transformational changes in LI and its impact throughout Illinois.

The LI I joined was a successful organization, but fundraising was not its forte. I believe I helped in that area, again along with a core group of dedicated board members. I spearheaded a new fundraiser: The Legendary Landmarks Celebration. In ten years, it grew from a 250-person event raising $175,000 to 750 attendees raising close to a million dollars. We now have a legacy of 37 Legendary Landmarks who are among the most important cultural and civic leaders of Chicago.

I believe that I’ve helped create a dynamic Board of Directors, which would be the envy of any not-for-profit. Our board is the “secret sauce” of LI. They are a cohesive, dedicated, diverse group of interesting people from all walks of life, each of whom helps in the best way he or she can to enable the success of all the programs and events with their work, wisdom, wallet, and wallop. And now we are starting an Emeritus Board, which I will chair, to try to re-engage past board members whose expertise and advice will be another source of support for LI.

Also, in order to expand our reach, I started the Skyline Council, which has grown to be a springboard for new board members, and to have great events which raise funds—and most important—preservation awareness among the next generation of community leaders.

And by the way, I have the most supportive husband who has been there every step of the way!

You coined an important phrase for LI’s work: beyond the beautiful building. What did you mean when you coined quoined this phrase?

When I joined LI in 2003, the organization’s focus was to save – and help others save and reutilize –historic buildings. This will always be our core work because we believe that our quality of life is enhanced by beautiful buildings. But the preservation movement has progressed to become one which broadens our impact at the neighborhood and community level to advance the social and economic good. For instance, we are partnering with organizations outside of preservation to leverage our experience to help homeowners in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. With partner Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago (NHS), we are creating a Neighborhood Conservation District Ordinance to hopefully be adopted by the City of Chicago helping homeowners to preservation community character and design better infill development.

You and your husband, Alan, have supported Landmarks Illinois in many ways, from your own donations, to planned giving, and inviting friends to attend our events and become members. What advice would you give to others in inspiring people to support our organization and our cause?

We all encounter historic places many times a day as we going about our busy lives: where we work, eat, worship, live and play—opera at the Auditorium Theater, a show at the Chicago Theater, an office in the Wrigley building, dinner at The Gage, worship at one of the hundreds of magnificent churches or synagogues, taking our out-of-town friends to Millennium Park where we gaze at the historic Michigan Avenue Street Wall . We don’t want to lose these places that are part of our collective DNA, our cultural heritage. We want to encourage the political and economic forces that support historic preservation as a powerful force to revitalize our urban areas and build civic pride. LI is one of the very most important organizations in the country doing this work, so when people learn about it, I find they just automatically want to help and get involved. It “sells” itself!

What do you see as the future of historic preservation?

The future is here. Preservation now includes everything from promoting the reuse of a magnificent deaccessioned public school as a hydroponic farm growing organic vegetables to the economic revitalization of downtown Rockford and Peoria to efforts to a board member’s effort to rebrand Illinois as “The Land of Rivers” as our heritage and natural tourism platform.

How do you think preservation will improve Illinois’ future?

One of LI’s major initiatives is to get a statewide Historic Tax Credit passed. With funding from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, LI conducted an economic study that estimated the return to Illinois’ general fund would be $12 for every $1 of tax credit. This financial incentive is the added benefit that enables developers to reuse an existing building, which in turn promotes real estate and business development in a community. Illinois is one of the only Midwest states that does not utilize this essential tool statewide for economic growth. We have a large group of state legislators in our State Preservation Caucus who are diligently working on making this happen. It is a win-win.

Do you have a favorite historic building or place and why?

There are so many, it’s like asking who is your favorite child! Alan and I are so lucky to live in the greatest apartment building, which looks south over a park, and I can see the blue roof of 680 N. Lake Shore in Chicago, the gorgeous neo-gothic buildings of Northwestern University’s Chicago Avenue buildings, the Water Tower and Pumping Station, Navy Pier, and modern landmarks like the Trump Tower and Jeanne Gang’s Aqua. I also love being in the 1873 Lathrop House at 120 E. Bellevue Place, home of The Fortnightly of Chicago. The newly-restored Illinois State Capitol is one of the most gorgeous and awe-inspiring buildings in the country. Everyone must go see it!

An edited version of this interview was published in the May 2016 edition of Landmarks Illinois quarterly newsletter The Arch.

The Landmarks Illinois board and staff members want to share our gratitude with Shelley Gorson and our “sun-setting” board members, Dr. Dale Chapman, Dr. Jean Follett, Phil Hamp, AIA, Jorge Moreno, P.E., and Karen Prieur for their six years of voluntary board service ensuring the sound governance and programmatic success of this organization. Many, many thanks for your dedication.

Photo: Shelley Gorson with Alan Salpeter


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