Rachel Firgens is an Associate with MacRostie Historic Advisors, LLC, which serves as consultants to developers seeking state and federal historic tax credits. She joined Skyline Council more than three years ago after moving to Chicago from New York. Earlier this year, Rachel was among the members of Skyline Council who traveled with Landmarks Illinois staff and other advocates to Washington, D.C., for Preservation Action’s Advocacy Week, where she helped lobby for policies and funds that protect America’s historic places. And this fall, Rachel and MacRostie Historic Advisors (MHA) were part of numerous projects Landmarks Illinois honored at its 2020 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards: The Aurora Arts Center, Old Cook County Hospital, Lathrop, Garfield School Senior Residences and The Mark Twain. Below, Rachel shares more about her involvement in these projects, her expertise on the in-depth process of applying for historic tax credits and her love of preservation.
MHA has been involved in award-winning preservation projects in previous years, but for our 2020 preservation awards, the firm played a roll in five of the nine projects honored at the Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Awards. Tell us what it is like to be a part of this many major and noteworthy projects?
It’s completely humbling to take a step back from the day-to-day project management of seeking historic tax credits for these buildings and to see the pieces come together. You don’t often have the chance to really reflect on all of the hard work and amazing team members that lead to awesome outcomes until you’re on the other side of “complete.” I think I speak for my whole team when I say that we are so grateful for the opportunity to work throughout Illinois on places that are so important to the people who live here and use these buildings in their everyday lives. It’s why we do what we do – and we love what we do.
Did you personally work on any of the five award-winning projects? If so, which one(s), what role did you play and what was your experience like? Did you have a favorite?
Yes, I worked on the Aurora Arts Center (historically, the Block and Kuhl and Stanley Building, constructed as two separate buildings, later joined) and the Mark Twain (historically the Mark Twain Hotel).
I served as consultant to the developers in applying for federal historic tax credits (HTCs) for both projects and the River Edge Redevelopment Zone (RERZ) state historic tax credit for the Aurora Arts Center (AAC). It was really exciting to be able to take advantage of the state credit for the AAC project. This credit is limited to particular communities, so has certain geographic boundaries on where it can be applied. The RERZ is also set to expire at the end of 2021, so this is my plug for people to contact their state representatives to encourage them to renew the credits! The Mark Twain team did apply for the new, state-wide historic tax credit. However, given the cap on funds and the super competitive applicant pool, the project unfortunately was not awarded state credits.
The experience was a rollercoaster for both projects! The HTC process consists of a three part application: the first is determining that the subject building is significant (historically speaking) and is eligible to take advantage of the credits (by the end of the rehabilitation, all buildings must be listed in the National Register of Historic Places). The second part is the real meat of the application, describing existing conditions and the proposed scope of work. This part takes the most time and involves an amendment process, which refines the scope of work. During this time, we often deal with lots of surprises, such as historic fabric that is uncovered during demolition, which must be folded into the rehabilitation or the dreaded review of replacement windows. The AAC buildings were largely gutted at the interior after a 1980s renovation and you see that and think, “Oh, ok, this should be straightforward, since we have very little fabric at the interior we have to work around.” I’ve learned to not think that. Or at least not say that out loud. The third part of the HTC process is the certification of completed work. This is when we walk through the building and take “after” photos. Both the AAC and the Mark Twain are gorgeous, cream-colored, glazed terra cotta buildings. The facades cleaned up so well in both projects, especially at Mark Twain where a significant amount of non-historic cladding and signage was removed.
While I don’t have a favorite, I would say that the Mark Twain project was particularly rewarding because it combines a complicated mix of funding sources and the city’s single-room occupancy (SRO) ordinance to keep affordable, small-scale housing in a beautiful historic building, at a prime location. I know it wasn’t easy for the developer, the NHP Foundation, to put this deal together, but I’m so grateful all parties kept the bigger picture in mind throughout the project.
Any new and noteworthy projects you are working on at MHA that you can share?
There are several exciting projects on the horizon and others in process already. Beginning conversations with developers on new projects for the rehabilitation of historic buildings provides hope for economic recovery during COVID. One project nearing the finish line is the rehabilitation of 19 S. Wabash, the Jewelers Building. Built in 1882 and designed by Adler and Sullivan, 19 S. Wabash is a rare, remaining, early remnant of the architects’ collaboration. Last year, the team discovered some gorgeous leaded glass windows enclosed in drywall in the former entrance vestibule. The windows were carefully restored and will be visible again at the interior. The team is also undertaking an extensive renovation of the historic storefront, which was highly altered over the years. Historic columns are being cast and damaged or previously removed fabric is being replicated and returned. The team and I have spent a lot of time studying historic photos to get this right. The building will serve as residential.
What is the best part of your job at MHA?
Site visits! I love getting out into the field and seeing a variety of buildings in different neighborhoods and contexts, constructed of site-specific materials and massing. Our office’s region spans the upper Midwest, so our sites range from downtown Chicago to deeply rural, northern Wisconsin. The types of buildings we work on vary immensely and so do their proposed new uses. I also love wrapping my head around a new project and figuring out how all the pieces come together.
When and why did you become involved with LI and join the Skyline Council?
I got involved with Landmarks Illinois and Skyline Council in the spring of 2017. My husband and I had just moved to Chicago from New York. I was looking for a way to get involved with the local preservation community and meet new people and knew of the fabulous work of Landmarks Illinois.
Why is historic preservation important and what about it interests you?
Given the part of the preservation field I’m in, historic preservation has proven to me to make economic sense. Some of our projects in smaller towns have clearly been the catalysts for revitalization of otherwise depressed or depopulated areas. It’s so gratifying to see crumbling historic buildings, that once served as cornerstones of community, be brought back to life through the rehabilitation of the building (by creating construction jobs) and through the building being placed in service (and used on a daily basis).
What is one thing about historic preservation you would tell another young professional to spark their interest?
Preservation can be a tool to help create more equitable communities and is not just a function on NIMBYism or gentrification. Of course, there is still work to be done on making this true on a larger scale.
What impact do you think young professionals like yourself will have on the future of historic preservation?
Young professionals need to continue to advocate and make noise for a more inclusive historic preservation field. I think we are only beginning to understand where our blind spots are in terms of whose stories we are telling in writing National Register nominations; whose communities are receiving tax credits and shiny, rehabilitated buildings; or even who is at the table for these conversations. I know this work won’t be easy, but I and many others are dedicated towards taking steps for change.
What do you do to support and advocate for preservation either in your professional or personal life? (or both!)
Professionally, when I speak at building openings, I always give a shout-out to historic tax credits making these projects possible. Personally, I met my husband in graduate school for historic preservation and he currently works at the Chicago Architecture Center, so nearly everything in our lives has something to do with preservation: dinnertime conversation; weekend outings to remote suburbs to study patterns of development; and donating our time and money to preservationrelated causes.
What do you do in your free time?
My life right now revolves squarely around the raising of our daughter, Louisa. When we aren’t chasing her, we also try to cook, travel, go to shows and continue to explore Chicago explore Chicago (or at least pre-COVID!).
*Watch the 2020 Preservation Awards Videos for the Aurora Art Center & The Mark Twain. Or, visit the Landmarks Illinois Youtube Channel to watch all the videos on the nine, 2020 award-winning projects.2020 Preservation Award Videos