For the past few weeks preservationists have been frantically working the phones, trying to raise the estimated $5 million it will take to buy the Farnsworth House at a December 12 auction. They say it’s one of the preservation movement’s finest hours, with hundreds of citizens signing up to protect one of Illinois’ most valued architectural jewels. “The support’s been encouraging,” says David Bahlman, executive director of the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois, one of the advocacy groups leading the fund-raising charge. “It shows people are committed to preservation.”

But the last-ditch effort also reveals a weakness in Illinois preservation–the drive to save Farnsworth would be neither as frantic nor as expensive if the state had simply made it a historical landmark. “Here we have all these people ready to spend millions to buy something–instead of just saving it by landmarking,” says Steve Balkin, the Roosevelt University economics professor who led the unsuccessful effort to landmark and preserve the old Maxwell Street neighborhood. “The state has the authority to do a lot of things to protect old buildings, but they don’t use it.”

That wasn’t always the case. Until the late 1980s the state had a relatively straightforward process for protecting valuable properties–through the Illinois Register of Historic Places, which was overseen by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Any building on the register was protected from demolition or major alterations–even changes the property owner wanted to make.

Then in 1989 the General Assembly passed an amendment prohibiting the state from “adding property to the Register if its owner does not consent to the designation.” The amendment had been sponsored by senate president James “Pate” Philip, acting on behalf of the Shriners, who were furious that two buildings they owned–Medinah Temple and the adjacent Tree Studios–were added to the register without their approval. The battle to keep Tree Studios on the register crystallized the issues for preservationists.

When it landmarks property the state generally restricts its use–Tree Studios, for instance, can’t be demolished to make way for a high-rise. That limits the amount of money an owner can make by selling a property, which has created lots of pressure from owners and developers to keep buildings off the register. According to an audit of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency by the state’s auditor general, “The agency has not added any new properties to the Illinois Register since 1989.” The agency is apparently planning to ask the General Assembly to abolish the register, so that Illinois can officially get out of the business of landmarking valuable buildings and property.

Yet there are other ways the state can protect valuable property over an owner’s objection–prime among them inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. To get property added to that register, an applicant–either an individual or a group–must first go before the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, a group of 15 experts, whose nonbinding recommendation is sent on to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The agency’s recommendation is then passed on to the feds, who oversee the national register. It’s a time-consuming and complicated procedure, made even more confusing by a bewildering array of organizations and entities with similar-sounding names. As Balkin says, “It’s hard for anyone to fully understand this process.”

If any battle underscores the difficulty of preservation in Illinois, it’s Balkin’s ill-fated attempt to save Maxwell Street. He and his allies were up against formidable foes, including the University of Illinois at Chicago and the city, which wanted to use its power of eminent domain to demolish businesses and buildings along Halsted and Roosevelt and let the university replace them with dorms, upscale condos, baseball fields, and research facilities.

Preservationists argued that the old neighborhood deserved historic landmark protection.”I don’t think the area would ever win an award for the most beautiful architecture–most of the buildings were Victorian, turn-of-the-century, brick and terra-cotta two-story or three-story structures,” says Jonathan Fine, an architect and cofounder of Preservation Chicago. “But on that block you had the entire immigrant history of Chicago expressed. It was all there–the birth of the blues, the rise of the working class, the rise of the entrepreneurial ship. The whole area told a story–it told the story of the birth of Chicago. If anything deserved preserving, it was Maxwell Street.”

In 1994 the Illinois Historic Sites Advisory Council, acting on Balkin’s request, recommended that the area be landmarked. But the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency overruled it. In 2000 Balkin returned to the council with a new landmarking request, and the council again recommended protecting the area. “We were elated–I cried at that meeting,” says Balkin. “I thought, we’ve finally been vindicated. I thought, it will get on the national register, and it will be more difficult for the university to run roughshod over us.”

But again the agency overturned the council’s recommendation, effectively giving the university the green light to destroy the neighborhood. The area’s now home to an innocuous collection of brick condos and apartment complexes. Two of the members of the agency’s oversight board were Julie Cellini and Carol Stein, whose husbands, William Cellini and Richard Stein, were developers working with the university on the expansion project, but agency officials have repeatedly insisted that neither the Cellinis nor the Steins had any hand in blocking the designation.

Maxwell Street was home to poor immigrants and migrants, but the Farnsworth House, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the wealthy Dr. Edith Farnsworth, is just as vulnerable. Built on the Fox River about 20 miles southwest of Aurora on 58 acres of wooded land, it’s been owned since 1971 by Peter Palumbo, who made his fortune in London real estate. By all accounts, Palumbo has been an admirable steward of the property, though he’s only occasionally lived there.

In 2001 Palumbo announced that he intended to sell the property, and a group of preservationists who called themselves Friends of the Farnsworth House quickly formed and declared they would find a way to keep the house on the site and make it accessible to the public. Unlike the ragtag collection of professors, neighborhood activists, and blues lovers who wanted to save Maxwell Street, the Farnsworth supporters were wealthy and well-connected lawyers, architects, business leaders (including John Bryan, the former chairman of Sara Lee), and politicians, among them former governor James Thompson and his wife, Jayne.

Given this much clout, the group might have had more luck persuading the Historic Preservation Agency to landmark Farnsworth. But they didn’t try. They didn’t think they had to. “There was no initial discussion of putting it on the list,” says Chris Robling, a chief aide to the Thompsons. “When we started talking about saving it we worked from the assumption that it belonged in the public domain, and our intention was to get the state to buy it and preserve it for perpetuity for the public to enjoy. So there was no need to go through the preservation process.”

But their plan didn’t go smoothly. After Palumbo announced that he wanted to sell, Governor George Ryan and the General Assembly agreed to set aside $7 million to buy the building and the surrounding land. But by the time the state and Palumbo were ready to finalize the sale it was mid-November 2002. Rod Blagojevich had been elected over his Republican opponent, the outgoing attorney general, Jim Ryan, and in the waning days of the George Ryan administration the Farnsworth deal unexpectedly became part of a bitter political feud.

“Here’s what happened,” says one insider. “Jim Ryan was mad at George Ryan because he, Jim, felt that George had undercut his race for governor. All of a sudden Jim announced that he was going to review all of George’s major real estate expenditures.”

In the last weeks of December, before Blagojevich’s January inauguration, Thompson met with Jim Ryan to lobby on behalf of the Farnsworth deal. But Ryan left office without authorizing the sale. In February his successor, Lisa Madigan, blocked it, saying the state didn’t have enough money during a budget crisis to buy buildings, no matter how valuable they were. In the end, the Friends of the Farnsworth House were as helpless to save their property as Balkin and his allies had been to save Maxwell Street.

“There’s a lesson in all of these fights,” says Fine. “If you don’t protect valuable old buildings you leave them exposed.”

Sure enough, soon after Madigan announced her decision, Palumbo, who was said to be upset at having been jerked around by the state, said he would sell Farnsworth at a December 12 auction. Reports quickly surfaced that at least one very wealthy bidder wanted to buy it, dismantle it, and move it out of state.

Members of Friends of the Farnsworth House and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois thought about a last-minute push for landmark status. According to the insider, “At one point Bahlman said, ‘I’ve got this graduate student who knows how to do a national register application.’ But Peter’s response was, ‘Hey, look, guys, I don’t want any encumbrance on this house. I don’t want to do anything that will deteriorate its value as a private-sale item.'”

Out of deference to Palumbo, says the insider, the group decided not to seek landmark status: “Listen, Peter did a great job as steward–he stayed with this deal through all the delays. He deserves some consideration.” Many preservationists believe an underlying motive was a reluctance to encourage the state to interfere with the rights of a property owner.

Of course there’s no guarantee the feds would have approved a request to landmark the Farnsworth House, particularly before the December 12 auction. But applying for protection would have sent an unmistakable message to anyone thinking of bidding. “It would have said that the state of Illinois is very serious about keeping this building here,” says the insider. “It would have said that it’s not going to be easy to move it. It would have shown we were ready to play hardball. But hey, we’re talking about money being raised by the upper strata of elite society. These people don’t want to play hardball preservation.” Of course any group or individual could still file an application, have it designated, and send the same message.

Instead, the LPCI and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have each pledged $1 million toward the purchase of the house, and they’re now calling people and running ads hoping to raise $3 million more. “I think that what LPCI is doing is wonderful and honorable, and I don’t want to devalue it in any way,” says Fine. “But we have to see this matter in the larger context. The mission of preservation should be to advocate for holistic policy change. We can’t raise millions of dollars to buy every historically valuable building. If we want to save our history we have to have some system of preservation.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Stephen Longmire.