Profiles in Design: Chicago preservationist Bonnie McDonald

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Bonnie McDonald serves as president of Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago-based nonprofit focused on historic preservation. I spoke with her about family vacations, the importance of history, and how food connects people.

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How does your work at Landmarks Illinois fit into broader conversations about the future of the built environment? Why should we be concerned about historic places?

People are attracted to places that have a mix of old and new because it gives us a sense of connectedness and community — a recent study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation confirmed this.

My role involves helping people understand that the goal of preservation isn’t to freeze this building or that building in time, or to cast them all as museums, or to stop all change or development in a city. What we do is use history and context to further conversations around land use, density, infrastructure, economic equality, and equity-based development in communities — wealth generation, job creation. Lots of the issues that are facing our cities today.

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Downtown Chicago

How did you become involved in historic preservation?

There were many forks in my career path. I started college as an art major, but my parents had a conventional concern about me being a starving artist. So I thought, “Well, I could become a commercial artist, and that would be a way to pay the bills.”

My freshman year of college corresponded with the emergence of computers as the art medium for graphic design. And that was the first fork: I just could not make the transition. I found myself unable to take the skills of my hands and translate them into the computer.

Around the same time, I took an art history class with an incredible professor, and it was that light bulb moment; I changed my major to art history. Art and architecture are an expression of society’s values at that moment, and I found my studies in art history incorporated my interests in design, history, politics, economics, and culture.

In the last year of my bachelor’s degree, I came to the final fork when I discovered historic preservation. I received my master’s degree in historic preservation planning, within the city and regional planning program, from Cornell University.

McDonald helped preserve Minneapolis's Pillsbury A Mill, which now houses live/work space for artists.

McDonald helped preserve Minneapolis’s Pillsbury A Mill, which now houses live/work space for artists.

The planning focus merges my practical side with my desire to be a preservation advocate, a goal I’ve been fortunate to achieve. Which brings it back, I think, full circle to where I started as a child.

What parts of your childhood do you remember that you think influenced your career?

I was never that cool as a kid, so I wasn’t that child who begrudgingly went on family vacations. I have really great memories of them, actually. We didn’t have very much money growing up, so our vacations were very much local: mostly to historic sites and cultural landmarks. So I’m not surprised I grew up to work in the preservation industry.

And there were obviously other early influences. My mother wanted to be a children’s librarian, so I was an avid reader. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, which I think many people in my industry loved as children. The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace were also popular in Minnesota, where I grew up. They were set in the 1940s and ‘50s and had a great female heroine.

Thinking back, the foundation for many of us who work in the historic preservation field is a childhood interest in history or architecture. My parents were both lovers of history, politics, and architecture. And they believed strongly in teaching my brother and me to be civically minded people: they tried to make sure that we were active in our community, that we were participating in the political process, and especially that we were standing up for the little guy. That was very important to them. It was making sure that people had a fair shot in the world — which today we talk about as equity.

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Bonnie with her brother John

Have you spent most of your career in Chicago?

Before coming to Landmarks Illinois five years ago, my role was in the same organization in Minnesota, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. I was the executive director for almost seven years, and before that ran a county historical society in Minnesota for three years.

I actually didn’t intend to go back to the place where I was from. Not because it’s a bad place – far from that; more because there are so many other places to experience. I interned in Washington DC for a few months, and I thought that’s where I was going to work after graduate school.

But I returned to my home state because of love, as many people do. I’m so glad that I took that path. It led me to the opportunity to take the job of my dreams. This work in preservation advocacy is always what I really wanted to do, from the time I discovered historic preservation. Having the ability to be a resource to people trying to save places that are important to them is so meaningful and rewarding.

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Chicago’s Cook County Hospital, another of McDonald’s projects

What about outside of work? How much are you part of your community here in Chicago?

I’m usually a workaholic, because running a nonprofit organization is the same as running a small business. Our investors are our members and donors and they should expect that we maximize the return on our mission, but that requires long hours and a deep sense of dedication to the work. However, it is also obviously important to have interests outside of work — to keep a more well-rounded perspective.

Recently my husband and I have found ourselves delving into urban farming. Until you grow your own food, I don’t think you understand how devastatingly wasteful it is that Americans throw away 40% of our food. Just the overwhelming thought of how much waste we create has motivated Michael and I to do something.

When I say “urban farm,” I take that very seriously, because I tend to be a literal person. The USDA says you have to produce $1,000 worth of produce on your piece of land to be called a farm. This year we should be just about there. We produce 34 different kinds of organic fruits, vegetables, and seeds, including apples, berries, vegetables, and herbs. Last year we added an apiary for beekeeping, and just a couple of days ago we welcomed six chickens. This is all produced in our Chicago backyard, in the Edgewater neighborhood, in a space that is about 30 by 60 feet.

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McDonald in her farm

The way we use our green space is important. Instead of just having a green lawn, we asked ourselves what we could do with the little space that we have in the world and the sunlight that we’ve been given. And how do we produce more for ourselves so we can also guide other people to understand the importance of food? If you know how hard it is to grow an apple, you are more likely to value an apple and avoid throwing it away.

That’s why we also use our little farm as a teaching space for people in the neighborhood. My hope is that we’ll have an urban farm stand in our front yard with our eggs and fresh produce and canned goods so that we can talk to people about how and why we do this. The point is to expand people’s interest and belief that they can do this too.

Food can be beautiful and should taste good, but it’s also really about being mindful and respectful about what nature is giving us. Food is connected to place, and, most importantly, it is a connector for all people.

 

Questions or comments for Kelsey Eichhorn or Bonnie McDonald? Contact kelsey.eichhorn@arup.com or bmcdonald@landmarks.org.

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