Thursday, April 21, 2011

ENOUGH! or...The High Price of False Progress.

While I've certainly had other things on my mind this week, the one image I can't shake loose is that of the so-called Gatsby House (Lands End, properly) being razed on Long Island. If you haven't seen the footage or read the article, here it is... CBS Sunday Morning's "The end of an era for the "Gatsby House." Beyond this single house, though, what does this say about us? About how shabbily we often treat our landmarks and important buildings? We're paying a tremendously high price for what often is the antithesis of progress.

The old Mount Vernon-esque pool houses at Soldier's Field in Rochester. RAZED. 
I'm basically a bleeding heart preservationist at my core and waste of this nature is painful for me to watch. Honestly, I've fought against this kind of thoughtless destruction since before I was even a teenager and it never gets any easier and it seems that so often we fight the same fight over and over. From a seemingly innocent zoning change to barrages of development proposals, it's a street-fight waged daily all over the country.

The former Chateau theatre, now a Barnes & Noble in Rochester. SAVED. 
As I look back over the preservation battles in which I've participated--as well as those I've been on the periphery of--it always seems to come down to money and more often than not, greedy and/or unprincipled land developers. It is seldom about what is actually best for the community, what is best for the landmark or historic structure, but rather about how much more money is to be made by simply knocking down a structure rather than spending any amount of time finding creative and workable outcomes that benefit everyone. Wanton destruction for the sole purpose of lining someone's pockets infuriates me. And when I hear the disingenuous strains of "I'm so sorry this had to happen" spilling from the mouth of a land speculator, my blood absolutely boils...because it so rarely HAS to actually happen.

Why tear down a well-constructed and usable building to quickly slap up one more ubiquitous strip mall? I mean really...why? If the money is to be spent anyway--to tear down and then put up new construction--why not explore and pursue a retrofit or restoration of the extant structure instead? It typically fits better within the character of the neighborhood, to be sure, and still provides numerous construction jobs. And lack of commercial real estate can hardly be raised as a serious issue. Most every road I travel these days has empty storefront upon empty storefront staring out from ugly and nameless plazas and centers with FOR RENT signs plastered all over the windows. It's one of the worst symptoms of sprawl, this proliferation of quickie, unattractive, and often disposable architecture that seems to have invaded almost every corner of the country. If this is allowed to continue, and continue virtually unchecked, we will be a country with far too little left of our architectural past.

It's certainly true that when a building has been abandoned for a long time, either through a campaign of managed neglect or by bad luck and ownership problems, it can be expensive and even almost impossible to restore it, but those cases are fewer and farther between than we're asked to believe. And I don't advocate preservation merely for its own sake or laudatory back-slapping, but some buildings are part of the fabric of a community, others embody an era or bygone way of life and sometimes they need a little TLC in order to rejoin the modern world and resume their rightful place as an integral part of a neighborhood.

And isn't it ironic--and tragic, really--that most of the time people in this country would rather build a replica of something than spend the time, energy, and money to restore the original. And why stop at a replica, if we can build a theme park around it, even better. That way no one has to deal with all the challenges that  are part-and-parcel of caring for older structures. There are, after all, often stockholders who expect a return on their investment and if an extra nickel or dime can be wrung out for them, then what's the harm of razing a building with character, one that is well-built, and putting up an eyesore in its stead? Do I sound bitter? I am. I am bitter and angry at how readily we disregard the importance of our built heritage.

Now and then, someone has to stand up and say ENOUGH. Sometimes it can't be only about the $money$--what is best for the city, community, next generation and history of a place all have to be taken into consideration and the right thing has to be done. Don't we owe both our ancestors and our children at least that?

For a much more level headed take, my friend, Pat Murkland, writes beautifully about a lost landmark in her community here...

With that, I cede my soapbox...for the time being. (And #Go HABS Go)


Mark Devereux said...

Touché, touché and, once more...touché!!!

sid fernando said...

as always, love the soapbox!