Obliterating History

Insensitivity toward the artistic compositions known as building facades has been going on, well, pretty much forever.  Clearly many people do not value buildings rendered in brick, stone, etc.,  in the same way they do an artistic composition rendered in oil on a canvas.

Few, for example, would buy an artwork and then commission another artist to add or subtract some feature.    The thought is ludicrous:  “I love this landscape, but I want a cow in it.  Can you do that?  Add a cow?  And make the sky a bit more blue.  It’s much too cloudy!”

Yet that is essentially what is done regularly with the historic architectural artworks that literally surround us.  Rip off a porch here, cut in new windows there, add a dormer… the list goes on and on.  Not only is our history routinely destroyed in this manner, but  more often than not the “improvement” is less attractive, less meaningful, and far more common than what it replaces.

The problem lies in the fact that most people do not consider buildings to be cultural; they are seen as utilitarian.  Few buy buildings for their aesthetic, historic, or cultural significance.  Most buy them for utility or location (physical proximity to work, etc.).

Not all old buildings have the potential to contribute to our culture in a positive way; the past had its share of substandard construction, too.  But as our past continues to be eradicated, buildings which once seemed unremarkable are now increasingly rare.  Even if not noteworthy from an aesthetic or design point of view, most old buildings are built of materials far superior to those available to contractors today; that alone is reason enough to retain them.

The following photos illustrate not just that fashions and styles change, but that the concept of aging is still considered reprehensible in 21st-century America.  A once-proud Italianate commercial building was dumbed-down in the 1960’s or 70’s.  After the ornate metal cornice was shorn from the facade, it was then muted with a coat of character-erasing stucco.  Fortunately, the original 2 over 2 windows survived on the side elevation and served as a reminder that the building once had a personality.

Four or five decades later the side elevation begins the process of emulating the front. When done, the side elevation will be as equally non-descript as the front.  Other cosmetic options to the problem of an aging wall could have been pursued.  The wall could have been repointed and painted, allowing the wall to retain its character.  The segmentally arched windows added charm to the wall which is in a highly visible location; they are being “normalized” with squared-off heads in an effort to make the side as bland as the front.  The original wood sash has been done away with.  I will post a follow-up photo after the procedure is finished.

These photos document the building receiving the final assault as it is robbed of any vestigial remnant of former character:

 

The front of the building as it appeared at the turn of the century.

 

This is how it looks today – a half century after the first assault.

 

The side wall was in need of attention but its historic character and visual potential were not perceived or valued.   Re-pointing the brick would have allowed for a painted finish which would highlight the surviving architectural features of the building including segmentally arched 2 over 2 windows, keystones and cast iron sills.  A thoughtful color scheme could have made this highly visible wall a memorable asset rather than a vast area of conformity.

 

Scaffolding was built to facilitate the neutering.

 

Soon the side will be just as forgettable as the front.

 

Segmentally-arched window heads are squared with expanded mesh in advance of the stucco.

 

I will post a follow-up photo of the the finished appearance.

 

Updated August 23, 2017:

 

Here’s the finished product – in all of its bland and forgettable mediocrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to Obliterating History

Leave a reply