Old buildings can be subversive? You may ask, somewhat incredulously, “How?”. Well, quite simply, old buildings (if examined closely enough) have the very real ability to reveal the shortcomings of our present age – and thereby have the potential to encourage people to question the status quo.
No age or era is without its faults and problems. One of the faults of our current era is that a good deal of recent construction is unattractive, poorly designed, badly proportioned and comprised of materials not likely to last for centuries. There is so much more value to be found in the majority of buildings which were built a century or more ago. After all, they are still standing! Will the wafer board sheathing and vinyl siding of suburban tract homes built today last as long as their 18th and 19th century counterparts have done already? Will sheetrock last as long as plaster and lath? Will vinyl plank flooring last as long as tongue and groove oak flooring? Will stamped metal door hardware last as long as the cast iron and cast brass products of previous centuries?
Look at the “then and now” comparison photos of five common building types below and then ask yourself: “Why are so many new buildings unattractive today? Why are they poorly designed? Why are they badly proportioned? Why are they made of lesser quality materials?” What happened to our culture? The answers are not always as simple, straightforward or attainable as one might hope.
Please comment and share your thoughts as to the cause of our present architectural landscape!
In 1900 – in both small towns and large cities – many high schools across the country looked a lot like this one. They were built at a time when Americans actually revered education, and students graduating from such a high school could actually read and write with proficiency. They also had a better grasp of geography and other subjects than their current-day counterparts. The emphasis on sports was minimal; such activities were sanely viewed as a form of exercise and secondary to improving one’s intellect. Note how the building is designed; the entry is at the base of a substantial bell tower and appropriately dignified. From the sidewalk a series of steps lead up to and into the building elevating the entry process and making it memorable. The rugged stone exterior of the Richardsonian Romanesque style building, completed in 1893, was clearly designed to both dignify education and to last for multiple generations. Its location within town and surrounded by houses physically integrated the community and schooling. In 1890, the town’s population was 8,347 and students walked to school.
This is the high school now used by this same community. It has all of the dignity of a shopping mall or office park. It sits at the edge of town, where ample space is given over to parking lots and sports-related athletic fields… they even spill across the road as seen in this Google satellite view. This school was completed in 1982 and the town’s population in 2016 was estimated to be 12,063. I doubt that many students walk to this school. Image courtesy Google Street View.
In the 1920’s many American cities had downtowns which looked similar to the one depicted on this old post card. At right is a Sears, Roebuck and Company department store. It is housed in a two-story brick building built in the Mission Revival style and elaborated with terra cotta ornament.
This was the last location of Sears in the same city… it served as a shopping mall anchor. This store recently joined many other Sears stores around the country in closing permanently. The building is now surrounded by empty parking spaces. Image courtesy Google Street View.
Every knows just by looking at this building what its function is – no sign is needed at all. It was built around 1880.
This building’s exterior is so generic in its expression that it could pass for virtually anything. It could be municipal offices, a movie theater, police department, medical center, library or office space. Despite the fact that the entry has a distinctly commercial look to it, the sign assures us that this is a church. Oh, wait a minute…. Image courtesy Google Street View.
This is what a nice apartment building looked like in many American towns and cities in the early twentieth century. Columns and a symmetrical facade give the building dignity and the bit of lawn, though minimal, adds a residential quality.
This look has been popular in new residential construction for some time now. The three types of cladding and asymmetrical facade of this recently constructed apartment building do little to make it homey. Image courtesy Google Street View.
This is what a nice house of modest size looked like in many American towns and cities in the 1890’s. The detailed exterior hints at interior finishes typical of the period: hardwood floors, beefy varnished woodwork, cast hardware, ornate lighting fixtures and walls of plaster and lath.
This is what a nice house of modest size looks like in many American suburbs today. The two-car garage which dominates the front hints at what the interior might be like: plywood subfloors with carpet, laminate, vinyl or tile on top of them, thin woodwork which is likely painted, stamped hardware, generic light fixtures from China and walls of sheetrock. Image courtesy Google Street View.