The War On Old Buildings – Part 1

Those who are passionate about old buildings have often wondered why there has long been such a bias toward them.  Those of us who value old buildings and houses understand that these places typically have numerous attributes; they are frequently built of superior materials, were built to last for hundreds of years, display more thoughtfulness in terms of design (many were actually styled), and provide a critical link in recalling our history – thereby providing a foundation for our future.  Yet, obviously, not everyone is on board with that perspective.

As a child I had trouble comprehending the fact that old houses and buildings were continually being torn down around me; what was wrong with these people?  Why couldn’t they see what I could so plainly see?  I bristled every time I heard someone speak disparagingly of old buildings and was always quick to defend them.  My reaction was typically met with smirking amusement – at least from adults.  At some point I understood that we as a culture were being conditioned (brainwashed and propagandized, to put it another way) to reject our old building stock in favor of new construction.  I knew that it wasn’t like that in other countries – other cultures revered their past and utilized buildings for centuries making only subtle changes to them.  What made Americans think so differently?

As with many questions, there was no simple comprehensive answer; several factors contributed to this mindset.  Among them were the biasses found in marketing and media (including books). Today a similar bias is largely is largely instilled through infotainment – specifically popular “home improvement” television programs which encourage homeowners to take a sledgehammer to their houses and throw everything into a dumpster.  As a child, I neither understood that this bias was cultivated nor that it was all about the money.  Then, as now, it was not only about creating a larger tax base – but also about fueling the economy.  After all, the Big Box stores can sell more stuff if people destroy what they have and then need to replace it.  Conservation of resources is not in the best interest of the national economy.

The push for “green” options in new construction is similar in that it is less about saving the planet and more about getting people to spend money on newly created trends.  After all, which housing option is more green: (1) a newly constructed house with bamboo flooring and countertops made of recycled material (built on a previously undeveloped parcel of land) or (2) the rehabilitation, renovation or restoration of an already existing house?  Which has less impact on the environment?

The war has been going on for a very long time; the housing reform movement took off in the 19th century.  The bias against old buildings continues today; indoctrination for this mindset can be found easily once you start noticing it.  Here are a few examples of how the brainwashing manifested in the middle of the last century:

 

 

Our city obviously needs to be demolished so we can change it with big new stuff.  The American flag at the left is a subtle reminder that this is the American way and the patriotic thing to do! “Your Towns and Cities, New Edition” by Eleanor Thomas with Ernest W. Tiegs and Fay Adams. Copyright 1967 by Ginn and Company, page 69.

 

The subliminal message here is that big houses styled in the Second Empire manner attract abandoned cars and breed overgrown vacant lots.  None of these planners ever seem to suggest restoration in these textbooks.  “Your Towns and Cities, New Edition”, page 40.

 

The captions say it all:  Old is ugly and unsafe while New is safe, clean and beautiful.  “Your Towns and Cities, New Edition”, page 41.

 

In this lesson, the Mayor trash-talks old buildings so he can grow the governmental bureaucracy.  Hey, if the Mayor says so, it must be true!  Hmmm.  None of the citizens in this lesson speak up to protest the demolition… take note, kids; be dutiful citizens and keep your mouths shut!  “Your Towns and Cities, New Edition”, page 86.

 

In this lesson, Peter eagerly anticipates the destruction of part of his city’s building stock and potential resources.  You should, too!  “Your Towns and Cities, New Edition”, page 88.

 

The Fire Chief warns that old buildings are a fire hazard.  Note the illustration further disparages old buildings by including laundry hung at the second floor level and a prominent “For Sale” sign on the house adjacent to the burning one.  A bay window and fretwork porch are there to help impressionable young readers figure out which houses are bad.  “Your Towns and Cities, New Edition”, page 79.

 

The backs of dilapidated row houses are shown to illustrate slum dwellings while the fronts of the new replacement housing (complete with miniature white picket fencing) are shown to illustrate the vast improvement.  Today, at the time of this writing, the housing project depicted is described by residents as a rat-infested slum. Click HERE for link. “Baltimore – City of Promise”,  Copyright 1953 by the Baltimore City Department of Education, page 164.

 

This pretty much spells it out.   “Baltimore – City of Promise”,  page 167.

 

Well, this approach doesn’t seem to have worked too well in Baltimore.  “Baltimore – City of Promise”, page 168.

 

 

Occasionally a book will make an effort at compromise.  The textbook “In the Neighborhood”, by Paul R. Hannah and Genevieve Anderson Hoyt (copyright 1958 by Scott, Foresman and Company), describes how David comes to terms with the loss of his old school house when a big, shiny, new one is built.  No sweat; Grandfather just buys the old one and has it moved to his farm where he proceeds to turn it into a garage so that David can still visit it!  Of course David is elated with the new school and lives happily ever after with no mental health issues whatsoever.  Not a one!

 

 

Historic Preservation was still in its infancy!  The school is reduced to a garage and its character so altered that it no longer looks like the building David pined for.  At least it is better than destroying it completely!  “In the Neighborhood”, page 36.

 

Before television took over the reigns, popular magazines and promotional publications convinced Americans that their houses were hopelessly outdated and must be remodeled.  This illustration is from “The Home Idea Book” published by Johnson – Manville, c. 1950:

 

Because Victorian-era houses are always dreary!

 

 

10 Responses to The War On Old Buildings – Part 1

  1. This makes me so sad and ashamed of our culture. We could have invested in visionary ideals of quality, longevity, beauty and compassion to strive for… a legacy to inherit and be proud of… admired in future history books for turning this mess around… emulated for evolving and benefitting all of mankind…

    • Our culture definitely has issues. You are correct; books and television programs could just as easily instill a reverence for history rather than an obsession with the latest fad. People who restore buildings also contribute to the economy – perhaps not as much as those who destroy and rebuild, but a new economy could be created based on conservation and quality rather than endless waste. The current system does not incentivize or inspire true progress. I’ll try to find something more uplifting to post soon!

  2. I resonated with the beginning of this post. I too often wondered why people didn’t like the beautiful old stuff. Consumerism!

    • Consumerism is definitely a big part of the problem! Advertising and planned obsolescence have worked in concert for decades to fuel our appetites for continually-increasing amounts of new stuff and constant change. The resultant damage to both our natural and built environment would be hard to quantify, but it is significant. I do maintain that our tastes are to some degree steered and influenced; the practice of “red-lining” by banks and “block-busting” by developers are just two more examples of such influence (in addition to the more subtle bias shown in children’s text books). I may explore these practices and how they contributed to the decline and demolition of historically- and architecturally-significant neighborhoods in a future post. But prior to that, I’ll soon be taking a road trip to seek out regional forms of architectural trauma to share!

      • Architectural Trauma Road Trip 2018! Woo Hoo! Red-lining and Block-busting were a big part of our history here in Chicago.

  3. It is a shame to see how strongly destruction of the past was pushed. I think the general failure of the Urban Revival (aka, bulldoze it all and build new) movement of the 50s, 60s, and 70s has resulted in a big swing back towards more appreciation and respect for traditional urban development and architecture, but preservation is still often a fight. Most of the new desirable urban neighborhoods are those with solid prewar building stock, infilled with sympathetic new construction, not those that were demolished and replaced with “Towers in the Park” development later. This is very evident in cities like Omaha, where previously overlooked urban centers like Benson, Dundee, Blackstone, Little Italy, and others are seeing strong demand and revitalization. I feel that city officials and developers have more respect for traditional urban forms and are making more effort to embrace it, rather than fight it.

    Unfortunately, respect for the details of traditional and historic architecture is farther behind. Too many of the growing reivitaliations are but rehab, rather than restorations. But, considering where we have come from, it’s still quite and improvement.

    Lastly, I do hope the HGTV trend peters out soon. With a few exceptions, there’s little respect, or even acknowledgement of good architecture and design. It still surprises me how many of the “after” homes end up a disjointed mish-mash of clashing styles, after destroying original features consistent with the original style. I laugh (and maybe cry a little too) every time I hear somone say how much they like the historic “charm” about a place, then proceed to demolish the features that make it so.

    • Have you seen the DIY show “Restored”? It is actually pretty good. I have a few quibbles with a lot of what he does, but he actually talks about such forbidden things like – keeping wood windows, putting walls back up/retaining them, keeping trim in place. I like the renovation shows, but have a high blood pressure issue when I see everything get ripped out of a historic home.

      • Your comment made me curious… I had never seen an episode of “Restored” before, so I watched the very first one. My impression is much like yours; it’s a mix of good and bad… much more kind to historic buildings than “Fixer Upper”, etc., but still a very long way from true restoration. I do appreciate that the program shows windows being restored rather than replaced! That’s impressive.

        The host is touted as a “restoration expert” yet he refers to a battered porch pier as a “pilaster” several times in the first show. Right off the bat I’ve lost confidence in his level of expertise. He also says his goal is to “return a home to the way it was intended to be” and then proceeds to add elements which were never there originally (battered pier, ceiling beams, L-shaped bench). He also takes an interesting Tudor-style entry door form a salvage yard and restyles it rather than using an actual Craftsman style door. He’s ready to do demo the very next day after meeting the owner and seeing the house for the first time. I could go on, but you get the idea.

        The seventh item on the list of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Restoration states:

        Replacement of missing features from the restoration period will be substantiated by documentary and physical evidence. A false sense of history will not be created by adding conjectural features, features from other properties, or by combining features that never existed together historically.

        Just because funding isn’t coming from the feds doesn’t make it OK to call a remodeling or renovation a restoration.

        Words do have precise meanings! When everyone on TV is an “expert” and remodeling equals “restoration”, those two words have been cheapened. I’d be much happier if programs used the correct terms so as not to confuse viewers. The host is very good at what he does, but it is still remodeling…he’s just more conscientious about maintaining stylistic integrity and retaining more original features than the other shows do.

        I would love to see a program on TV that actually restores buildings in an historically accurate manner – wouldn’t that be fun! The show still gets my admiration for being on the right track… it’s a start.

        • There is definitely some confused lingo on the program. There was some mangled talk about a mid-century house, calling it a “post-modern 1947 ranch”. I think it was because he was doing some other house that the show creators had labeled mid-century modern, so they couldn’t use that branding again.

          I am just happy that there is a renovation/remodeling show that is thinking about these issues at all. I think that is the only way we will get people interested in actual restoration. I recorded one episode of “Bargain Mansion”, and was so upset after a few minutes that I erased the show.

          Your point about non-authentic materials, and sort of fitting them in is problematic. But, to be fair, I didn’t know about that stuff before. Of course, I don’t say I am an expert either. Old House Dreams and Restoring Ross have sharpened my thinking on those issues a lot.

          The last “Restored” I watched, he got the homeowners to actually retain some walls (so not all open all the way through), and put some missing walls back up. I gave him some points for that.

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