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 (including 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 instilled through “news” and 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:
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!
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:
Part two of this continuing saga may be found here!