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:


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.  Surprise, surprise!  The preceding link has been re-directed to less damning videos.  Instead, check out this video tour of the Perkins Homes prior to their inevitable demolition.  It’s by Dan Bell of “Dead Mall” fame and and includes some additional Baltimore nostalgia:   FILM IT : Abandoned Perkins Homes Projects in Baltimore + Adult Theater Turned into Supermarket



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!

Part two of this continuing saga may be found here!

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