Published in Roadside Magazine, 1998
When I was growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, I remember facing the prospect of attending Classical High School in the midst of an on-going debate over its viability and future. Built in 1896, the structure's advanced age and lack of proper maintenance jeopardized the school's accreditation. To make matters more interesting, horror stories circulated about the building's failure to meet fire codes. The gymnasium could not accommodate regulation basketball games; the auditorium's broken seats and poor acoustics barely made it usable for anything but the occasional class assembly; it lacked a swimming pool and playing fields, and, well, let's face it -- the building looked like hell. I did not relish the prospect of advancing from a modern junior high school to a such a relic.
On my first day of my first year there in 1976, having yet to step inside the building, a reporter from the local paper polling the students asked me what I thought the city should do. The next day, my picture appeared at the top of page one with the caption, "...tear it down."
Springfield finally "solved" its high school problem in 1987 by opening a new building, one that esthetically doesn't deserve to house the boiler for school it replaced. An undistinguished brick, nearly-windowless structure, it stands at a prominent intersection with its main entrance hidden from the road. There is no other word for it -- the new school is ugly, and worse, it will not stand as long as the original. Meanwhile, someone ended up converting Classical into condominiums, and I would not be surprised if the building survives for another hundred years.
The point of my parable is this: From the day I opened the folder on Classical's history and realized the architectural and historical value of my school, I became a preservationist, advocating for its restoration. At the same time, I became something of a societal outcast.
Though I know they still love me, several of my friends and members of my family think I'm a little wacko. They patronize me whenever I bring up any topic related to preservation, just like anyone caught up in the mainstream drive toward the American dream: House in the suburbs, two (now three) car garage, perfectly manicured front lawn, three weeks vacation, and a big lawn tractor. When a new Dunkin Donuts replaces the local sandwich shop, this is cause for glee, not alarm. When the Home Depot has a sale, they will dutifully drive the 10 miles in the minivan to stock up.
In conversation, should I mention that adding a second level to an already-too-large local shopping mall only adds more excess retail space and will probably hurt the local downtown, I'm gratified if I get a nod of acknowledgement. Should I mention that I found the greatest piece of homemade apple pie in a little diner in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, I know I've committed my recommendation to a kind of Siberia. "Doesn't I-81 go through Wilkes-Barre? Sure, I've been through there."
The importance of preservation hardly enters the consciousness of most Americans. This sad but true fact is one of the many obstacles to changing the way we look at our landscape. The American way typically calls for the prompt introduction of the Next New Thing, no matter what the level of actual need. Notice that up until World War II, we generally built things as beautifully as we possibly could. After the War, we built them as cheaply as possible. Paradoxically, during this post-war period, we became better educated, wealthier, and more worldly. Go figure.
Several factors explain this enigma, one of them being the double-edged sword of expanded government involvement in two specific economic areas: transportation and housing. Before the war, private companies serviced most of our transportation needs. Shortly after the war, President Eisenhower appointed a commission consisting of corporate heads of General Motors, big auto builder, Bechtel Corporation, big contractor, and Allis-Chalmer's, big earth-moving equipment maker, to find a solution to the country's transportation "problem." Not surprisingly, laying more railroad track did not rise to the top of the list.
The G.I. Bill, universally acknowledged as a the greatest gift the government could have given its demobilized armed forces, granted not only a college education to any soldier who wanted it, but it also provided low interest loans to buy a house, albeit with one extremely consequential condition: The loans only covered new construction. Not surprisingly, vast amounts of outlying farmland soon became stark new housing developments and people fled from our inner cities in huge numbers to settle in the new Levittowns. We thus created a society that valued speed and efficiency over quality and aesthetics. Declining funding for arts and humanities education continued the downward spiral.
What preservationists continue to face is a mainstream attitude relegating them to the status of Luddites, building-huggers, and anti-free market types. However, you'd be hard pressed to find a greater proponent of the free enterprise system than myself. When I advocate for the preservation of any building, whether it is a diner or a post office, I do so recognizing the value inherent in the structure's history. In the right hands, that value becomes profit, and as example, I need only to point to the efforts of the McMenamins organization in Portland, Oregon. This past August, we had the opportunity to stay at McMenamins' Edgefield Manor in nearby Troutdale. I can best describe the experience as heaven on earth.
The McMenamin brothers took a crumbling county poor farm with all its many outbuildings facing a certain date with the bulldozer and transformed the property into a lavish, relaxing, and reasonably priced retreat. The company successfully incorporates the history of the complex into its marketing and uses its reputation as preservationists to its extremely lucrative advantage. The expansive, artfully-landscaped grounds of the Manor also feature large, uniquely decorated rooms, a movie theater, several pubs, and a restaurant that served me the best meal I have ever eaten.
For an encore, the McMenamins repeated the experience at their new Kennedy School retreat, a formerly decrepit neighborhood elementary school. Local newspaper columnist Jonathan Nicholas describes the $4.5 million dollar rescue and renovation of the 1915 building as "the most remarkable reincarnation in Portland history." Having experienced first-hand many of the company's other "reincarnations," and seen the overall appreciation Portland, Oregon has for its older architectural assets, I eagerly look forward to verifying Mr. Nicholas's assessment. To anyone doubting the feasibility of restoration, I now ask, "Have you been to Edgefield Manor lately?"
Is every old building worth saving? Absolutely not. Some do reach the end of their useful lives. Some have suffered too much abuse to restore. I do not advocate that we save everything. However, I challenge anyone to name for me a single occasion where a community later stood around a restored landmark saying, "Gee, I wish we tore that down."
Preservationists should strive not to simply save buildings, but to better establish a process in their communities that asks the following questions: Can this property be reused in some capacity? Can we find a developer with a track record for successfully preserving similar properties? And finally, if demolished, will we replace the building with something of similar, or better, quality and design?
Most Americans, I believe, are at least endowed with a "know it when I see it" sensibility, but sadly, they are afforded fewer and fewer opportunities to "see it." With two generations growing up in quarter-acre cul-de-sac developments, how do we best illustrate the benefits of preserving the 1/8 acre Victorian trolley suburb left for rubble back in the city? How can we possibly feel that we've done our best as a society when we stand inside, say, a turn-of-the century downtown post office knowing that an econo-box built near the shopping plaza will soon replace it? And finally, how will our society absorb the effects of replacing our community-based, owner-operated diners and restaurants with the drive-up window?
When I look at my old high school, I don't see moldings or Italian marble or ornately-carved woodwork. When I study my local diner, I don't see intricate patterns of ceramic tiles or the real oak booths or the heavy steel stool bases. I see people. I see the hard-working men and women who toiled to make that building a reality, and who must have believed that their efforts would stand for the ages. I look, and I stand amazed that these people labored with comparatively primitive tools, under harsh working conditions, and that they lived in a society that could barely imagine the wealth we've collectively amassed today.
When I think of them, I pray that they can't see what we've done with their hard work -- and that when we pass on to join them, they won't judge us accordingly.