Historic preservation, the ways cities and suburbs resist development projects, and property values

In a discussion of how historic preservation aligned with particular political interests in cities, a scholar describes how suburbanites resist development compared to those in cities:

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The peculiar yet profound way in which historic preservation bound together issues of aesthetics, finance, and urban change is key to understanding why its popularity grew so rapidly in the middle of the 20th century. It also explains why a culture of historic preservation took root in some places more than others. Most suburbs—like the one on Long Island where Geller I once stood—relied on a different set of tools to stop development, such as open-space requirements and zoning codes that limited the number of new homes. To this day, historic preservation remains a less potent force in such places, largely because these other rules ensure that homes like Geller I are unlikely to be replaced by anything but McMansions. In cities with significant numbers of old buildings, however, preservation became an essential part of the process by which communities fended off urban-redevelopment projects.

While historic preservation does take place in the suburbs (and will come for McMansions at some point), it does not occur at the same level as in cities. As noted above, suburbs are not likely to approve significant changes to local zoning or buildings. Neighbors and residents will complain about changes to traffic, noise, lighting, and the character of a neighborhood in a way that tends to limit what a redeveloped property will be.

Cities also have zoning regulations and NIMBY responses to new structures but the presence of more buildings and uses in denser areas can make this all more complicated. Particularly in areas where redevelopment is hot, a new building might be very different than what has stood there for a long time.

But, as the article notes, historic preservation can be a tool used in a lot of places to halt plans:

Historic preservation not only gave this process of hyper-gentrification an imprimatur of political and legal legitimacy it might otherwise have lacked, but also continues to enable it in the present day. The LPC’s own website still notes that one of the purposes of New York’s landmarks law is to “stabilize and improve property values.” While the commission’s press releases paint an image of a body focused on protecting a diverse new array of buildings, the historic districts that already exist are, right now, a significant intervention in the city’s real-estate markets, whose main beneficiaries are the people who own land within them. Nor is this dynamic unique to New York. In California, wealthy cities like Pasadena and Palo Alto have recently tried to expand their landmarking powers in order to circumvent a new state law encouraging the construction of sorely needed housing. Simsbury, Connecticut, which is 87 percent white, just finalized a sale of nearly 300 acres to a land trust—killing an affordable-housing project in the process—on the premise that the site is historically significant because Martin Luther King Jr. once worked there. In Washington, preservationists have long tried to block the redevelopment of a water-filtration plant that hasn’t been used in 35 years on the basis that it is historically significant.

And perhaps this gets at the heart of the matter: whether using zoning or historic preservation, one of the goals of American residents is to enhance property values. Sonia Hirt argues that protecting single-family homes and their values is a primary goal of zoning in the United States. In a system that prizes the growth of home values, perhaps historic preservation plays a similar role.

Preserve a Brutalist courthouse in the suburbs, can McMansions be far behind?

Landmark Illinois recently released its list of the most endangered historic places and it includes several places in the suburbs of Chicago. This is the largest suburban building on the list:

This is indeed a unique structure. Suburbanites are unlikely to see many large Brutalist buildings in suburban communities as they are traditionally associated with big cities (think Boston City Hall or the FBI Building in Washington, D.C.).

I have asked before whether Americans would prefer modernist structures more broadly or McMansions. Both kinds of buildings have their detractors who critique the materials, the style, and the prevalence of such structures.

If some of the goals of preservation are to protect notable buildings and help show important architecture of the past, both such styles deserve to be recognized. Brutalism is not likely the preferred style in suburbs. McMansions are not favored by many. At the least, both kinds of buildings represent a particular era. At their best, they present a particular approach to buildings and spaces.

Even if certain kinds of structures or certain styles are not appealing to all, there is still value in preserving examples of this work. If Brutalist buildings are in, we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine protecting the subdivision McMansion of the North Shore or the teardown McMansion of Naperville to show how Americans thought about suburban housing at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Preserve a McMansion to help combat climate change

As part of an argument against demolishing buildings, McMansions should also be preserved to help address ecological challenges:

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Anyone interested in mediating the worst ongoing outcomes of the present climate catastrophe must also disconnect the idea of development from our notion that it proceeds only in cycles of demolition and new construction—a pattern that prevails because it is maximally legible to our existing structures of debt, financialization, and speculation. About 80 percent or more of a typical new house’s lifetime ecological and energetic impact comes through the operations of initial material extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and construction; and then of eventual demolition, further transportation, and decay. Sustainable buildings are therefore not new buildings—however fuel-efficient their machines and materials. Sustainable buildings are buildings that have been sustained. Merely by being seventy-five years old and in working order, Geller I was radically sustainable. For that matter, any dumb 1990s McMansion down the block is almost as ecologically precious as Geller I. That McMansion’s judicious conservation, too, is part of ecological stewardship.

This kind of conservation comes not by preserving any one house exactly as it is, but by shifting from a fantasy of perpetual newness or untouchable oldness to the best practices that Gropius and Breuer cherished in old New England farmhouses: renovation, addition, retrofitting, and all manner of adaptive reuse that allows ever more lively and dignified density. The model of development becomes less one of the sudden appearance and disappearance of structures, and more one of continuous emendation and repair. Not incidentally, this affords ever more innovative ways of living intergenerationally and integratively—rather than dwelling in the built residue of past generations’ conventions about how families and communities ought to live.

Demolition and rebuilding takes a lot of resources. Additionally, rehabbing existing homes can help keep the character of a neighborhood or community consistent.

The twist above is that this might be the preferred course for McMansions. Such homes are not usually renowned for their architectural quality. Critics are not fans of the ways in which they were constructed, their drain on resources, and their ongoing presence.

I have argued before that at least a few McMansions will be preserved, at the least to mark a particular era and design. Preserving them to help combat climate change moving forward might be a unique feature of this decade.

The downsides to older housing

A planner and researcher argues older homes on the whole should not be celebrated and that the United States should instead focus on building newer, better housing:

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In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it…

In the meantime, we’re stuck with a lot of old housing that, to put it bluntly, just kind of sucks. A stately Victorian manor in the Berkshires is one thing. But if you live in a Boston triple-decker, a kit-built San Jose bungalow, or a Chicago greystone, your home is the cheap housing of generations past. These structures were built to last a half century—at most, with diligent maintenance—at which point the developers understood they would require substantial rehabilitation. Generally speaking, however, the maintenance hasn’t been diligent, the rehabilitation isn’t forthcoming, and any form of redevelopment is illegal thanks to overzealous zoning.

You might think uneven floors or steep stairwells have “character.” You’ll get no argument here. But more often than not, old housing is simply less safe…

The fact is that those much-lamented cookie-cutter five-over-one apartment buildings cropping up across the U.S. solve the problems of old housing and then some. Modern building codes require sprinkler systems and elevators, and they disallow lead paint. New buildings rarely burn down, rarely poison their residents, and nearly always include at least one or two units designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

And despite what old-home snobs may believe, new housing is also just plain nice to live in—in many ways an objective improvement on what came before.

New housing does indeed have features, including aesthetic choices and functionality, that often better suit current users. Safety can be a persuasive argument. And there certainly is a need for more housing units in many locations.

However, continuing to use, rehabbing or renovating, and preserving housing can sometimes address these concerns and provide continuity in structure and character. We often tie concepts like stability, tradition, and permanence to housing units, even if they are not the best construction or something better comes along later.

What would be interesting to see is if one American city or region was willing to commit to building new housing in the way described in this piece. If there is there is the will and resources to construct plentiful, attractive, and safe new housing and not fix up or save older homes, what would happen?How would it transform everyday life and society?

One aspect of this debate that I wondered about: is it greener to build a lot more new housing or to rehab existing housing?

Preserving an important Chinese American church building constructed in 1968

Here is a discussions of whether to preserve an important church building in Queens, New York:

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Classis Hudson, the regional governing body of the CRCNA, will vote on Tuesday on whether to authorize an interim committee to figure out the future of the congregation. The Queens church officially has only 27 members, according to the denomination’s website, and no full-time CRC pastor. The church’s founder, Paul C. H. Szto, led the church until he died in 2019 at the age of 95…

The Queens church raised its own funds to build a church building next door in 1968. It is believed to be among the first—if not the very first—Chinese congregation to build its own church building in the US. With the church building in place, and a new wave of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants pouring into the country, the Queens CRC became a waystation for Chinese American Christians and a center for Reformed thought in the Chinese American community…

Pastor Szto, who had studied under the Dutch Calvinist philosopher Cornelius Van Til at Westminster Theological Seminary and under Christian existentialist Paul Tillich at Union Theological Seminary, turned the space into a lecture hall, seminar room, and theological library with more than 18,000 books. According to The Banner, an official CRCNA publication, Szto and his wife housed and hosted more than 2,000 students, immigrants, and refugees in his home…

Mary Szto would like to see the parsonage become a museum and cultural center to carry on that legacy and tell the story of her father’s life’s work and the history of Chinese American Christianity in New York City. She notes that Chinese American church history tracks closely with real estate laws and business ownership restrictions that limited where Chinese families could buy property until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

At this point, it sounds like the fate of the building is still under conversation among particular involved actors. Not all congregations last forever and making decisions about what to do with their buildings can be difficult.

More broadly, there are many church buildings in the United States that are no longer used by a congregation. Some older structures find new life as a home for a different congregation and others are converted to new uses. In places where there is demand for land, such as in New York City, the end of a religious congregation may present an opportunity for a new owner to raze the building and construct something else. Some argue more religious buildings should be preserved as they are important parts of community life.

Additionally, Queens is an important site for religious activity, particularly in the post-1965 era when immigrants arrived in the community in larger numbers. For more, see the work of historian R. Scott Hanson on religious pluralism in Flushing, Queens.

I am struck in this case by the relatively recent construction of the church building. Historic preservation conversations about churches can often consider much older structures. This building is just over 50 years old but it is also socially significant. The church building in an alternative form – museum and cultural center – could serve as a reminder of the efforts of the religious congregation that once gathered there as well as its impacts.

Recommended read: A Field Guide to American Houses

I was sad to read about the recent passing of Virginia Savage McAlester. I highly recommend the book A Field Guide to American Houses that occupied much of her attention.

There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”…

McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods…

McAlester set about creating such a survey. The book that emerged from her efforts is a hefty tome that has been referred to as “The Bible,” by preservationists. The Field Guide is more than a catalog of home styles and types. To write it, McAlester said she had to learn a whole new architectural vocabulary, in part because the common features of so many American homes didn’t rise into the architecture lexicon at Harvard…

For example, in a 2014 update to the Field Guide, she coined two new phrases to describe two emerging architectural styles: “21st century modern” for the sleek, angular, uncluttered structures that dominate the pages of contemporary shelter magazines; and “millennium mansions” for the thrown-up ex-urban behemoths more commonly derided as “McMansions.” For McAlester, it was important to understand the highs and lows of design because both architectural visions shape our experience and conception of American communities.

I have used this book both in scholarly projects and read it for enjoyment. I have it on the shelf in my office and occasionally will pull it down to reference some feature of homes or to look through the numerous examples McAlester provided.

A few additional thoughts on the text:

  1. The book highlights both the broad categories of homes as well as the numerous variations within each type. Based on the distinctive features of each style which the book clearly points out, you can usually easily find the broad category a home fits into. At the same time, you can also revel in the many types within each category.
  2. The numerous photographs in each style are very helpful. McAlester collected photographs from numerous locations throughout the United States. For example, the section on “millennium mansions” includes multiple photographs from Naperville, Illinois.
  3. I also appreciate the sections of the book about particular features of homes, ranging from roofs to windows to how homes are structurally supported. This book is not just about the external appearance; there are things to be learned about houses are put together.

Celebrating new development – and recognizing what is lost

Looking at a few 2010s retrospectives at Curbed, I enjoyed looking at one detailing some of the buildings and spaces lost in Chicago in the last ten years:

The losses in Chicago’s built environment go far beyond the buildings and their architectural features. These places are symbols of greater failures: vacant lots represent a dearth of affordable housing, church-condo conversions signal the absence of community spaces, and closed schools call attention to the city’s disinvestment in its neighborhoods.

This only covers a sliver of the demolitions and conversions that have occurred in the past decade. These spaces are still mourned today, and as we reach the end of a decade, let’s take a look back at what Chicago has lost.

This is an interesting collection. And it does not even address the significant changes that may have come to neighborhoods or smaller areas through new development. Addressing how a place changes in atmosphere and feel goes beyond just buildings.

What is the proper or best way to mark these losses? Growth is often seen as an inarguable good. Don’t residents and leaders want new buildings, new options, updated spaces? Here are a few ways buildings and spaces could be memorialized:

  1. Articles, books, and websites can help keep memories alive. A retrospective like the one above makes sense but such pieces need to keep coming, particularly as the years pass and new residents do not even know what used to be there.
  2. Some sort of public marker or display in certain locations. This would be hard to do for every structure that changes but imagine having both a new building or space and a public marker with an image and some text that records what also stood on that land. This would help future visitors visualize what used to stand there.
  3. How about a museum for a lost Chicago? I could envision exciting displays with pictures, videos, interviews, text, and immersive recreations (whether parts of buildings that are reconstructed or using virtual reality displays) that celebrate what used to be in Chicago. A history museum can do some of this as could a celebration of architecture but really focusing on buildings and spaces could be really interesting and worthwhile for a city that wants to celebrate its past.
  4. Of course, ongoing historic preservation efforts can help keep this in the public eye. While it may be difficult at times to agree on a balance between saving key structures and allowing for change and innovation, at least having public discussions about important structures helps provide reminders of how something can be lost even as something new looks promising.

Looking to define the first skyscraper

The ten-story Home Insurance Building constructed in Chicago in 1885 may or may not remain as the world’s first skyscraper:

New York’s proponents have long stressed that great height is the defining feature of skyscrapers. They point to the fact that lower Manhattan had tall office buildings on its Newspaper Row, like the clock tower-topped New York Tribune Building (a 260 footer), as early as 1875 — 10 years before the Home Insurance Building was completed.

But although the New York towers used commercial passenger elevators, which had been around since the 1850s, they were constructed of load-bearing masonry. Their thick exterior walls likely prevented ample amounts of natural light from entering offices. The walls also chewed up valuable interior space. The buildings were, in essence, dinosaurs — large and impressive, but, structurally at least, exemplars of a dying breed.

In contrast, Jenney’s Home Insurance Building did employ advanced structural technology, though the extent to which it did so is subject to debate. Jenney, who had earned the rank of major in the Civil War during his hitch with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, appears to have improvised the structure, as he would have done when he designed fortifications at Shiloh and Vicksburg…

Highlighting a single building ignores the reality that American skyscrapers came into existence through evolution, not revolution. While there were decisive moments along the way, progress entailed steps and missteps, inspiration and improvisation, and an intense rivalry between Chicago and New York.

The rivalry between New York and Chicago continues, this time involving early tall buildings. Both cities are marked by iconic skylines and buildings: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building versus the Sears Tower and Hancock Building, the view from the Upper Bay or Hudson River on Manhattan versus looking from Lake Michigan at the Loop. (And this just scratches the surface of the architecture in both urban regions.)

The final paragraph cited above is more interesting: at what point did a completely new type of building emerge? Earlier parts of the piece suggested it had to do with the shift from masonry walls to a steel frame structure. And perhaps it will be very difficult to find the first building that truly did this and to what leading heights it rose. At the least, it will be worth bragging and tourist rights. At its best, it might help historians, architects, and others better understand how the modern city that we are so used to just 135 years or so later truly came to be.

And I’m sure ink has already been spilled on this but the fact that the Home Insurance Building was demolished in 1931 may factor into this. If the building was still standing, people would have a chance to see the structure. Though it lives on in books and memories, that it has been gone nearly ninety years probably does not help its cause in the court of public opinion.

Paraphrased future: “Love or hate McMansions, the ones in Chicago deserve to be recognized”

Brutalist architecture may have few admirers but this does not stop people from suggesting the style is worth examining or saving. Here is a recent headline from Curbed Chicago: “13 Brutalist masterpieces that every Chicagoan should know; Love or hate the style, Chicago’s concrete buildings deserve to be recognized.” And this is the argument made about why these buildings are worth looking at:

Popular during the 1960s and 70s, Brutalism should not be overlooked for its historical importance. Though Chicago lost a few Brutalist buildings—most famously Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014—the style might even be poised for a comeback.

“In many cases, concrete buildings captured the aspirations of the city at critical times,” Chicago-based architect Iker Gil said in a statement last year. “As we shape the future of Chicago, it is worth trying to learn from the lessons and opportunities represented by these remarkable buildings.”

If this argument is successful, then it is a short step toward a similar argument for all kinds of architectural styles and buildings. In particular, the same case could be made for McMansions. Even though many critiqued such homes, what buildings better capture the consumeristic exuberance and grandiosity of the 1990s and 2000s? What buildings better illustrate the sprawling of America and a dedication to private single-family homes that flaunt the status of the homeowners? Why not preserve at least a few McMansions for future generations to remember and learn from?

Somehow, I suspect the calls for preserving McMansions will be more muted or absent. Brutalism seems to attract the attention of enough elite or leading proponents that some of its most interesting buildings will survive. Few leading architects, critics, or designers will stand up for McMansions. Still, I would suspect enough of them will last 50+ years and the legions of McMansion buyers and builders may just come together to make sure some survive much longer.

Wanting to preserve the past, music masters edition

A long piece details the calamitous fire that hit an important vault of music at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 1, 2008:

Eventually the flames reached a 22,320-square-foot warehouse that sat near the King Kong Encounter. The warehouse was nondescript, a hulking edifice of corrugated metal, but it was one of the most important buildings on the 400-acre lot. Its official name was Building 6197. To backlot workers, it was known as the video vault…

The scope of this calamity is laid out in litigation and company documents, thousands of pages of depositions and internal UMG files that I obtained while researching this article. UMG’s accounting of its losses, detailed in a March 2009 document marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” put the number of “assets destroyed” at 118,230. Randy Aronson considers that estimate low: The real number, he surmises, was “in the 175,000 range.” If you extrapolate from either figure, tallying songs on album and singles masters, the number of destroyed recordings stretches into the hundreds of thousands. In another confidential report, issued later in 2009, UMG asserted that “an estimated 500K song titles” were lost…

The vault fire was not, as UMG suggested, a minor mishap, a matter of a few tapes stuck in a musty warehouse. It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business. UMG’s internal assessment of the event stands in contrast to its public statements. In a document prepared for a March 2009 “Vault Loss Meeting,” the company described the damage in apocalyptic terms. “The West Coast Vault perished, in its entirety,” the document read. “Lost in the fire was, undoubtedly, a huge musical heritage.”…

Today several of the company’s nearly 1,500 facilities are devoted to entertainment assets. Warner Music Group stores hundreds of thousands of master recordings in Iron Mountain’s Southern California facilities, and nearly all of Sony Music Entertainment’s United States masters holdings — more than a million recordings — are reportedly kept in Iron Mountain warehouses in Rosendale, N.Y. The Boyers, Pa., facility where UMG keeps most of its United States masters is a 1.7-million-square-foot former limestone mine. The facility offers optimal archive conditions, climate control and armed guards.

The boom in cultural products in the last 100 years or so with the rise of mass media and new technologies presents unique challenges for corporations, the public, and preservationists. How should all of this material be preserved? The amount of space needed for storage could be huge – even for digital files (see the Library of Congress efforts to collect tweets). Keeping all of that material safe from fire, temperature changes, water damage, and other forces is costly and requires constant vigilance. Technology changes and renders prior productions difficult to utilize. There may need to be an obvious payoff for whoever is storing this material in order to go through all the effort.

One solution to all of this is to get mediocre copies of things. The example at the end suggests music listeners can access so much through streaming services. One expert profiled in the story describes it this way: “The music sounds like it was mastered in a Coke can,” he says. “But on long drives, it’s the best.”” I suppose it could be argued that having access to music and films and other items is worth it, even if the quality is not that great.

But a bigger question is this: just how much material is worth saving? What will people in the future want to look back on? Will future people see big benefits from the most preserved material ever compiled by previous generations? How will future preservationists, historians, and others construct cultural narratives about life today based on so much material (both tremendously popular and not)?