If Americans can celebrate and preserve ranch and modernist homes and Brutalist architecture, we can expect to see preserved McMansions

McMansions are rarely celebrated and are often skewered (read more here and here). Yet, given the number of McMansions constructed in recent decades plus the number of Americans who live in McMansions, I predict this: we can expect to see preserved McMansions in the future. Imagine at least a few McMansion preservation districts or homes converted into museums and/or local history sites to help future American residents envision the past.

Critics argue McMansions have a multiple negative traits including their size, their architecture, and what they stand for. At the same time, not all buildings and structures that are preserved or celebrated are ones that all Americans celebrate. Take but three examples: ranch homes, modernist homes, and Brutalist buildings. Ranch homes have their own proponents and backers but they are also derided for their simplicity and lack of traditional architecture, particularly in mass-produced suburbia. Modernist homes may catch the eye of architects and those interested in minimalist design but I think more Americans would prefer a McMansion. And Brutalist architecture may come under fire but a number of prominent public buildings in this style still stand and will be preserved.

If future Americans want to understand typical life at the turn of the twenty-first century, they may need to see and tour a suburban McMansion. This does not mean that the presentation will be all positive. Those future visitors may scoff at the open design, the architectural mish-mash, the hobby rooms and copious amounts of storage space, the granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, the use of McMansions in horror stories, and the rows upon rows of such homes. Or, such a preserved home might endeavor to explain why Americans continued to buy McMansions even with the negative connotations of the term.

I look forward to seeing some of the first McMansion preservation sites. These may be both business and community opportunities as well as part of an effort by Americans to better understand their own past. And because there are so many McMansions and they are so emblematic of a particular era, let the era of McMansion preservation begin.

Using preservation to maintain affordable mobile homes

One architect and preservationist suggest mobile homes deserve the attention of the preservationist community:

We talk about affordable housing all the time, as we should, but we never talk about mobile homes or mobile home parks—even though they’re primarily used as affordable housing. When we talk about affordable housing and historic homes as preservationists, we really need to start including mobile home parks in those discussions. They fill a critical gap [in housing opportunities], but they’re also endangered…

[Since most mobile home parks are privately owned], they become too expensive to maintain. To keep them affordable, their original infrastructure usually remains in place while their owners [find temporary solutions for repairs] until the entire mobile home park needs to be replaced. They’re sold off because it’s just too expensive to maintain and the owner is no longer making a profit; these are private places and businesses, and that is a legitimate concern.

Sometimes, mobile home parks are zoned out of their city or municipality because they aren’t wanted. That trend began in the 1950s and ‘60s, when suburbs were growing exponentially, and it continues today. When owners don’t want to own their mobile home park anymore, they sell them to developers who would rather build condos or other forms of housing that don’t have limited profit margins…

In preservation circles, I think it’s particularly challenging because mobile home parks don’t meet any current measure of architectural integrity. They are very flexible spaces, and they could be upended at any time. It would be exceptionally difficult to put them in the National Register, the way it’s set up now, but that ultimately opens up opportunities for the future. I think we need to change the way we measure and create historic places.

I have been under the impression that preservation is typically sought for (1) older and (2) architecturally significant buildings. Mobile homes could fit both of these categories: a number of mobile home communities span decades and they are a unique American form of housing. At the same time, I cannot imagine too many neighbors or communities would be thrilled if mobile home parks were given a longer lease on life because of being tabbed for preservation. Using preservation to keep affordable housing units seems to be a delaying tactic; it may protect units in a time when many metro areas need a lot of affordable housing units yet very few places would want even more mobile home units.

This argument gets at bigger issues: (1) what buildings are worth preserving? and (2) who gets to make these decisions? According to opponents, historic preservation can stall normal processes of redevelopment. According to supporters, preservation can protect significant edifices that may be demolished in the name of “progress.”

How much do we know about cities today because of photographs and visual images?

It didn’t take long for photography to become a tool for preserving major cities:

The idea of capturing something in photography before it disappears dates back almost to the dawn of the medium. In 1875, a group called the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London formed in response to the imminent demise of the 17th-century Oxford Arms. Like many coaching inns, the Arms was facing destruction as the city, coming out of the Industrial Revolution, was in a state of major redevelopment. Photographers documented the inn and other soot-stained alleyways, Gothic façades, and rambling wooden structures in glass plate negatives, printed in carbon to make them last…

Ramalingam added that the photographs demonstrate “what parts of London were considered worth preserving” to 1870s Londoners, and about half of these sites are still part of its built environment. A map on one wall plots their current or former location. A teetering house in an 1883 photograph is now replaced by the glassy Gherkin skyscraper, and Christopher Wren’s Temple Bar, pictured in 1878, was later taken apart and then reinstated not far from St. Paul’s Cathedral. More than just preserve a visual memory, the images represent the beginning of the photographic medium being a deliberate part of our historic record.

The photographs here are very interesting. Yet, I would love to see more on the larger question: did photography fundamentally transform how people and societies viewed their major cities? The visual age and the age of megacities are intertwined. Photography arrived around the same time as major change: industrialization and urbanization had arrived in many Western cities by the late 1800s. What if the transformation of London or the phoenix-like rise of Chicago or the changes in Paris weren’t accompanied by photographs? If we just had paintings or text descriptions, would we understand those changes differently? While photographs help us know what we are missing in current cities, they also remind us of how much has disappeared from all the major cities of the world over the centuries.

“Forty Percent of the Buildings in Manhattan Could Not Be Built Today”

Manhattan’s zoning code is complicated and there are a number of buildings – many built prior to 1930 – that would not meet current standards:

New York City’s zoning code turns 100 this year. That may not sound like cause for celebration — except maybe for land-use lawyers and Robert Moses aficionados. Yet for almost every New Yorker, the zoning code plays an outsize role in daily life, shaping virtually every inch of the city…

New York’s zoning code was the first in the country, meant to promote a healthier city, which was then filling with filthy tenements and office towers. Since it was approved in 1916, the ever-evolving, byzantine code has changed many times to suit the needs of a swollen metropolis. Just in March, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio won approval for a vast citywide plan that would encourage sleeker, more affordable developments…

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trivedi evaluated public records on more than 43,000 buildings and discovered that about 17,000 of them, or 40 percent, do not conform to at least one part of the current zoning code. The reasons are varied. Some of the buildings have too much residential area, too much commercial space, too many dwelling units or too few parking spaces; some are simply too tall. These are buildings that could not be built today…

Nearly three-quarters of the existing square footage in Manhattan was built between the 1900s and 1930s, according to an analysis done by KPF, an architecture firm based in New York. In a way, the zoning code helps to preserve such architectural diversity. The laws have gotten more restrictive over time, giving an edge to properties built in earlier eras.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I particularly like the two examples of buildings cited in the story where it is clearly shown what would have to change should the buildings be subject to current standards.
  2. It is not entirely clear but it looks like this article credits zoning for protecting a lot of these older buildings. If you wanted to purchase an older building, tear it down, and build a new one, the new structure would not be quite the same. This means that zoning acts as a kind of historic preservation. Of course, we could ask how many older buildings are too many?
  3. There are calls to overhaul the zoning code to make it simpler. One of the problems is that different areas of Manhattan want different standards. Even though New York City the global city, many of the building decisions are local and residents want some control. Think of Jane Jacobs’ efforts to save Greenwich Village and certain structures during the 1960s. A more vanilla zoning code would make things simpler but could hinder local character.

Just how much historical preservation is too much?

The source of this information is on one side of the issue but it is an interesting question to consider: just how much historic preservation of buildings is too much?

New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Act was intended to protect about three or four “historic districts”—Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, etc.—preservationist James Van Derpool told the New York City Council in 1964. That’s all “anyone had seriously considered.”

The Landmarks Act  was passed the following year thanks in part to Van Derpool’s testimony. A half-century later the city has protected 138 historic districts. Nearly a third of the structures in Manhattan have been landmarked. As I argued in a Reason TV video published last year, entire swaths of New York City may as well be encased in a life-sized historical diorama. Out-of-control landmarking is undermining the process of creative destruction that made New York, well, New York…

What justifies these two designations? Landmarks Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan was left straining. She lauded the Pepsi sign for “its prominent siting” and “frequent appearances in pop culture.” The Park Slope blocks are part of an area, Srinivasan explained, that “owes its cohesiveness to its tree-lined streets, predominant residential character, and its high level of architectural integrity.”

If “prominent siting,” “tree-lined streets,” “residential character,” and “architectural integrity” are grounds for landmarking, what’s to stop the Commission from declaring every square inch of the Big Apple too precious to ever change?

Here are the two sides of the issue:

  1. The preservationists will argue that buildings and streetscapes need protecting because (1) capitalism and free markets tend to bulldoze meaningful structures for current residents and future generations in pursuit of progress and (2) residents of particular places should expect that features of the location that helped draw them there should remain there.
  2. Reason and others would argue that such restrictions limit the free market, stopping progress and natural processes of neighborhood change. Such regulations constrict the market for property which can drive up prices as well as freeze areas in time even as the world has moved on to better things.

Perhaps there is some middle point or range where both parties can get what they want? This opinion piece suggests nearly a third of Manhattan is simply too much but where is the empirical evidence to support this? Is Manhattan development suffering because of this? As is common in social life, neither side will likely get all that they want – no such designations vs. always having to get approval from the neighbors when building a new structure – so some compromise should be reached.

It would also be interesting to look at the level of historic preservation in wealthier vs. poorer areas. Can more of Manhattan be saved because there are resources to do so versus an inability to save many noteworthy structures in poorer American neighborhoods because there are few organizations who could handle the burden? In other words, perhaps historic preservation is an issue largely faced by wealthier communities who can afford to protect some of their gloried past.

Cut LA planning staff and expect more McMansions

Critics suggest that cutting several city employees will lead to more McMansions in Los Angeles:

Garcetti’s 2016-2017 budget calls for cutting two staff jobs in the seven-member Neighborhood Conservation division.

The division helps prepare historical designations — or Historic Preservation Overlay Zones (HPOZs) — for neighborhoods with distinctive architectural or cultural features. An HPOZ designation can help a neighborhood from overdevelopment by setting strict building guidelines, such as requiring that homes have a similar exterior look.

HPOZ designations are in place in dozens of neighborhoods, including Hancock Park, Van Nuys and University Park.

The mayor’s proposed Planning Department budget — released last week as part of his overall $8.7 billion spending plan for next fiscal year — comes at a crucial time for the Neighborhood Conservation division, advocates say. The office is racing to finish HPOZ designations for six areas before a law outlining teardowns of homes in those neighborhoods expires.

Usually such jobs in local government draw little attention, particularly when the city employs over 45,000 people and Los Angeles County has more than 100,000 employees. Yet, a relatively small set of city employees can oversee relatively large or influential projects. And the battle over McMansions in Los Angeles is not over as this tidbit later in the article suggests:

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is leading a March 2017 ballot measure initiative that would temporarily halt construction of so-called mega-projects in the city.

In Los Angeles, the competing forces of an expensive housing market plus property rights will be fighting the forces of historic preservation for a while yet.

The case for saving Chicago’s old churches

Here is an argument for why the broader public should work to preserve dozens of older churches throughout Chicago:

The protection of religious structures presents a unique set of problems. A particularly formidable roadblock is the city’s inability to step in to designate threatened religious buildings as a landmark. The city has powers allowing it to move forward with landmark designations for non-religious buildings in spite of owner consent, however, a 1987 revision to the Landmark Ordinance states that “no building that is owned by a religious organization…shall be designated a historical landmark without the consent of its owner.” And without protections, many of these buildings are left to deteriorate and ultimately face demolition…

Chicago’s Catholic churches are among the most prominent visual connections to the city’s past and the ethnic communities that once dominated the neighborhoods. They provide clues to what ethnic communities make up Chicago’s diverse population through the languages engraved on facades, the style of buildings, and the saints for whom they were named…

For most Chicagoans, the interiors of sacred places remain a mystery, but Seidel’s anecdote indicates that people still care a great deal about the buildings in their neighborhoods, even when they might not necessarily understand or fully appreciate the Latin, Polish, Hebrew, or Greek spoken inside.

And this is the exact point that preservationists believe to be the most important. Even if the number of people attending religious services drops, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the general populace fails to recognize great architecture or stop using religious structures as spatial identifiers. It doesn’t mean that many of these struggling South Side neighborhoods don’t deserve to have culturally significant structures.

This comes after the archdiocese of Chicago announced it would close dozens of churches. This is interesting because historically it has been Protestant groups who have been happy to step away from their churches in big cities. Particularly after white flight, many of those Protestant churches were sold to other religious groups, converted to other uses, or demolished over recent decades. But, many Catholic churches stayed because of a commitment Catholics had to the building and neighborhoods as well as providing worship spaces to new waves of immigrants. The archdiocese suggests this is no longer tenable:

In his announcement, Blase indicated that the church is faced with a perfect storm: a shortage of priests joining the seminary, declining mass attendance, and the deferral of maintenance bills for churches that are in need of attention. All of these issues combined has put a squeeze on archdiocese resources and will force many parishes to either close or consolidate. And with the looming closure of potentially dozens of churches, there is now a threat of demolition for some of the city’s most important cultural and architectural icons.

But, I would guess it may be hard to mobilize many neighborhoods (and the necessary resources) to save old churches from religious groups that few attend or adhere to in those places. How many Americans are willing to sacrifice something to save old buildings for the sake of keeping them around? The argument laid out above is a typical one from preservationists: losing the buildings means losing a physical part of the place’s heritage. But, where are the resources to preserve these buildings if market forces – both in the economy and in American religion where attendees can choose among hundreds of options – are suggesting they are not worth much?