Release Me, You Fiend!

Earlier this week, I was walking around downtown Jackson, past the Old Capitol (1839), past the Lamar Life Building (1925), the Governor’s Mansion (1840), the U.S. Courthouse (1933), over to Jackson City Hall (1846), the Hinds County Courthouse (1930), and Thalia Mara Hall (1968), saw the Tower Building (1929) and the King Edward Hotel (1923) in the distance. It was a lovely early Spring day, the sun was shining, the trees were showing signs of vivid green. And all I could think was “I’m a prisoner!!! And it’s history that’s holding me down!” Then I read this op-ed piece by those young hipsters from the Marietta (OH) Register, and I knew I had found my kindred spirits, devotees of Modernism all. I’ll post an excerpt here, but really you must read the whole thing:

Walking the streets of the city we’re constantly reminded of the history of Marietta and Washington County and – forgive us – sometimes it bothers us. Not the sheer fact of its existence. Each place has its own history and sense of place and each place is special and different and that is good. No, what bothers us is the omnipresence of it. The sheer sense that history is what makes the place. It’s as if the history and location are more important than the people and the things happening now.
. . .
There are times when we look around at the sheer number of historic, or simply old, buildings in the city of Marietta and we become concerned that there should be some sort of historic renewal. One, hundred year old home or business building or government center is nice. Ten shows a connection to the past. A hundred or more of them shows a lack of investment in renewal and development. The sheer number of them devalues them beyond all measure. Historic buildings should be the leavening, the spice and highlights of a city. They can’t be the prevalent architecture and expect anyone to have a perception of the city as forward looking and progressive.
. . .
Those of us who are younger and more vital (let’s face it) are more interested in the newest and latest. By not providing that – whether intentionally or not – the city finds itself reinforcing already existing trends. Those in the next generation who should be the driving force for growth and success for the city are forced away with our presentation of the city as old and not advancing forward into the new century, now a decade old, with joy and hope.

On the one hand, I think that the right number of historic (or just old, not sure of the difference) buildings in Jackson would be 42. But on the other hand, I wonder if the perfect number isn’t 37. Howsomever, on the third hand, when I’m feeling particularly young and vital, I think it must be much lower, like, maybe 22. What do ya’ll think?

I worry about places like New York City and London and Chicago that have so doggone many old buildings. They must be just chock full of old, old people. Fogeytowns, Outdoor Old Folks’ Homes, Geriatric Clubs. If only they had access to the wisdom and understanding of the opinion writer for the Register, they might be able to save themselves from this Prison Called History, or as we sometimes call it, The Rock.

Categories: Historic Preservation, Modernism

2 replies

  1. I find this article and post really interesting, especially in the reflection of EL’s earlier post on the MHS conference. I live in a neighborhood that has architectural examples of every decade from 1870-1970. The neighborhood declined in the 80s & 90s, primarily, or so I believed, because a publicly owned landmark in the neighborhood was abandoned. However, the article has me wondering if the lack of new investment and building didn’t contribute. Things began turning around in the 90s when the public landmark was rehabbed and the chain link fence was taken down and things continued to improve about the turn of the millennia as houses were bought (not gentrified, Ms Jacobs) by new, under-40 homeowners. The median age on the street went from 65ish to 40ish in four years (6 babies on the street helped.)

    But all this has me thinking about what do you do when a minor (or even major) house in a historic neighborhood has seemingly lost its economic vitality? Especially when the tradition of the neighborhood is to welcome new styles from a new decade? For a neighborhood to remain vital, does it need new buildings? And then I think that I may be the next fuddy duddy preservationist, because I wonder if there is good (or even decent, or even identifiable) architecture for the common man that isn’t derivative in the past 30 years (as I’ve heard some of the over-60 set believes about 1950s-60s architecture). I tend to classify most recent works into very high style post-modern on one hand and metal buildings on the other, with the median built environment a mish-mosh of historic details. At what point does a historic house reach obsolescence? If it does, how can we measure that to help neighborhoods know what is worth chaining yourself to the proverbial porch and what helps the neighborhood survive? These are the things I wonder about when I can’t sleep!


    • I think a healthy neighborhood of any age is one that has a diverse group of residents, not necessarily diverse houses or architectural styles. My neighborhood, since we’re using our own places as prisms for how we view the world, is the opposite of yours in many ways–the entire huge neighborhood (easily over 1000 homes) was built within probably 10-15 years beginning just after WWII and building out by about 1960. So you could say we are not diverse in our housing stock. However, we have become more diverse in both age and race since I moved here in 1998, and that new diversity has been the saving grace for the neighborhood. When I came here, I was surrounded by little old white ladies whose husbands had built the houses they still lived in. Within a few years, they began dying off or moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living place. We experienced decline during this time, with many indicators that we might sprial downward. But slowly at first, then picking up over the last couple of years, those houses have found new owners, middle-class black families mostly, and I think we’ve stabilized.

      I don’t believe, philosophically, that old buildings become inherently obsolete–they are abandoned for a variety of reasons but very few having to do with the actual structure. I do see your point about welcoming new styles–you know I like them Modern things (and I’ve even found myself looking at some 1970s stuff recently, but don’t worry, I’ve quashed those feelings!). I’ve never bought the old preservation argument that “this building doesn’t fit with the style of the street” when in fact, the “style of the street” is Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Tudor Revival, Craftsman, and a Minimal Traditional or two (that about cover it?). As I argued in my little diatribe about Modernism vs. Modern Style we’ve got to get over this idea that of all the many styles, both in history and to come, Modern is the one that’s anathema–this is a holdover from the distant past, and doesn’t hold water anymore. If there’s a vacant lot or a house burns down in a historic neighborhood, I would love to see a cool new house that shows thought and creativity. But, as you say, that hardly ever happens–more often, it’s a boring, out-of-scale (scale, proportion, and set-backs are arguments I think have a lot more validity than architectural style), made-of-plastic house that does nothing but detract from its surroundings. Or even worse, the lot is subdivided and turned into a “gated community” that turns its back on its neighbors. Knowing that, I think we need to probably chain ourselves to the porch more often than not, but ackowledge we can’t chain ourselves all the time. I mean, there are the overriding practical considerations like taking care of hygiene, watching Battlestar Gallactica’s series finale, etc.

      In conclusion, you need to get more sleep–as Malvaney always says, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise!”


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