At the end of the WTOK News story about the demolition of the Old Citizens Bank Building at 2212-2214 Fourth Street in Meridian was a statement by Community Development Director Bunky Partridge, “Well, we’re always looking at our homes around Meridian, to condemn them.” The story also stated that the Old Citizens Bank demolition is one of many being conducted in Meridian at the beginning of the year.
The WTOK story focused on one building, but what else in Meridian is being demolished? The City of Meridian is of no help, listing only a generic demolition approval in the city council minutes. However, The Meridian Star did publish an article about the demolitions, “Meridian City Council votes 3-2 to condemn 39 properties” back on October 4. The City Council meeting was very contentious, with multiple property owners or their representatives stating that city officials such as Partridge and Code Enforcement Manager Wiley Quinn Jr. “put up roadblock after roadblock” preventing owners from doing work to remove properties from the city’s condemnation list.
“If anyone wants to rehab their property, we’re willing to work with them.” Quinn said. “We’ll give them up to a year. Once they bring it up to a habitable state, we will work with them. If we’ve done all the work, then I’m ready to tear it down.”
“I did what the city asked me to do and hired people and paid them. I met with Mr. Quinn. He told me what I needed to do,” [Linda Jordan, whose deceased mother, Ida Mae Jordan, owned the home on 3409 Fifth St.] said. “The people were then denied permits. When (the city) saw I was willing to do whatever it took, they came up with this floodplain. This came after the fact to issue a permit.”
In the end, the council and mayor approved demolition of all the houses on the docket, including the properties whose owners or owners’ representatives spoke against demolition.
Of the 39 houses approved for demolition, not all have the age or architectural significance to be considered historic. All are in generally poor condition. Yet, many either are or would be considered historic, particularly in the context of other historic houses around them and are not in too poor of condition that they could not be restored. For example, 609 34th Ave., 3409 5th St., 3012 Davis St., and 635 33rd Ave. are contributing resources to the National Register-listed West End Historic District; while 1618 26th Ave. is a contributing resource to the Mid-Town Historic District.
But this post is about more than just these houses in Meridian. Why should such ordinary and generally undistinguished buildings be preserved? Should they be? One could say that these houses and houses like them should not be preserved. That is the City of Meridian’s position, even when confronted by owners who wish to restore them, but is obviously not my position. I will explicate why it is not, using these Meridian houses as a case study.
First, is an aesthetic and design argument embodied in both building and site. Behind the neglect and sometimes unflattering alterations are human-scaled buildings that are designed in “simple” forms but with a degree of detail that is unable to be replicated in a new building. The neighborhoods that these houses are in have some of the attributes generally ascribed to perfectly designed neighborhoods. The houses are close enough together to reduce sprawl but are freestanding to provide some privacy among neighbors and enough yard space for outdoor activities (during the few months in Mississippi when it is neither too hot and humid nor too cold and damp).
Regarding this group of Meridian houses. Photographs show all of them have details which are difficult and expensive to replicate. The diamond shingles, bargeboard, and ogee brackets found just on the front gables of this group of houses are not items that can be purchased at any suburban big-box home store. Items that were once common stock items, today all require expensive custom millwork from a skilled millworker at a well-equipped shop, which is becoming more difficult to find as such people age. Yet, these items mentioned do not even scratch the surface, since these houses have leaded glass and Victorian decorative front doors and presumably some retain interior details such as mantles, trim, pocket doors, and other items. In general, these are only replaceable by finding architectural salvage that has been scavenged from unprotected historic buildings.
Second is an environmental argument. We must do more to conserve our natural resources and one of the best ways to do so is by preserving the buildings we currently have. These houses have embodied energy; all buildings do. It is in the wood used for the framing, decking, siding, flooring, trim, windows. How many years did the trees cut for those components have to grow, especially to become rot-resistant old-growth wood? How much effort was required to cut, mill, transport, and construct a house out of that wood? How long did it take for the forest where the wood was cut to recover from logging? When all that material is discarded, all of the embodied energy is lost, with more cumulative effects to the environment added by new logging of lightweight, new-growth wood; milling the new wood; transporting it; and constructing something new.
The easiest way to think about this is with the phrase, “The greenest building is the one that is already built.” This is an extension or rephrasing of historic preservation’s original mantra, “Repair, not replace.” The National Trust for Historic Preservation calculated that even if 40% of an existing building’s materials are retained, the construction of a new building, even an energy-efficient one, would have to exist for an average of 65 years to recoup the embodied energy lost with the demolition of the previous building. Single family homes such as these in Meridian take less time, which also varies by location. Still, even if a plan was in place to demolish these houses and replace them with new housing, instead of the litter-strewn, tall-weed-covered vacant lots which they will become, those new houses would probably take about 30-40 years to recoup the energy embodied in these more aesthetically pleasing and solidly constructed Victorian, Craftsman, and Mission-style houses.
Third is something that many professional historic preservationists do not think about. Indeed, I am sometimes guilty of ignoring it. It is the personal history of the house. One could call it the personal history or the memory or the humanity of a building, but by any name it is the human side of a building. It is unquantifiable and has no economic value and usually gets pushed aside by other arguments for preserving historic buildings. To put it in perspective, when I showed my mother (a historic preservationist as well) the houses in this post, she stated, “Think of how many families lived in those houses over the generations, the people who lived there and raised families.” That statement is in many ways the heart and soul of historic preservation in my view. Look at all the historic buildings around you; think of all the people who have lived and raised families in them; then, think of the people living and raising families in them today; and finally, think of the people living and raising families in them in the future. While we can talk about tax credits and all sorts of other things, very few historic preservationists became preservationists because of tax credits. We like old buildings and want to see them preserved. We figure out the intellectual and economic justifications for historic preservation later.
The houses in this post are all doomed. Demolition has likely already begun on some of them. But in thinking about these houses and their demise, perhaps we can think about other similarly disregarded houses in our towns and across the state and how historic preservationists can advocate for their preservation and restoration; so that these old houses on tree-lined streets will continue to be a presence in Mississippi for generations before and after us.