Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Five Year Anniversary Post: A Manichaean Choice? Preservation vs. Development

Five years ago today, when I started this website, I never imagined that I would be posting close to every day. In the first year, I posted anywhere from two to three times a week, at most. Somewhere along the line, though, I posted seven times in one week, and I've never stopped. Looking back, it's interesting to see places I've photographed repeatedly for five years, and places I've just started photographing this year. Sadly, the first building I photographed that was threatened with demolition was the Switzer Building on Laclede's Landing; five years later, the site still sits vacant, not even properly graded and planted with grass.

Why do I continue? Maybe it really is an addiction, but it's a very rewarding one. I love every comment you all send me, thanking me for exposing you to some new (old) building in some corner of the city. It's ironic, because for every "undiscovered" part of the city, there are hundreds of people living around it that have already known about it for years. I like to think though, that my work, and the work of my colleagues, is changing people's opinions of the city. If just one person moves to the city, buys a house and fixes it up before it gets demolished for "progress" then I feel I have accomplished something. If I can get at least a couple people to get over the odious pessimism that so often engulfs this city, then I consider my work meaningful.

I'm so proud of my friends for successfully rallying and saving the old Del Taco building on Grand; slated for demolition for being "undevelopable," it is now going to be developed into host two restaurants, perfect for the large student population around St. Louis University. Funny how a building can go from one to the other in the span of a couple of weeks, isn't it? Maybe it just has to do with your attitude?

Which brings me to the message I have for all of you on the fifth anniversary of this site.

This spring hasn't been good for historic preservation in St. Louis.

Buildings get demolished every year in St. Louis, but the loss of two icons of the region's architectural heritage are meeting (or have met) the wrecking ball as I write this. I understand that not every building will be saved in this war for protecting the built environment in St. Louis, but what truly disturbs me is the attitudes of the people condoning their demolition and their sarcastic dismissal of preservation. While there are certainly preservationists out there that support saving buildings at all cost, even it means they sit empty for a century, most people I know who support historic preservation do so out of practical reasons. It simply is more logical to reuse an existing, great-looking building than waste the energy to tear it down and replace it with something that will probably not last nearly as long as the original. The walls of my house are one foot thick; short of an earthquake or roof failure, do you think anything would make them budge? Compare that to nowadays, where the floors of new houses I visit in the suburbs shake when I walk across them (I weigh 160 lbs). The floors don't shake in my house when I walk across them. Coincidence? I think not...

Numerous politicians and unelected leaders, who shall go unnamed, believe that the preservation of historic architecture, is an either/or Manichaean choice; you can either have development, or you can have old buildings. The simplicity, the shear stupidity and arrogance of this belief is killing St. Louis. Can you name one major historic building demolished since World War II in St. Louis that has given the city a huge boost in either tax revenue or economic activity? I challenge anyone to explain why tearing down the Ambassador Theater, Real Estate Row or any of the thousands of anonymous houses around the city that were structurally sound has benefited the city. Do you realize that all of the neighborhoods now featured in tourism brochures for St. Louis were once seriously threatened with complete or partial demolition? Yes, someone once thought it would be a good idea to clear cut Soulard, Lafayette Square, most of downtown and pretty much every house inside Grand Boulevard at one time or another. Stand up to those who say economic activity is impossible without demolition, and I suggest that if pro-demolition zealots are so principled, they should recuse themselves from enjoying all of those great, revitalized neighborhoods mentioned above which were saved from the wrecking ball--from their type of people.
In closing I want to share two pictures submitted to me by reader Keith Raske of a bizarre sight on Lafayette Avenue and Nebraska, an area heavily decimated by "good ideas." Yes, it is a double-wide trailer set up on three vacant lots, right next to two handsome Italianate rowhouses. Who wants to place a bet on whether the double-wide or the rowhouses will still be standing in fifty years?

Is that what you want your city to become?

1 comment:

  1. Tom Maher - KirkwoodMay 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    Chris - Well written!
    I reallyreallyREALLY think you should submit it to the P-D; perhaps it would run it as an Op-ed article. Lord knows it is as important to us as a political polemic!
    Send it to the RFT as well - you should have some pull with it. The P-D would be better, however. Heck, send it to our W-K Times - it had a lot of good stories on the Rock Hill debacle and perhaps mention your stories as well.

    And again - Thanks for your work. I check it a couple of times daily. I - and so many others - appreciate your passion and hard work.


A Blog detailing the beauty of St. Louis architecture and the buildup of residue-or character-that accumulates over the course of time.