The National Trust for Historic Preservation is simply a great organization with all kinds of useful information for planners, preservationists, history buffs . . . Last fall they posted a “Six Practical Reasons to Save Old Buildings” at their site, but I only saw it recently. It would seem like a place like Port Huron would have learned something by now about the loss of so many of its historic buildings, the built enviornment that made Port Huron what it is–well, what it was. Most of the buildings lost (including whole blocks of historic commercial structures) have not been replaced by anything better, or even equivalent, in monetary or aesthetic value. (Historically speaking, I remain surprised every time I come across a building that had been moved because someone valued it–the thing had value; buildings used to be moved a lot more than people today realize, I’d wager.)
If a city can be likened to a person, it’s as if Port Huron is an aged lady who hated her own old body, so cut parts of it off, thinking her appearance would then look more appealing (she sought to hide her age, too, by not posting about her past on her website). But she didn’t add anything to her appearance by slicing away at herself; she was only left with the reality that there was now less of her, and, she didn’t look any better. There are those who appreciate the weathered, older, and wiser folk, and seek them out. And despite so many people telling her just this thing, she still can’t seem to like her old self. She had glory days for sure, and people feel a little bit like they are a part of that, still, when walking through the remnants of those days. They connect with those who came before, somehow, instead of just blandly passing through a plastic and drywall matrix of cookie-cutter walls.
I want to imagine what it was like when William Jenks walked down the same street that I’m now walking on, and think about what it was like in a restaurant where he and his buddies talked about the growing city, the ship they were building, how the ball was in so-in-so’s house on the third floor the night before, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there are any buildings left that held a restaurant or lounge that William Jenks might have socialized in, and I don’t know yet if any of the remaining large homes still have their third floor ballrooms. But, I hope you get the picture. Perhaps you have different thoughts of the past in Port Huron, like imagining a 1920s scene of beach revelers.
So, what are the practical reasons for saving old buildings? I’ll provide you a shortened list of what the National Trust provided.
- “Old buildings have intrinsic value.” I’m going to be a bit jaded here and say that a lot of folks wouldn’t know what “intrinsic value” means. But here the author talks about the value of the materials and craftsmanship used in older, pre-WWII buildings. You just can’t get many of these materials any more, and you often can’t reproduce the quality or craftsmanship. Example: old building in Tennessee was saved from the wrecking ball after realizing that it’s thick brick walls (five layers!) could withstand the most powerful tornadoes.
- “When you tear down an old building, you never know what’s being destroyed.” Another example from Tennessee (the Daylight Building, built 1927). A building became an eyesore, as so many altered and then uncared for buildings do. Someone finally wanted to renovate it instead of demolish it, and it turned out to have qualities that no one knew about: “drop-ceilings made with heart-pine wood, a large clerestory, a front awning adorned with unusual tinted ‘opalescent’ glass, and a facade lined with bright copper.”
- “New businesses prefer old buildings.” Older buildings are perfect for smaller businesses and start-ups. Businesses with new and therefore possibly risky, ideas, need the economy of existing infrastructure.
- “Old buildings attract people.” I would say the reasons for this attraction include the human scale and the attention to, and value of, detail. Those who came before us stopped and looked at the roses, and smelled the roses, and said that the roses were very good. Today, builders don’t seem to even know roses exist, let alone have value. But the author had these ideas about it: “Is it the warmth of the materials, the heart pine, marble, or old brick―or the resonance of other people, other activities? Maybe older buildings are just more interesting. The different levels, the vestiges of other uses, the awkward corners, the mixtures of styles, they’re at least something to talk about. America’s downtown revivals suggest that people like old buildings. Whether the feeling is patriotic, homey, warm, or reassuring, older architecture tends to fit the bill. Regardless of how they actually spend their lives, Americans prefer to picture themselves living around old buildings.”
- “Old buildings are reminders of a city’s culture and complexity.” “Just as banks prefer to build stately, old-fashioned facades, even when located in commercial malls, a city needs old buildings to maintain a sense of permanency and heritage.”
- “Regret only goes one way.” Like anything else, once a historic structure is gone, it can’t be resurrected. We can’t tell the future, and the future might’ve been better with the use of that now-gone building.
I got my MA in Riverside, so was somewhat familiar with this project. I never did get to see the whole building while I live in California, though (if I recall correctly, the tours were a bit pricey). Otherwise, while I would’ve liked to use Port Huron or other regional examples, I was just having a hard time finding renovation photos to use, so here we are.