Monday, December 22, 2008

No more Mr. Smileyface

Here we go again! Wouldn't you think Wal-Mart would realize sooner or later that they need to stay away from major historic sites? They could save a lot on attorney fees and make their prices even lower. Or they could pay their employees better!

Sorry. Uncalled for. Feeling a little snarky today.

Also, one would think, after all the battles these big-box stores get into over their impacts on historic sites and downtowns, that it might be a good idea for them to retain an independent historic preservation consultant. This person/firm could then advise their marketing and site selection decisionmakers about nearby resources when selecting a site for a new store.

I realize that these sites are chosen based on studies and models and forecasts. I think preservation considerations should be added to the model. Need to be added to the model. And a consultant is going to cost less than a round of lawsuits and associated legal fees. Everybody wins!

Anyway, a petition against this is here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Selling out

Warning: Here I go about teardowns again. This seems to be a recurring theme/obsession of late.

(FYI: some of my posts on this topic are now appearing on another blog, The Teardown Post).

I just happened across this article, and it echoed so much of my own experience with the teardown phenomenon. My parents' neighbors are having to make the same choice: Live with an outdated kitchen, or renovate in the knowledge that the investment will end up in a landfill. It's a curious and unsettling feeling to realize that something you've put years of investment and maintenance into is something that apparently nobody else would want.

Even my own house, however charming, is woefully inadequate in the eyes of today's real estate market. This kind of house would need a new owner who doesn't just want a house, but an old house, warts and all. People like us who can live with its quirks, fix its unusual problems, and aren't lamenting the lack of certain features that seem to be standard on all new homes these days, at least around here. Granted, there are things that could be done to make it more marketable, like adding a second bathroom upstairs, which we probably will do at some point. But its essential character is old, crooked, set in its ways.

The average homebuyer isn't into quirks though. The average homeowner expects their new investment to be much lower-maintenance than ours, and include today's most-desired features. At bare minimum, these seem to include a multi-car garage, a master suite with a bathroom, at least one two-story interior room or foyer, and a big kitchen with an island and adjoining "great room." My house has none of these things. Your average pre-1980s house doesn't have those things either. With good reason, the former owner of our house was petrified that someone would buy the place, dismiss it as hopeless, and knock it down (although with 2-foot-thick stone walls, that would take some doing).

On a side note, I wonder how many of the current "living standards" in new construction are based on what buyers want, or on what builders and realtors are trying to sell. I'm sure there are surveys out there about what people are looking for in a new home, and builders then respond. But with teardowns, who exactly is doing the dismissing of an older house as useless? Is it the buyers who bypass the possibilities of older houses? Or are there others in the supply chain who make assumptions about what these buyers want? Is it the realtors who cultivate relationships with (and slant their sales tactics toward) builders who will pay top dollar and increase their commission? Is it the builders who want to "improve the neighborhood" with their latest masterpiece and see dollar signs sprouting from the front lawn?

This article and another article that recently appeared in the Times discussed the nature of objections to teardowns. The first objection is emotional and nostalgic about erasing the history of a particular house, homeowners, or neighborhood, and concerned about the impact of these losses on the community. The second objection is to what fills in the empty space, and how offensive or intrusive the infill might be.

I'm not sure which aspect troubles me more, because both in my mind are pretty offensive. I probably wouldn't object quite so strenuously if new construction blended in instead of looming over the neighborhood, and if buyers and developers weren't so quick to dismiss something as unusable. I wish that people could look at an older house in a more creative way. While there are some houses that are essentially un-adaptable for today's standards, most could be adequate or even really nice if people are willing to do some remodeling and live in less-capacious quarters.

Perhaps we could remind them that a century ago, even one bathroom was a luxury out of reach to most middle-class Americans. Do we all really need a bathroom the size of a bedroom, and a master bedroom the size of a small gymnasium? I'm hoping the price of heating fuel might discourage the popularity of the double-height window-lined family room (I know several owners of such rooms and nearly all of them complain about how hard it is to heat and keep warm). But I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Finally, for educational entertainment, Westport Now offers an interactive map and "Teardown of the Day," a regular feature chronicling the frequent teardowns in that town (home to Martha Stewart and other wealthy and famous citizens). Sad, but fascinating. I'm amazed that anyone would want to knock down something dating from the 1760s - clearly generations of people have found that house adequate for their needs, at the very least. Go pick on the dilapidated 1960s raised ranch next door.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A question of value

I received the following comment from a Connecticut reader pertaining to the Grumman-St. John House situation. However, it goes right to the heart of that uneasy argument between the preservationists and the property-rights people.

I'll keep this short: The value of a historic building is what someone is willing to pay to possess it.

The current owner placed a value on the property and *PAID* for it. He is now free to do with that property what he pleases to do (as long as it's otherwise legal). If that means tearing it down, so be it. You could have bid against him, you can still make him an offer to purchase it...

What I oppose is you using the power of the state to take the property he bought, or restrict his rights to enjoy the property he purchased. **EVEN IF THAT MEANS BURNING IT TO THE GROUND**

I'd hope you would have the courage and faith in your convictions to post both comments and let the public decide who is correct.

So, I ask you, the public: What do you think? What is the worth of someone else's historic building? What rights do others have to decide what happens to it?

Discuss. Commenters, fire away.

My response:

Yes, the owner bought the property and paid good money for it. Yes, he has the right to make decisions about how to use it, and to determine the highest and best return for his investment. I can see why the outcry by non-owners over his plans would be most unwelcome. I can see why he might neglect the place, considering he wants it gone, although willfully allowing vandalism is not going to help build his credibility or his case.

1. Was the house ever on the market independently, or only as part of a larger commercial property? i.e., was it available to someone who is not a wealthy business owner/investor with a huge line of credit? The house by itself might have been affordable, but as part of the Norwalk Inn property? Mmmm, probably not.

2. When furor erupted over the owner's plans, did he then offer to sell off the house (either onsite or as a moveable entity) so that someone who wanted to save it could obtain it? Would he even be willing to sell it at a fair price?

If not, you really can't argue that someone who cares about it should have bought it. I don't see any evidence that history-minded individuals or associations had or have a fair opportunity to buy it.

A few other economic considerations.

Did the owner investigate the landmark status of this building, or other special considerations, prior to purchase? Did he consider that there might be these or other obstacles to his plans?

Has he given fair consideration to reusing the house as part of his business? What would this do for his economic situation? What is the cost of renovation of the existing structure to fulfill some of his business needs vs. the cost of demolition then construction of a large new building? Has he considered alternate construction plans that either incorporate or spare the house?

As for the unfairness of government control, let's remember that the government already has some control over use of the property. The property is, after all, subject to property tax assessments and local zoning designations and ordinances. New construction on the property would be subject to building code inspections and government safety regulations. Does the owner have an objection to this type of control?

Government interference could also be much worse than a dispute about a building. There are countless examples of government seizure of private property in the past, such as condemnation of thousands of private properties by eminent domain to create today's military bases, railroads, highways, airports, and national parks. Often these properties were seized with very little notice (i.e. telling farmers they had two weeks to get themselves and their families and animals off property that had been in their families for generations). Often the buyouts were way below fair market value. More recently, the seizure of an entire neighborhood in New London by eminent domain made news. And who paid for all of this? We did.

Is government seizure and control of private property the right thing to do? Not necessarily. In fact, it was often blatantly unfair and took advantage of disenfranchised citizens with deep roots. But my point is that government seizure of these properties was intended to fulfill a public need, be it for military or transportation or recreation use, or economic stabilization. Think about it: Every time you drive on an interstate highway or swim in a scenic reservoir or touch down on a runway, you are benefiting from the government's decision to take someone's property.

Compared to this type of government control, the owners of the Grumman-St. John property are actually getting off easy. You really can't complain about Connecticut tax dollars being spent on a court case over this house. Billions have been spent to assume control of other people's property in a much more drastic manner. And frankly, nobody is going to like everything their tax money is being spent on. I can name plenty of places my tax money is going that I wish weren't benefiting from my largesse.

So, everyone else, I'll let you take over now.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Grumman-St. John update

The owners of the Grumman-St. John house admitted they're letting the place be vandalized. And they want sympathy because people expect them to follow state law?

What cracks me up is that their lawyer is quoted saying the house is "of very little historic value." Tell that to the National Park Service and the National Register of Historic Places. If it was of so little value, believe me, the state and the preservation interests would have let the matter drop years ago. They aren't just doing this for fun or to ruin your business.

Another entertaining aspect is that the building the owners want to keep and expand, the main Inn building, is this sprawling, soulless modern motel/banquet hall complex with zero character. Pretty landscaping, but.... Even a sucker like me sees no redeeming qualities there. Interestingly, there are virtually no photos of the exterior on the inn website.

The house even in its deteriorated state is way more commanding and of far superior construction. It could really add some authentic historic charm to what is a functional but uninspiring inn property, creating a link between the inn and the Green. They could make it sort of a boutique luxury component of the inn property, or convert it to large suites. A little imagination would uncover a ton of hidden potential, and a little design creativity could allow both the inn to expand and the house to be retained. But the owners would rather fight to the death to knock the house down, rather than making a design compromise that could make everyone happy and end this costly and bitter battle very quickly.

Yep, it's just another old wooden building.

Confidential to CTYANKEE

I'll mind my own business if you stop buying properties with valuable historic buildings on them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Grumman-St. John House, Norwalk, CT

Time for a little hometown controversy:

In a nutshell, the Grumman-St. John house in Norwalk, CT is currently falling apart as its owners seek to bulldoze it and the local preservation trust is fighting to save it. Luckily the trust has Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on its side. But it's an ugly fight, and it ain't over yet. Props to the trust and the attorney general for fighting to save this important piece of Norwalk history.

I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Norwalk Preservation Trust while helping out with a historic house tour last month. I grew up in the next town and my parents now reside in Norwalk. In another odd twist, my husband is a descendant of the Norwalk St. John family. Given these connections, I've been tracking the story from afar. We discussed the issue and he said that to these owners, this valuable and irreplaceable house is "just an old wooden building."

Call me a bleeding-heart preservationist, but I can't look at any crummy old building without appreciating it in some way. Even some rickety old shed behind a remuddled bungalow gets a drop of my interest and compassion. Perhaps this is because I get paid to spot and survey anything that appears to be over 50 years old. Perhaps all this surveying, and my lifelong fascination with architectural detail, makes it inevitable that I can't just ignore buildings. Even as I write some of the built environment off as too new to survey, or too altered or insignificant to be NR-eligible, I still see potential in things most people would not appreciate. I still see a story there, even if it's not a very important or interesting one.

Sometimes I wish that I could take a would-be demolisher on a tour through the building they want to knock down to build their McMansion or chain store. I'd point out the details, the hand-hewn beams, the delicate molding profiles, the soft wear on the stair treads, the honey of the floors in the afternoon sun. The hand-built china cabinets and homely old mantels. The sturdy construction under the cracking paint and crumbling plaster. I'd point out the beauties and irreplaceabilities of even the ugliest ugly-duckling building, share my vision of what it could be. I'd also point out that they'd engender a lot of community goodwill if they kept it and revived it. Is knocking down history and pissing off the neighbors really a good way to promote a business?

Would they listen to me? Probably not. Would they still think their convenience store is a better use for the site? Probably so. But if just one developer could be taught to appreciate the history and potential of a venerable old building, or how it might fit in with their plans after all, maybe they'd reconsider the next time they come across a property for sale that contains some old white elephant that would need to be torn down. And that would be a good thing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On Mc(Vacation)Mansion Pond

Even the lovely shores of Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire, are being transformed by the mega-house invasion. The Times article is a decent representation of what is going on, though a little slow in noticing the phenomenon. Unfortunately, in a state where tax income is mostly from property taxes, there's little incentive to put the brakes on the trend.

We have a lakefront property up there and have been seeing more and more little "camps" getting demolished and replaced by these massive new houses, with their equally massive garages, boathouses, docks, and septic mounds. (Some of them are adjacent to our place and I've had ample opportunity to check them out on road walks or kayaking along the shoreline). While the camps are generally dinky and not much to write home about, and many aren't even that old (i.e. 1960s), it's still a sea change in the landscape.

There's really no way to protect the camps. Most are scattered randomly along the waterfront, often interspersed with newer places or empty zones. Other than the odd family compound here and there, there's not enough of a concentration of the little guys to create a historic district. Architecturally, they lack distinction - most are modest-to-tiny vernacular buildings with minimal detail and dating from the mid-twentieth-century. Charming at best, but not even close to the Adirondack Great Camps. Still, they represent a humble rustic vernacular, and recall a vanishing era when even Joe Schmo could own a little piece of lakefront.

Many of the lake camps survive on the smaller lakes in the Lakes Region, but they're vanishing rapidly from Winnepesaukee. It's hard to argue that the new mansions aren't an improvement on what was there before, but it's almost TOO much of an improvement. These vacation places are so extravagant that they're probably even nicer than the owners' regular houses - they defy the rustic simplicity that has drawn vacationers to the lake for generations. They bring all the trappings of modern life to the lake, rather than being a place to get away from all that.

It almost reminds me of the Gilded Age transformation of Newport with palace-like "cottages" owned by the summering nouveau-riche (Astors, Vanderbilts, etc.). But I'm not sure people will be opening these lakefront monoliths as house museums a century from now....

Monday, September 29, 2008

Deconstruction vs. Demolition

Just saw this really interesting article in the New York Times. Wouldn't it be great if all people in the construction industry were this conscientious? What I really like is that Brad Guy is using his experience to generate statistics that will be of use to others, and is also investigating how this type of endeavor could provide jobs for those who need them. What he's doing is also a much-needed smackdown to the wasteful machine-based demolition that is so emblematic of the teardown phenomenon.

I hate teardowns, as do most preservationists. I hate them because they are shortsighted and wasteful. I hate them because they destroy history and a sense of place. I hate them because they represent the worst aspects of the all-American need for everything to be shiny and modern and huge and up to date. I hate them because the buildings constructed to replace the demolished structures are often not only completely out-of-scale and out-of-style for the neighborhood environment, but of significantly inferior construction. I hate them because they signify another victory and a big cash prize for some vulture developer, giving him the means to begin the process anew on yet another property.

I hate teardowns (on a deep-personal-bias level) because my childhood home is in a landfill, and one by one, the houses of our neighbors are joining it, recreating the neighborhood in the sense that they are all ending up commingled as useless rubble, detritus of the ridiculously high land values in my hometown. My high school is also in the landfill, along with the childhood homes of at least three of my friends. The town library may be joining them next year. If the permits section of the town paper is any indication, the tanking economy has done nothing to stop the bulldozers.

The end result of this is that when I go home, there is less and less of my past to show my children. Even the much-beloved woods behind our house is gone, because the McMansion they built on our old foundation extends so far back that the back yard disappeared completely. So not only was the house destroyed, but dozens of mature trees too.

My old house was a well-built 1955 Cape Cod, on a loop street of almost-one-acre lots containing a mixture of Cape Cods and "Colonials." Each house was based on one of five models but customized so that no two were alike. They were beautifully proportioned to the size of each property, and nestled charmingly on their wooded, hillside lots. The smallest houses were small, don't get me wrong, and even the biggest ones were not palatial, but they were pleasant and adequate and easily expanded if more space was needed. Our house started out with six rooms and ended with ten.

I knew the house was coming down as soon as my parents said the winning bid was from a builder who wanted to "remodel" it. The guy gushed about how great the house was and how he wanted to make it better than ever, and offered them $20,000 more than the family from across town who wanted it. How do you say no to a buyer who outbids others by that much? If my parents were willing to take that bait, how much more willing would you be if you were, say, the executor of some old person who'd finally died and you needed to pay off some big debts or wanted to cash in to the utmost possible extent?

When we learned the guy was definitely not "remodeling," I called him. He had sent out a letter to all the neighbors indicating his plans, and including his cell phone number if anyone had questions. I'm not sure what I hoped to accomplish with this, other than maybe inflicting some guilt, or maybe salvaging stuff. Mostly I wanted to get inside the vulture's head and know why. Why couldn't they retain at least part of it? What was so wrong with it that the entire thing needed to come down?

The guy was civil but terse. He had "hoped to renovate" (not!) but then decided there was really nothing he could do with the house to make it the way he wanted. It didn't have central air. The front bedrooms had low ceilings (well, duh. It's a Cape Cod!). The bedrooms were too small (compared to a McMansion). The master bathroom was too small (i.e. it didn't have room for double sinks and a soaking tub and a shower you could wash your car in). In short, "Nobody wants to live in a house like this any more."

On and on, he ranted about all of its faults, and I'm thinking, if it sucks that much, why did WE ever want to live there? What does it say about us that our house, which we thought was an attractive, updated, spacious place to live, was apparently worthless crap? What does it say about our 28 neighbors, who are getting along just fine living in similar houses?

My parents had the foresight to offload some of the more movable and valuable house parts before they left, just in case. They sold the Vermont Castings woodstove to one friend, and the kitchen appliances to someone else. But everything else: the almost-new green marble bathroom floor, the woodwork my dad had carefully repainted before they listed the house, the kitchen closet door inscribed with 26 years' worth of our height measurements, the Craftsman-style oak banister in the family room that we all helped sand and finish when we added on, a whole house's worth of hardwood floors, joists, studs, built-in bookshelves, good-quality doors and sash windows that nobody makes anymore - gone.

They did at least reuse the foundation, reportedly now plagued by frequent flooding due to all the trees in back being ripped out. My initials are carved in the concrete basement floor, so I guess part of me still haunts the site. But there's nothing left otherwise.

(And there's an irony in the fact that the one house on the street that produced a historic preservationist was the first to fall, and initiated the neighborhood's irreversible plunge into teardown bait: of 29 houses, 4 have now been forcibly removed and replaced by towering monsters. Our former neighbors now have this gallows humor of "why bother fixing [fill in the blank] - when we sell, they're just going to tear the house down anyway!")

So I have to give major props to Brad Guy. He is raising awareness in such a valuable way, and I'm glad the Times has publicized what he's doing. Salvage on that level is perhaps the best possible outcome for a teardown situation, ascribing worth even to a house that is too decrepit for any other outcome, and making the best of the many undeserving victims of the trend. Even if our house couldn't be saved, I would feel infinitely better knowing that parts of it had gone on to productive second lives. If I knew some other kid was watching the world through our windows, or slamming my old bedroom door in a huff, I'd be more thrilled than words can express.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Edmondson Village Shopping Center, Baltimore

According to media reports, the Edmondson Village Shopping Center in West Baltimore is on fire this morning.

This shopping center, built in 1947, is reportedly the earliest built in Baltimore, and among the earliest built elsewhere. It is an oblong Colonial Revival red brick complex constructed to look like a row of different buildings strung together. Although the name may derive from the Edmondson Village neighborhood in which it sits, the cluster of brick pavilions looks like a village in and of itself. It once had a theater, a department store, and other long-vanished amenities.

I surveyed it recently and it's still pretty intact, although ironically it was such a successful model that it essentially spelled its own doom. The advent of ever-newer suburban shopping centers further out has drawn business away and it's now somewhat of a low-rent enterprise and apparently neglected in recent decades by its absentee owners, the Weinberg Foundation (per clippings in the vertical files in the Maryland Department at the Enoch Pratt Free Library). Cheesy replacement windows and peeling paint abound. I hate to see anything happen to it, because given the previous lack of caring displayed by the owners, it might not get rebuilt, or might get rebuilt in a not-so-good way. And it's a really valuable specimen.

The Sun report says that one of the store sections has collapsed. This section is in my second photo at the far (west) end, the front-gabled section. Sigh.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Still here

Apologies for the hiatus. I'm still hysterical but also busy and tired. Lots of post ideas but not much time to put them together. There will be more soon.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The meaning of the National Register

OK, here we go with the Dispel Myths About the National Register Post (tm).

First of all, it's the National Register of Historic Places, or National Register for medium, or the NR for short. It's not the National Registry or the National Historical Register or the Historical Registry or whatever inaccurate term the realtors and historical-society-plaque folks are coming up with these days.

Why am I writing this? Well...I can't even count how many times the topic of NR listing has come up with random people I meet (both through work and elsewhere) and the person says, "Oh, I would never want to be on the National Historic Registry (sic) because I don't want anyone telling me what color to paint my house!"

The universality of this response makes me want to call up my fine friends at the National Park Service and tell them they need to call up some swanky New York PR firm (or get on Oprah) and start spreading the word to people nationwide that being on the NR is ACTUALLY A GOOD THING. It's an honor if your property is listed, or if someone who is a professional preservationist thinks it is eligible for such listing. It is in no way a burden on you.

Here is what being on the NR means:
  • Your property is historically important; so much so that not only your state preservation office, but the National Register office of the entire country is impressed by it;
  • Your property is an example of a significant time, place, and/or person in history;
  • It is an extra line of defense against any government-funded project that might impinge on your property. Federal law protects NR-listed and NR-eligible properties;
  • Tax credits! As owner of a listed property, you can get some excellent tax credits both through the federal government and the state to help finance major restoration work;
  • You can still paint the place chartreuse or cover it with vinyl siding or knock the dang thing down (not that I encourage this!). Nobody will stop you. There are no government spy cameras watching NR properties, and no preservation cops who will bust you for desecrating a historic site. Eventually someone will notice and the property will be de-listed for "loss of integrity." Which, if you were responsible for the "loss of integrity," you probably won't mind too much.
Here is what being on the NR does NOT mean:
  • You have to pay money to be listed or stay listed. You only have to pay if you're hiring someone to write the nomination;
  • You must restore your house to perfect condition. Nope. It got listed because despite its condition, it has historical integrity;
  • Someone will tell you what you can or can't do with your individual listed property. Certainly people who appreciate its historicity would prefer that you not do much to change it, but nobody's going to stop you if you're really intent on "modernizing" it;
  • Your house is famous because some dead white guy slept there. The NR honors the homes of white, black, dead, living, famous, not-so-famous, completely obscure, rich, middle-class, poor, American-born, foreign-born, architect-designed, or built by some guy who couldn't even read. And it's not just houses either. Name pretty much any building type, and you can probably find an example on the NR. Factory? Water tower? Covered bridge? Insane asylum? All there!
Another important distinction to make is between individual listing on the NR, and being listed as "a contributing resource" in a historic district. If your property is a contributing resource, it could be anywhere on a scale from near-slum to something so amazing that it shows up in shelter magazines and passing history buffs drool over it. A contributing property may not be a spectacular example of anything in most people's eyes, but it still forms part of the overall historic atmosphere. If your property is deemed "noncontributing," this means it is newer than most in the neighborhood, more altered than most in the neighborhood, or it doesn't fit in for some other reason.

Some historic districts have historic architectural review commissions and design guidelines and other controls to prevent people from making really drastic changes and eliminating the character that makes these districts historic and special. I will be the first to admit that sometimes these groups can get a little too control-happy, and that they can be the biggest "hysterical preservationists" in the community. A lot of people hate them, and even people who are preservationists support them in theory but secretly worry that they give historic preservation a bad image. But I have to give them some props too, because they're often the last defense in a community against the evil Vinyl Window Invasion, and they are passionate about preserving the neighborhood so that future generations can enjoy the same atmosphere we enjoy now.

What's important to point out is that being part of a neighborhood that is listed on the NR does not mean you automatically get a historic review commission or design controls on your property. The NR has nothing to do with that at all. Nada. Squat. It's just a list. It has no power to create or administrate such a thing. Depending where you live, your town or township or local government would need to create or authorize creation of a historic architectural review body for one to exist. In other words, saying yes to NR listing does not mean you'll suddenly be subject to design review when you want to redo your storefront or add a few more rooms to your house.

A township near me came up with a great web page further dissecting the NR myths. The NR itself has some excellent informational resources. Read up, and please spread the word.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Odds and ends

Little did I ever imagine when I worked as an office temp years ago in some of these vast corporate parks near my hometown that their architecture would someday be appreciated as "midcentury modern." I just remember being in this dungeonlike archive at IBM making copies and thinking there was no way on God's green earth I was cut out for big-corporation life.

Some interesting vernacular tidbits have come my way of late. I always enjoy hearing about quirky homemade or folk architecture and landscape elements. For instance, the Beer Can House. And a group in Baltimore has gotten a grant to write up promotional materials for East Baltimore row house arts, like Formstone, wood-graining, painted screens and "tire and appliance gardens."

I still have not made it to the Holy Grail of southeastern Pennsylvania idiosyncratic built environments. I'll have to plan a lengthy stop in Doylestown next time I'm heading to upstate New York.

Vale-Rio gets moving

Those Vale-Rio Diner owners weren't kidding around. They had that diner jacked up and moved
almost immediately. It didn't even have ten days for the dust to settle. So now it's sitting in their back yard awaiting its fate.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Cross Keys Tavern/Chrome Hotel

HABS 1959

Same view, 2008

Say you're driving down a pretty country road. You cross from northern Maryland into southern Pennsylvania, and up at the top of the road you see this massive, hulking old stone house that looks like it came out of a time warp. Its decrepit condition is disturbing, and when you do some poking around, it seems that this building has an unusual level of historic significance. Built in three sections, it served for many years as a tavern and dwelling. Among its more unique features, the old inn has a rare diamond-pattern carved front door, and the second floor has an unusual early folding partition between two of the rooms.

It appears that the Cross Keys Tavern, also known as the Chrome Hotel, hasn't changed much at all since it was documented by HABS in 1959. It's a lot more run-down, the front-yard sapling has become a handsome tree, and the road has inched closer, but no obvious alterations. It does not appear to have been occupied in 1959 or since then. On one hand, this means nobody has updated it for modern-day lifestyles, and it probably remains in a state of high historic integrity. On the other hand, it is probably pretty useless to its owner, and is deteriorating at a rapid rate. But what incentive would your average property owner have to put money into its upkeep?

I don't know the story behind this house and its owners, but I've been driving past it for nearly four years and watching it steadily decay. The roof has growing holes and is failing rapidly at one corner, a few upstairs windows are broken, one fascia board is coming off, and the exterior stucco is disintegrating. Once the water gets in, it's the beginning of the end. The interior is now at high risk of being lost forever. A couple of years ago, someone tied a huge green tarp over the entire roof, but within a few months the wind had torn it to shreds, and there has been no further attempt to protect it from the elements.

When I see something like this, it really bums me out, because even as a preservationist, I'm not sure how to fix a situation like this. The Cross Keys is so valuable from a historic and architectural perspective--it could teach us so much about life in the 1700s and 1800s. But most property owners today would see this thing as a giant eyesore, or a money pit, or a candidate for Extreme Makeover - Home Edition. If you approached them to ask them to take care of it, they just might resent the intrusion and bulldoze the entire thing. Maybe the family wants to hang onto it but can't afford to keep it up. Maybe it's tied up in someone's estate dispute, or family members can't agree what to do with it. Maybe it's subject to legal conditions we don't know about. For all I know, people have been trying for years to purchase and save it, but have been prevented from doing so. There doesn't seem like there's a lot you can do as a concerned bystander in a rural area like this, in a county (with one historic preservation employee) that is being overtaken by developers, in a state with hundreds of threatened resources. How do you stage an intervention for a neglected building?

As the old house crumbles, the current owners of the property seem to have built up a spiffy business complex in back selling fireworks. I'm not a fan of fireworks, and it's not even legal for me to buy them, but I'd go in there and buy them out of Roman candles if it meant they would put a good new roof on the old tavern, and get some glass back in the broken windows. If I had the money, I'd buy it a roof myself. If the owners can't find a use for the Cross Keys and cannot care for it adequately, I would hope they might just seal it up as best they can against the elements, and find a new owner. It could be an incredible house museum, or study house, or (why not?) a tavern, or even a restored private home...if you don't mind being a few feet from a busy intersection.

Until then, it's an intriguing time capsule, containing secrets of the past until the elements prevail.

Monday, February 25, 2008

So Long, Vale-Rio Diner

Over the weekend, the Vale-Rio Diner in Phoenixville, PA served its last least for awhile. Its owners have decided to sell the property it stands on (also occupied by the historic Fountain Inn) to a developer who wants to put in, surprise surprise, a CVS and a Starbucks. The Starbucks would at least reuse the first floor of the old inn building, and I imagine it could be really cool if they do a good job (I'll spare you the rant about chain coffeehouses displacing local businesses). But instead of keeping the apparently-not-as-lucrative-as-they'd-like historic diner where it has been since 1948, and building a CVS on other property they own down the street (which, incidentally, already has a couple of chain drugstores within a short distance), the owners want to relocate the diner somewhere else in the borough and build a CVS at this prime location.

As at least a few people have pointed out, if you want your historic property to be a commercial success, how is moving it to a yet-to-be-determined (but most likely less prominent) site going to help? Especially when you factor in the costs: cost to buy more land, cost to relocate the building and prepare a new site, the cost of loss of historical integrity from being on a new site, the cost of losing and having to win back your loyal clientele, the cost of firing your existing staff and then having to find a whole new workforce at the new site... Never mind the cost to dozens of employees, who are essentially losing their jobs because management got sick of running a diner and wanted to cash in.

The Inquirer article I linked to contains some interesting details about the reasoning behind this fiasco. The owners are now whining that people they approach about buying a new site are jacking up land costs right and left because they know the owners are obligated to put the diner there. Cry me a river. I say, keep jackin' up those prices, folks. The owners got greedy and made the diner their sacrificial lamb, essentially selling out hometown character to placate the gods of big chain-store developer bucks. Phoenixville as a community should be doing everything it can to thwart these people.

To reopen, the Puleos said, they must also find a way to cut some of the hidden costs. For instance, since heating and cooling an uninsulated stainless-steel structure is very expensive, Francis Puleo said, they might put the diner inside a larger building.

He also said the Vale-Rio would likely be modeled after a Cracker Barrel, where merchandise supplements the diner's revenue.

"You have to have another economic tool to make a diner work today," he said."

Um, guys? Part of the point of a diner is to be visible from the street, with a recognizable shiny-faced facade. How is putting the diner inside another building going to help draw people in? Also, diner owners nationwide, many in much more severe climates than Pennsylvania, have these same HVAC costs, and they aren't using that as an excuse to close up.

Also, if the place wasn't making money, were there other things that could have been done to change that? If you ask me, the diner's surrounds could have been spiffed up considerably to attract new customers and make it more of a destination. It sat in a sea of asphalt next to the run-down looking inn building, with a seasonal ice cream stand on the other side, and this trio of properties always seemed a little forlorn and seedy. Better food and better PR would have helped too. Instead, it was like excruciatingly slow demolition by neglect.

Further, with Phoenixville becoming a revitalized dining and entertainment destination in recent years, why not be a good community steward and catch that wave at the same time? If the owners had invested more in upgrading the site and finding a better tenant at the Fountain Inn, the Vale-Rio and the Fountain Inn could easily have been part of the Phoenixville revival. They stand at a major gateway to the historic downtown commercial-industrial zone. Now that gateway is going to be marked by CVS and Starbucks. Welcome to Phoenixville, where we have the same chain stores as every other suburb!

Finally, if the diner owners were so sick of dealing with running these money-losing commercial properties, why not sell the entire property to new owners willing to take on rejuvenating the Vale-Rio and the Fountain Inn and maintaining them as a community asset, instead of to a developer whose clients are chain stores? Maybe you wouldn't make as much money as selling to the developer, but you'd earn serious community goodwill. I'm obviously not a land investor, but to anyone in business, that's got to count for something.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The greening of suburbia

All right, this article in the Washington Post on "Can Big Be Green?" has gotten me all riled up. The premise is that even oversized new houses can be more "green" than small old houses. Basically, the article gives high-end developers and their clients the opportunity to justify building McMansions by insisting that even though they consume more land, raw materials, and energy than smaller/older dwellings, it's OK! Because they're sprayed with impermeable insulation and virtually draft-proof! So you can have six bathrooms and not feel guilty, or even have to worry about your heating bill!

The article defines "green" as follows:

"Generally speaking, a house is called green if it uses energy, water and natural resources wisely and offers good indoor air quality. "

What the article does not mention is that oftentimes, particularly in a couple of the neighborhoods specifically mentioned (Somerset, Chevy Chase DC), the only way to build a new house is to tear down an old one. Oftentimes that old one is a perfectly good and serviceable house, maybe a bit small or needs work, but probably has potential.

I need someone to explain to me how bulldozing such a house (which might contain excellent-quality old-growth wood and other natural materials) and throwing it in a landfill, then tearing out all the remaining trees in the yard so a builder can come in and construct a large, towering new house as far out to the property line as possible, using particleboard and Tyvek and pressure-treated lumber and vinyl, is being "green." How is that a wise use of energy, water, or natural resources?

At the very least, this is a colossal waste of resources, even if the old house was not particularly energy-efficient. It's also replacing natural materials almost entirely with chemical-infused manufactured ones, which may or may not be healthy to live in (time will tell). Finally, such an immense infill house inevitably has negative physical, aesthetic, and fiscal ramifications on an established neighborhood, although that's a rant I'll save for another day.

Even if the new superdwelling is built in a vacant area and no old houses were hurt in the filming of this eco-movie, its big footprint is occupying land which once absorbed rain, thus decreasing permeable soil and causing more runoff into area waterways (or neighboring properties). Since most new houses usually have a good-sized paved driveway and/or parking area for the three-car garage, the permeable surface is even further reduced. In terms of reducing runoff and pollution of our waterways, it would be more green to reuse and expand an existing building footprint than to create a new one.

Call me crazy, but I don't understand why anyone would want to live in a Thermos-like dwelling. Old houses may have drafts, but this also serves as a passive ventilation system. Houses built before the advent of air conditioning and modern climate control often have built-in design features to maximize winter heat retention and summer cooling. Air circulation through the exterior envelope, and cross-ventilation through the room arrangement, was a given. These features cost nothing to use, and have worked well since humans first lived in a built environment. If your new house is completely draft-proof, how exactly do you plan to get fresh air circulating through it? Why, an HVAC system! Which requires materials to build and energy to run! Maybe your air quality inside will be good, but is it truly fresh?

The article does not mention that the reason we have black mold, and black mold lawsuits, is precisely because new houses these days are built to be so airtight. Wrapped in Tyvek and vinyl siding, or slathered with synthetic stucco, and sealed with vinyl thermal windows, they don't have the passive air circulation of an older frame or masonry house with wood windows. Houses need to breathe and exchange air, particularly since they are exposed to varying levels of moisture from the inside and outside. When moisture gets into a wall and cannot escape, you get mold. What happens when the wood used to build a house is waterlogged by rain or insufficient curing/drying before the Tyvek and the spray-on insulation goes on? How will it dry out if your exterior walls are sealed like a Thermos? Ever smell a moldy Thermos you forgot to empty and wash for awhile?

So basically, I think it's great if you are going to build yourself a McMansion no matter what and you decide to jump on the "green/sustainable" bandwagon and stick a few solar panels on top. But it would be even greater if realtors, developers, builders, suppliers, consumers, shelter magazines, home-improvement TV shows, and Ty Pennington would recognize the value and potential of reusing existing buildings rather than putting up new ones. Sustainability, like preservation, is about long-term value and stewardship over generations, not the "I want it all and I want it now and I'll throw it away when I'm done with it" culture we live in these days.

This would be a more balanced article if the author had talked to some preservationists, instead of just the National Homebuilders and the LEED people. And it's crystal-clear to many of us in the historic preservation field that national environmental policy needs some help. My friend Richard in DC blogged about this a few days ago and has some additional salient points.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Blog Abstract

I decided that my interest in historic preservation issues was probably a little off-topic for my personal blog, so I have started this new one. Over there, we'll talk about the news, the family, life in general. Over here, we'll talk about a variety of preservation issues, including maintenance of a 200-some-year-old house, why vinyl windows are a scourge, examine preservation issues in the news, and explore why TV is so biased in favor of preservation-unfriendly "solutions" (I'm talking to you too, This Old House). The blog title is a jab at the stereotype formulated by all those people who get mad at us when we protest the demolition of some forlorn old building. Most of us are not hysterical, and are actually pretty mellow people most of the time, but we can get pretty passionate about old-growth wood, quirky vernacular architecture, and property owners who neglect or destroy valuable historic resources. So, welcome to all visitors.