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.

1 comment:

avorob said...

I like your position. It would be great if you re-posted it on teardownpost.com