Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Non-Historical Preservation Society

Why is it so hard to tear down old buildings?  I don't mean the difficulty of physically knocking down a structure (although construction guys today will tell you they built some of those old buildings to be bomb-proof)--but rather the opposition some people have to taking down an old building and replacing it with something new.

We saw that again last night in Menasha as a handful of residents, members of the Landmarks Commission and one member of the City Council lobbied for "preservation" of the "historic" Hotel Menasha building on Main Street.  The Landmarks Commission had earlier denied the new owners of the hotel building permission to tear it down to make way for a new housing and commercial development along the Fox River.  However, when the question was posed as to what makes the Hotel Menasha building "historic", those opponents of demolition struggled to come up with an answer.  "It's been there for over 100-years" and "it's an example of a certain architectural style" were the only responses.

There is something of a joke in the Eastern US about the "historic" nature of certain places.  You've probably heard the "Washington slept here" line used by inns or taverns--but the Hotel Menasha doesn't even have that kind of "brush with greatness" in its history.  It wasn't the first hotel in town, or the first to have air conditioning.  It didn't see any infamous gangster murders and there was no secret speakeasy hidden under it during Prohibition.  It is just an old building with a dated design and infrastructure that makes modern use very difficult.

Menasha isn't alone in its fear of urban renewal.  Here in Oshkosh, neighborhood associations are asked to draw up their own plans with an eye toward "preserving the unique nature of their area".  Every effort is being put into trying to make old houses as liveable as possible--rather than allowing developers to bulldoze those rotting structures and build new--with designs, systems and features that modern buyers actually want.  If you are looking for an attached garage and a full basement--with cable wired into every room--there are hundreds of blocks in Oshkosh that you will have no interest in looking at.  Unless, of course, you're one of those handful of people who define "historic" as "just plain old."

1 comment:

  1. While not a resident, and unfamiliar with the particular story you are sharing, I do have some thoughts for you. Actually, tearing down a building can be surprisingly easy, and this, as a preservationist is disturbing to me. While the reasons you cite, over 100 and of a particular style, may not seem like much to you - given that your entire state is only, 166 years old, the over 100 suddenly seems more relevant. Of a particular style may also be important - was it the only example of that style in the community - then it shows how it was interpreted locally. But, more important than either age or style is the need to protect the sense of place that the building has provided. So many communities have knocked down their historic buildings to erect new "modern" buildings, then in a few years find them to also be out of date. Meanwhile, they have lost the character of the city and there remains nothing to separate Menasha from the place next door. It isn't only about the building, but about the identity of place. My two cents.