Buildings, Character, Community


While getting my morning news digest from the SD blogosphere, I came upon this wonderful link from Erin Heidelberger’s Prairie Roots weblog. It’s a speech given by Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and it gives a number of reasons why, as Erin Heidelberger titles her post, “The Greenest Building Is One that Already Exists.”

To me, this speech harks back to the discussion on the role of the Vermillion Area Arts Council in preserving the historic 1906 Washington Street Arts Center (aka “The Church of the Arts” or the old St. Agnes church). It was (and perhaps still is) the VAAC Board’s position that the VAAC’s mission does not include the preservation of old buildings.

While I have read the mission statement and concur that it contains no specific mention of historic preservation or of the Washington Street Arts Center, I still believe that a broader perspective of the mission, “to promote the arts and humanities” can certainly provide room for recognition of the historic and artistic treasure that is the current home of the VAAC.

There were a few newer VAAC members who questioned the safety of the building. And there are most certainly safety issues that must be dealt with concerning the old church. Most older buildings (and some newer ones) need maintenance and updates to continue to serve their intended purpose–especially when it concerns community functions.

Though the Arts Center is not the most amazing piece of architecture in Vermillion, it is lovely, structurally solid in its core, and the last of its kind. Serious work needs to be done on the bell tower and back entrances to repair water damage and shore up the brickwork. But the main part of the building, with its heavy wood beams and thick brick walls, has all the elements of a thing built to last.

Sadly, the “built to last” ethic that governed construction in generations past has been replaced by the bigger-better-faster-more consumer model of construction, where old buildings constructed of high-quality materials are torn out and replaced by prefabricated particleboard clones meant to deteriorate quickly so that new factory-made pre-fabs have a ready market. First, disposable diapers–now, disposable houses.

It seems we are being sold the notion that in order to keep the market humming, we need to consume not only processed food byproducts, but processed housing byproducts as well. There is seemingly no room for the idea that money can be made in the upkeep and restoration of buildings that were meant to last–and that may be because the money to be made there is on a smaller and more individual scale. It lines the pockets of the small, local contractors and electricians and plumbers, not the industrial pre-fab housing companies.

In turn, the industrial housing manufacturers are not interested in the beauty or character of the communities they sell to. They are bound by their shareholders to sell as many units at as low a cost of production and as high a price as they can manage. The local contractors, however, might be assumed to have somewhat of a higher investment in the character and quality of their own community, and I would argue that they appreciate working with higher quality materials.

As a farmer, I know the joy of working a fertile, loamy, live soil, and I know the difficulty of starting from scratch to coax a worn-out plot of dirt back to life. I would assume, based on my discussions with some handy folks I know, that there is a parallel joy for contractors to work with a well-crafted system with high-quality components, and a parallel difficulty in trying to repair/maintain a thing with no solid foundation.

I live in a small house–two bedrooms, less than 1000 square feet. But it is a house built by a man, not a machine. It was built in 1951 with heavy beams, hardwood floors, a fireplace and a stone chimney. It is solid; it has character; it was built to last.

Although it is one of the smallest homes in the Forest Avenue Historic District and certainly one of the least grand in terms of its scale and ornamentation, it was built with care and respect for its place and its use. I cannot conceive of trading my tiny. sturdy abode for any even of the largest and most ostentatious McMansions in varying shades of dull that line the interstates closer to Sioux Falls and Sioux City.

There is no character in those McMansion communities and there is little quality in their construction. The manufacturing plants and jobs that exist to provide them pollute the planet and poison the air with the toxic compounds used in making everything shiny-new looking if only for a year or two.

Meanwhile, those buildings that add character to our communities–those that have served their communities for fifty or a hundred years or more endure character assassination for being “relics” and “stinky old buildings” and “unsafe” and are slated for the demolition crews so we can make way for something new and “improved,” which in terms of construction these days, tends to be an oxymoron.

A community’s character is reflected in its architectural landscape–in its buildings. If Richard Moe is right, and I think he is, one of our communities’ greatest and greenest resources is our wealth of built-to-last buildings that can be continually revived and retrofitted as the community’s needs change.

I would add that not only is preservation a greener alternative, preservation is a more frugal alternative, and a more community-oriented and community-sustaining alternative.

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