Get it, but which buildings do we preserve?

We read with interest (and a sense of deja vu) Anne Gentry’s defense of old buildings. We want to agree, and yet …

We agree that demolition of old buildings simply to clear space is abhorrent. We also agree that preservation of certain old buildings (and building interiors and nearby parks) is essential not only aesthetically but to maintain a sense of a place’s past (one recalls Faulkner, in “Requiem for a Nun”: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”).

And yet, one recognizes that every building — even every old building –stands on the site of something that was there before. The Woolworth Building was not standing in downtown Manhattan when the first settlers arrived, nor was the Empire State Building already towering over Midtown. The same is true for the architecture in Detroit, and Alpena.

Moreover, many older buildings are incompatible with current commercial and residential practices. Think asbestos, think the lack of elevators. Think of the generational decay of buildings from having stood for so long. (One recalls a city engineer looking at the Manhattan Bridge some time in the 1980s: “You know what’s keeping that thing up? Memory.”).

Further, one cannot force a commercial enterprise to operate in a building not suited to its needs. Business operates under different norms and practices than a hundred years ago. People adapt; so must their environment.

Finally, determining which buildings to preserve is its own nightmare. For every old building saved from demolition, you risk foregoing a Seagram Building. Even Grand Central Terminal replaced something else previously on 42nd Street. (One expects the same is true in Italy, even in a museum city such as Rome. The past gets built over.).

Preservation, while a laudable goal, must have limits. The trick is deciding what they are.




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