Americans preserve old buildings mostly when the pursuit is lucrative, and they often lament the lost opportunities.
We're seemingly unwilling to accept that a building can be historic in a local context or because of its architecture rather than because someone important slept there 150 years ago.
So we shouldn't be surprised that the annual report from the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says that the top threat to historic preservation in our country today is the trendy practice of tearing down existing homes to replace them with McMansions.
"The practice of purchasing and demolishing an existing house to make way for a huge new house on the same site is, in my opinion, the single biggest threat to America's older neighborhoods since the heyday of urban renewal and interstate highway construction during the 1950s and 1960s," wrote Richard Moe, president of the national group that promotes historic preservation.
"When the trust named 'Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods' to its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2002, we had identified 100 communities in 20 states that were losing their historic character to teardowns," Moe wrote. "Today, by comparison, more than 300 communities in 33 states are affected. The National Association of Home Builders says a whopping 75,000 houses are razed and replaced with larger houses every year."
This year, to track the trend and try to derail it, the trust will compile a national database of houses being torn down for new houses, Moe said. It also will try to explain to real-estate agents and the public why the teardowns are hurting old neighborhoods.
The key reason is the same as what happens when uncaring renovators hack up old houses and cover them with nondescript vinyl siding: It chips away at the character of the old neighborhood. The ham-handed renovators do it one window or door at a time, while the demolishers do it a house or two at a time. The result is the same.
We tear down beautiful old houses and shops for a host of reasons and complain later that the demolition was shortsighted. The realization usually comes after someone completes the dramatic restoration of a similar building or other old buildings in the same neighborhood.
What will allow us to realize the mistake before we make it? What will give more of us the vision to see past peeling paint and sagging porches to the architectural beauty in so many of our old buildings?
Take a look around at the successes in central Ohio -- German Village and Victorian Village in Columbus, Newark's Hudson Avenue historic area, old Worthington, old Granville, the neighborhoods north and east of downtown Mount Vernon, the historic districts north of downtown Lancaster and Delaware. We roundly celebrate those successes but quickly forget that they could happen elsewhere if we have the vision to create them.
It's heartening to see formerly run-down commercial buildings in Downtown Columbus being transformed into new dwellings. The purpose has changed, but
the buildings' character, and some of what was Downtown, is being preserved. If only we as a community had wised up before so many buildings fell to make way for asphalt.
Some would say that list of successes is enough -- but only until the next old building important to them is demolished. And by then, it will be too late.
Alan Miller is a Dispatch managing editor who writes about old house renovation. Send questions to the Old House Handyman, The Dispatch, 34 S. 3rd St., Columbus, Ohio 43215, or by e-mail.
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