Thursday, March 9, 2006

I take pictures of teardowns

I work for a suburban government north of Chicago. One of my regular duties is researching residential teardowns to determine if they could potentially become landmarks. People seeking a teardown submit photographs and I research permit records for date of construction, owner, and architect. If it looks like a good house I'll drive out and take my own photographs. As you can imagine, people who apply for teardown aren't too happy to think of their home becoming a landmark.

I've researched over 500 demolitions, and it's given me a peculiar relationship to the neighborhoods. I can drive down any street, see what's there, and remember what it replaced. As the teardowns accumulate the memory of the street seems to fade. New construction attracts new construction, and the pace quickens. At this point a few streets are approaching 50 percent replacement.

Although we've lost a number of very historic houses, it's really the mediocre, everyday homes that define the character of the neighborhoods. Sure, we have our historic districts to preserve a certain qualities, but I find myself more and more interested in the unremarkable home as a bearer of culture.

This isn't addressed very well in the current preservation literature. Landmarks and historic districts protect architectural and historical significance. But what protects insignificance? Nothing. Why would you protect it? It's only explored through geography, ethnography, and studies in material or popular culture. But those disciplines don't have the strong value stance you find in historic preservation. The demolition and replacement of insignificant structures provides just as much information as the preservation found in a historic district.

One solution is to expand the definition of "significant." You can already see this happening with the formation of tract housing historic districts. But to the credit of the preservation movement, the same old rules apply, especially in the face of newly significant styles. Even a ranch house can embody notable quality of design, integrity of materials, and importance in the larger context of the community.

But what about the ranch house covered in tar paper with colonial replacement windows and a two-story stucco addition? Who will speak for this? Not the historic preservation commission. Not the neighbors. Not the activists.

As my interests shift, I realize that there must be ways to help people recognize the significance of the insignificant. It can't be saved, because there's no aesthetic, historic, or economic reason to save it. But can I train the eyes of others to value it in the same way I do? Still working on ways to do this. It may not be a question of history or architecture, but a question of art and identity.

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