Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Preservation Consternation

The recent battle between preservationists and a bill sponsored by Indiana State Senator Pat Miller creates an opportunity for pondering. What I'm pondering is this: how does a city keep important historic buildings and districts while also maintaining a sense of vibrancy? And, how might Indianapolis enhance its unimpressive collection of contemporary architecture with new buildings that are architecturally significant, while also maintaining its dwindling collection of historic buildings that are architecturally significant?

This is a ponderance that requires much long and thoughtful attention. And probably more than one blog. But for now, I'm going to think just a bit about it. I think I know the questions to ask but am still struggling internally with the answers to them.

In addition to being a preservationist, I also happen to be a modern design freak. Talk about your cognitive dissonance! It would be much easier for me to be one of those preservationist-types who looks at the City/County Building and feels nothing but remorse for the lost Marion County Courthouse. But I'm not. I thought the Second Empire Courthouse was fabulous and wish we still had it. But I also think the Bauhaus-inspired City/County building is great and I worry that since so few others love it, it is in danger of going the way of the courthouse that was demolished to make room for it.

At the same time, if I could make a wish for my city it would be that we begin to demand amazing architecture in new buildings that are constructed downtown. For I believe that until we start showing some muscle with great, hopefully even controversial, architecture, we will never deserve the title of the "world-class" city that all of our paid marketing boosters claim for us.

So, how's a preservationist/modernist junkie to resolve these conflicting notions: keep the old, and build new and fabulous? Over the course of the next few posts I'm going to offer my ideas of how to solve some of these dilemmas and why some just can't be solved.

The first rule has to be: if it's downtown and architecturally significant and it can be saved, then developers must be required to make the effort to do that. And if they say that's not possible, let's charge a demolition fine for destroying a building that's been deemed significant. This fine would be on top of whatever regular fees are required and it could be dispersed in grants to owners of the other downtown historic buildings to appropriately rehabilitate and maintain them.

Significance can sometimes be in the eye of the beholder. So let's establish some rules about determining it. First, let's just say that, when it comes to considering demolition, any building more than a century old is significant. No discussion. We must stop knocking down our heritage. If it's more than 100 years old, then you need to come up with some sound reasons to tear it down, and you need to pay up to the city for the loss you are causing to our cityscape and our cultural understanding of our history. If you simply cannot save one of our pieces of architectural heritage then pay up so that your fees will help other building owners save theirs.

Would this stop redevelopment downtown? It would deincentivize destruction certainly. But it incentivizes reuse. And makes wholesale demolishers pay up so that other significant buildings get more protection.

Rule 2. If you decide to build new within the MileSquare, then you have to bring it with the design. No more 3-story suburban housing developments. Yes, good design may also be in the eye of the beholder but no one in his/her right mind is looking at the development at Alabama and Ohio and thinking, Wow! that's fabulous! No more, blah architecture downtown.

My first rules to making a better city.

I know that we can't stop building in the city. This isn't a museum. If it were, we wouldn't have much of a collection. Not every old building is worthy of a fight to save it. Just as the pediatrician told us about raising children: save your "nos" for the most important stuff. Preservationists need to save their ballyhooing for the important buildings. Do I feel sad that the Jaws building is no longer a landmark downtown? Yeah, sort of, I guess. Even though that was a building that didn't fit---too small in scale, and probably would never have been considered significant, the redone building (now called the Broadbent building) is much worse. If we're going to give up an interesting old building, then a new one has to be better. Better in terms of design and in terms of landuse. (See Rule 2 above).

Stay tuned, more's coming. And I welcome your response to these first steps.

[black and white images from "Indianapolis Architecture"]


  1. I'm a modern design affectionado myself Connie. I've lived in all kinds of structures from the very old to the brand new. Each has it's pluses and minuses. I don't subscribe to the opinion that just because a building is old - it should never be altered. I like the juxtaposition of the old and the new.

    I think the city needs to turn it's focus to design. Downtown is filled with suburban-like office park buildings. Not very inspiring, to say the least.

    Yesterday, I visited IUPUI's library. It was the 1st time in years I had walked the campus. All I can say, the campus is not people friendly. The buildings are too far apart, the public space is uninviting, and the buildings are just blah. Rather than engaging the street, the way the campus is configured just makes one to keep moving.

    CVS is always cited as the posterchild of bad design and suburban living but CVS like all of the other large national retail chains have boilerplates - it's all about managing costs and branding.

    It's up to the community to just say "NO!" It's been my experience when pressed, they companies will respond positively. But it starts with the community.

  2. You're right. We set our standards within our own community. Preservation and good design can go hand-in-hand. And they should. But as long as we sit on our hands, we won't get good design and we'll continue to lose buildings.

  3. I like that law office building on 11th & Delaware. The CVS building on 16th Street is a good example of a design standard for new retail construction.

    I think as a 1st step mandating all new buildings downtown must be built to the street could be an attainable goal. With all parking in the back and on the curb.

  4. I like that new building, too. Took them forever to finish it but it's attractive and modern. I like.

    Parking could also go below ground or above commercial space to keep from creating more surface lots. There is an inexcusable amount of surface parking in this city.

  5. IUPUI and Clarian are tops in my book as "downtown's ugly developer".

    Their buildings are boring, cold while utterly failing to engage its surroundings - essentially turning the near westside into dead zones of huge parking lots and building vents.

    Is it possible to start a meaningful conversation with IUPUI about it's building policies? After all, it's public money that is being used to build . . .

  6. For the first time in a long time, I looked up as I was walking past the circle. Looking up is a habit of mine from Chicago where, well, everything IS up - but I had broken myself of that once I came here.
    I was delighted to spy the facade on the Ossip shop on the corner. Zeppelins and biplanes? What a lovely snippet of history right on that building.
    Ossip could have chosen to, as surrounding developers seem to, completely level the building and create something that is likely more suited to their purpose and keeping in current "green" (sorry, but gag me please) trends.
    I think about all the other little whimsies I've missed from not looking up enough and wonder if that same failing is what has led to the current cityscape. I just can't believe that building was all alone (comeon, that designer would be SWAMPED with comissions these days!) and I refuse to think someone would tear down something so lovely.

  7. And allow me to clarify my distaste for "green" since you, Dear Connie, are one of its agents for change.
    I was raised up by hippies, so this whole "love your Mother Earth" stuff is not new to me. I've been crushing cans and setting aside Kellogg's boxes since Mork from Ork was still funny.
    The biggest difference I'm seeing from the way I was raised and the way society views "green" now is that the current trend is based on selfishness and fashion.
    I grew up in old farmhouses and turn-of-the-century buildings that would make even the iciest preservationist melt. They were drafty, inefficient, hard to get TV signals in, impossible to run wireless networks through... They were old houses.
    Back then, "green" meant putting on a sweater if you're cold. You would do your baking once a week in the summer and eat lots of coldcuts and fresh veggies. In the 1800's farmhouse, where the one heat source was a wood stove downstairs, bedrooms were centered around the heat and beds were put as close to that heat as you could get and be safe. Even in my eastside National Home with "fuel oil" heating, bedtime comfort didn't involve turning a dial - it was achieved through flannel PJs and heating blankets.
    Through all this I learned that the world is not here for our comfort. We are merely existing on it.
    That's what burns me about the modern green movement. It's all about how to be comfortable, stylish, and entertained while making people think you care about your impact. I find people who jump on the green bandwagon to be SHOCKED that their heating bill is so high. Well, of course - you're running around the house in the middle of December with no slippers or sweater! "How can I bring down my summer a/c costs?" they ask. Well, for one, you can stop chilling every room of your house. Or, I dunno, maybe open a window?
    I'm starting to gag on the green thing because I'm seeing people start meaningless gardens - just a little something to have fun and look like they're making a difference, not really learning about the growing techniques that will give them a summer of wonderful organic in-season food that they can preserve for the winter. I'm seeing people drive their made in China reusable bags to the market across town and stocking up because "buying in bulk saves!" rather than walking to the one near their house a few times a week for fresh foods. I'm seeing people trying so hard to read the labels and make a choice based on that "XX% post-consumer recycled" label, but then toss the waste right into the bin.
    As a society, we're so OBSESSED with comfort and beauty. Being truly ecological minded is not easy. I'm not saying we all need to unplug and become mountain men (because then how would I get online and buy my collector's Barbies straight from Mattel?). But this current "green trend" really makes me sick. I'm glad that we're making older buildings more effective, but I just can't believe that it took an economic crisis to do so. By all means, lets use less energy - but rather than driving our SUV's to Home Depot to check out the latest light timers or get yet another tube of sealant, why don't we just put on another sweater.

  8. Claudia, I'm glad if my post made you look up. I hope you'll also "look up" some of my past posts about how to be green and a preservationist. Both are important, and need not be exclusionary. There are ways to make an old house green. See my article on that in Urban Times. As for me, if it takes a trend to make conservation seem important that I'm all for being trendy. Doesnt matter to me if one collects water in a "rain barrel" or a "cistern" as my grandmother called the big pickle crock she kept under her downspouts. Conserving the water is what's important and that's an analog for the entire conservation/green movement.