Save Our Buildings, Save Ourselves

A few years back, while hosting an event for the governor’s State of the State address in Marietta, Ohio, I had a chance to speak with a local councilwoman during the reception. To this day, I remain in awe of the ridiculous things people let pass their lips. This particular councilwoman explained to me that, “People in Marietta didn’t really care about preservation. It’s not something that matters to them.” I tried, albeit poorly, to disguise my disbelief, that an elected official would have such a poor understanding of her constituents. Now, it’s entirely likely that if I asked a room full of Marietta residents if they were preservationists, the response would be probably be poor. But asked if they felt it was important to protect and maintain their historic housing and downtown buildings, the answer would be near unanimous. I understand, that for whatever reason, the word preservation seems to put some people off, or conjure up images of an army of little old ladies in white sneakers chaining themselves to a house museum. I don't entirely understand why some people look upon the concept of preservation with contempt. No one has a negative opinion of restoring and maintaining old cars. Most understand that a classic car has an intrinsic value worth protecting. That the quality of craftsmanship, the retro style and the scarcity of the item, all bring about a significant value; a value worth protecting because the item can’t be recreated. When a classic car gets some rust, no one demands we throw it into the sea. People will rebuild an entire car from a floor mat found at the junkyard, but when an old building has a cracked window, an angry mob of villagers are out with sledge hammers and crowbars, trying to dismantle it themselves.

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We have some odd notions when it comes to historic buildings and I don't quite know why. It seems a very divided topic, yet I don't know anyone that is in favor of poorly maintained buildings, except maybe, the owners of poorly maintained buildings. Can I ask then, why we work so hard to defend the rights of building owners that don’t give a shit about their own building? Property rights are the rallying cry of the vacant property owner and cities bend over backward to avoid offending them, but what about the highly vested owner? What about the person that spent a fortune fixing up their building? I believe they have the right to not have their property value decimated. I believe their property rights should be of far more concern to a community than the rights of someone that has never invested a dime. Property rights should be more about property responsibility than defending neglect. 

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There are a lot of reasons we can cite for the decline of downtown, but in my experience, poorly maintained buildings are the biggest culprit. I understand that there are plenty of reasons why buildings stop being maintained, but the simple fact that these buildings declined in condition, brought about a decline in downtown. It’s not much of a leap to take. Downtown is, in essence, a public gathering place- that space that is defined by a collection of compatible structures. When those structures decline, of course, the space thereby declines. In real world terms, the story goes a little something like this… Someone in the community decided they needed a structure to house their business. So they invested money in constructing a building. The building is designed to house their business, possibly their residence, and will likely be associated with their name, so it was important to make sure the building was well built. This is how downtowns began. The owners derived an income from the buildings and in turn, used some of that money to maintain the building. BOOM- main street economy. In time, those buildings were passed down to the next generation. Eventually, those buildings fell into the hands of someone that decided maintenance was no longer mandatory, but now an expense that could be spared. Thus begins the decline of one building, of one block, of one downtown, of one community. Standards can’t be fluid and they cannot be allowed to decline. Maintenance isn’t an option. There is no single facet of our lives that doesn’t require maintenance. Nothing we value can be neglected with only a hope that it takes care of itself. Our homes require maintenance, our cars and our bikes. Our pets require maintenance and our yards. Our relationships, and even ourselves, all require maintenance. The only things that can’t be maintained are disposable and that which is disposable, does not matter. 

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A downtown can weather a building or two no longer being maintained, but when it becomes one-quarter, or one-third, the possibilities are bleak. So the downward spiral begins. Buildings deteriorate and quality businesses depart. Well-run businesses do not seek out poorly maintained space. So often when I visit a depressed downtown, local leaders will tell me about their recruitment efforts. Then I have to ask, where will you house this amazing business once you have landed them? …. AWKWARD. So, before long, downtown is full of deteriorating buildings and poorly conceived businesses that seek out cheap, low quality spaces. This puts a significant strain on those taking care of their property and kicking ass at their business. Revitalization is a real estate issue, and if you aren’t willing to take punitive action against those not maintaining their buildings, soon, that is all you will have. By not penalizing decline, you are inviting it. The typical “bad” downtown property owner, inherited their building and never spent a cent on it. They are happy to collect a check from the karate shop, church or junk shop. If it burns- it burns, you can be sure they keep their insurance up to date. They are bleeding the community dry. They are doing irreparable harm to their town’s image and economy and should not be given a free pass. 

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Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” Why did the world mourn when Notre Dame burned last month? Why do we travel across countries and oceans just to see a building? Why do we use iconic buildings as city logos and in so much of our media? It’s because we understand that these places matter and we identify with them. We understand that these buildings we shaped are now shaping us. We have all experienced an emotional impact by an inanimate object, the feeling of a breathtaking place. Everyone one of us has entered a room that was designed in such a way, that is alters our very mood. Buildings can bring about feelings of awe, of inspiration, of creativity and even pride. The nature of a space, dictates what goes on in that space. This is the reason libraries, courts, and schools are built on such a grand scale, because the function they provide is so important to society. The building’s appearance should be reflective of the function it serves. All this is to say, that our buildings have an impact on us, both positively and negatively. We are all attracted to beauty so it is our nature to seek out beautiful places. When we visit a well maintained historic district, it delights us, it inspires us, it makes us joyful. When we visit an ugly, dilapidated, depressed place, it in turn depresses us. Those places alter our mood to the very same degree in the opposite direction. We do not seek out those places because we do not desire the emotions they bring about. We seek uplifting experiences, we don’t look to feel sad and discouraged. 

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Imagine living in such a place. Consider how it would affect your mood to see the heart of your community decline every day. Imagine how it would make you feel if the places that once instilled a sense of pride in your community, now made you feel a sense of shame. Our mood can be affected by momentarily visiting a place, imagine how that same place can shape a person over a lifetime. Preservation isn’t about house museums and building huggers and what vice president slept where. It’s about upholding standards. It’s about recognizing those that came before us. It’s about honoring quality materials and craftsmanship. It’s about tourism, real estate values and a strong tax base. It’s about beauty and being marketable. It’s about having space to attract successful, well run businesses. It’s about fostering a sense of civic pride. 

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Historic downtowns are the single largest investment most cities will ever make. They are a reflection of the community as a whole and the center of commerce. Preservation isn’t just about saving our buildings, its about saving our cities and in turn, it’s about saving ourselves. 

*Thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog, if you found the information useful, I do hope you will consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues.

- Jeff Siegler

Amber Davidson