“We know the name of the architect of Grand Central, but who swept the floors?”

–Studs Terkel

I heard this quote on a StoryCorps podcast this morning, and spent a moment hovering on the brink of crying in my car. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. This is why old buildings matter, because they belong to all of us. Because you can point to it and say I lived there, I worked there, I went to school there. It is built, physical proof that you exist, that your life story is true. I thought about a kid (now in his early 20s but I still think of him as a kid–ed.) I know on the North Side of St. Louis…. Many of the buildings he’s lived in have been torn down. A mutual friend remarked, “It’s like the carpet of his life is rolling up behind him.”

So yeah, this is why I sometimes lose sleep over a humble house. This is why my favorite building is a two-story storefront (ILY, 4831 Fountain). This is why I say we need to talk about the stories of buildings’ lives and what they meant to people, not just which catalog the architect Dead Q. Whiteguy ordered the terracotta from (as much as YOU KNOW I love that info too). This is why I talk about the neighborhoods we lost for the freeways and the ones we are still losing to sketchy banks and Paul McKee.

The Guardian Building matters because it is so goddamn beautiful but also because it was built by many sets of hands, also because so many people have worked there and walked through the doors. The Guardian Building also matters because we all love it, visit it, show it off, take it as a proud symbol of our identity as Detroiters, photograph it, run our fingers over the carved stone. Standing in the Guardian Building’s lobby fills me with emotion but I am moved just as strongly (if in a different way) by standing in the front yard of the burnt house that was my mother’s childhood home.

Places matter, and they matter because of *all* of their people.


The Last Service: A memorial for First Unitarian Church

The Last Service: A memorial for First Unitarian Church


On Sunday,  Preservation Detroit will host a memorial for First Unitarian Church, at the site. The abrupt burning and demolition of this 1890 building has been a shock for many of us. Join us for readings, remembrance, and solidarity.

Published in: on May 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Guest Column: ‘I Don’t Want My History To Be Erased’ With Detroit Demolitions

Guest Column: ‘I Don’t Want My History To Be Erased’ With Detroit Demolitions

A deeply moving and thoughtful essay on place and personal history, from someone I’m honored to know and work with.

Published in: on February 28, 2014 at 11:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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Clerical error leads to easy demolition of historic district building in St. Louis

Clerical error leads to easy demolition of historic district building in St. Louis

Not even surprised. Not remotely surprised. Yesterday at work I told a coworker, “I’m trying to be extra careful, because I’ve seen the wrong building get torn down before. In St. Louis.” Today I saw this.

This building was being demolished last time I was in town, and I thought it was weird.

We are only even hearing about this because it happened south of Delmar. If this was somebody’s house in North City, fuhgeddaboutit.

Published in: on February 7, 2014 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Two cents on three thousand demolitions

Today, the 3,000 demolitions that Detroit Mayor Dave Bing promised in last week’s State of the City Address will begin. The 
of homes to be demolished was just released today–so much for photographic documentation.

I am still coming to terms with the level of vacancy in Detroit. St. Louis, where I moved from, also has a very high percentage of vacant buildings and land. The last address where I lived before moving to Michigan was the only building left standing on its block. The first time (of two) that I lived there, we didn’t even bother with having curtains because our neighbors were that few and far between.

Detroit is double the size of St. Louis, and it just keeps going and going. Its many neighborhoods range from the stereotypical one-house-or-less-per-block to densely populated streets of tidy single family houses. One of the key factors that distinguishes Detroit vacancy from that of my hometown is that most buildings here are frame structures, made of wood, whereas St. Louis is almost entirely a brick city. A 19th century masonry building can stand for years without occupants, without a roof, even without four walls. I lived in such a building while its back wall was completely removed and rebuilt, and it remained perfectly sound with just three walls. A couple bought the long-abandoned three-walled house a block north of me and rehabbed it, and they now live there. It has four walls, lights, and windows, and it is very sparkly. 

Wooden buildings aren’t always so lucky–abandonment can be hard on them, and wood doesn’t fare as well in a fire as brick can. An abandoned frame house often just needs to go.

Still I wonder if there isn’t some other option, a rehabilitation program. I attended Model D’s watch party for the State of the City Address last week at the Majestic. One Detroit resident who offered his feedback after the speech suggested that if a demolition were to cost $10k, perhaps there ought to be a way that $10k could be given to someone who needed a home to spruce up a vacant house that was on the cusp of being livable. In this way, we would conserve resources that are in danger of falling down the slippery slope of decay. It wouldn’t eliminate existing problem houses, but it would stop a lot of new ones from being created. This proposal for stewardship felt especially poignant coming from a Detroit resident who said he had his possessions in storage, and was in the process of deciding whether to stay or go.

I think a mix of such a pull-a-house-back-from-the-brink program and demolition would be the best prescription. Demolition does need to happen. There are a good many houses that are just plain physically unsound in Detroit, and they need to go. And then there are other kinds of nuisances–in a city with a police presence stretched as thin as ours, the ability of a single vacant house to become a menace for a block is a serious problem. Residents need to be as able to defend their own blocks as possible, because they often don’t have the level of police support that people in other municipalities can count on.

This is a city perpetually frustrated by a lack of follow-through, be it from broken promises or the smallness of available resources compared to the size of the city’s needs, and swift concrete action like this is a good thing.

But still, it’d be nice if this were interspersed with some form of preservation. Stewardship is an important way to keep a city healthy, too. Keeping a house in decent condition and a resident in Detroit might not be as dramatic a gesture as wiping away an eyesore, but the net result of ultimately having one less problem property would be the same.

I suppose I’m nailbiting in part because I wonder about the coming plans for downsizing the city, about which little of concrete detail has been said at this point. Swift, decisive action can sometimes be a good thing, but here’s to hoping the main event is more about careful process and conserving what we can.

(Noted: I am brand new in town, and I’d love to hear what you think about the big demo list. I know I still have a lot to learn.)

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Berwyn Car Spindle, 1989-2008.

One of the strangest and most colorful (literally and figuratively colorful) landmarks in Chicagoland, Dustin Schuler’s Berwyn Car Spindle, was toppled last night.

Add it to the long list of wonderful structures smashed to bits in the name of Walgreens construction.

Some day, when I am 99 years old, the Walgreenses will be out of fashion and failing and being torn down. They will be torn down for wonderful useful things, the kinds of things they replaced in the first place: terra cotta laden Chinese restaurants, bowling alleys, independent grocery stores, and art decolicious apartment buildings. Stuff with enameled signage and lots of flavor. Urban buildings, corner storefronts, and even exciting contemporary buildings–generally, all manner of things built from neither cinderblock nor grade D putty-colored stucco.

When the Walgreenses are torn down, when I am 99, I am going to walk down to the demolition sites, point my finger, and laugh my 99 year old librarian laugh.

Sigh. Poor ol’ spindle.

Thanks to flickrer-of-all-things-brutalist Seth Tisue for bringing this to my attention. He has pictures. Also, the Sun-Times has video.

Published in: on May 3, 2008 at 11:28 pm  Comments (6)  
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Daydreaming about Pruitt-Igoe

According to former SLU professor, current New School professor Joseph Heathcott, the second most famous image of a demolition in America is that of Pruitt-Igoe being imploded. The most famous such image is the fall of the World Trade Center towers.

As I was sitting at lunch today, I kept thinking that it’s rather fascinating that both complexes were designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki. I wonder what he would say about it if he was still around.

And of course, StL would have to be the home of the second most famous demolition image in the world. We lead the nation in historic rehabilitation, but when it gets right down to it, there is little that StL loves more than chewing its beautiful and/or notable structures to bits. I’m not saying P-I shoulda been saved (that’s a loooong discussion for a rainy day), but just noting how heartily we luv our bulldozers, headache balls, and explosives here in the StL.

Thomas Crone has recent pics of the P-I ruins, er, forest online here.

Published in: on January 15, 2008 at 8:28 pm  Comments (7)  
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Venice High School demolition in progress!

Venice High School, the simple but gorgeous brown brick building in Venice, IL, is coming down.

It has teetered in a sort of liminal state of seems-like-it’ll-come-down for several years now. On Sunday night, it was still wholly intact, seeming like it might stand for several more years untouched. Last night, a huge section was missing off the end of it! Venice High School is coming down!

The western part of the building, which claims to have been built in 1917, is already rapidly on its way to oblivion. The eastern, later portion, which sports a fabulous art deco entranceway, is surely soon to follow.

People with cameras, I beg you: PLEASE GO PHOTOGRAPH THIS BUILDING AS SOON AS YOU CAN! I got a few hasty snaps, but it was dark and cold and my crappy little tiny camera hates dark and cold, so the pictures I got just don’t do the building justice. (And I am without a car, so getting over to even such nearby parts of Illinois is tricky for me.) Please, let’s document this place while we still can–we can’t keep its 3d physical reality alive, but at least we can offer some 2d images for the ages.

There is a map to Venice High School (along with a handful of demographics on the area) here.

One can see a few images of the older portion of the building here. I’ll try to post my few, janky images in the coming days. But take your car and your camera and get over there yourself, please!

Published in: on December 20, 2007 at 4:26 pm  Comments (7)  
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