Applying What You Know: Reading the Built Environment

Learning to read your built environment – your city – helps you to form tangible connections to where you live. In turn, your sense of place and community increases. You feel ownership and responsibility for your town or city, which allows for better planning and smart development. The longer you live somewhere and study, the better you get to know a place; the more you love it.

But what happens you go someplace new? How do you read the built environment if you know nothing about its history? Good question. The best part of learning to read the layers of the built environment is that you can gain a sense of place and understanding without needing to know its cultural history. How do you do that?  By observing and translating the elements of the built environment you see the development and changes.

Elements of the built environment include street patterns (gridded or not?), buildings (height, architectural style, materials), parking lots (where? garages?), sidewalks (width, material?), landscaping (trees?), bridges (type?), utilities (underground wires or telephone poles?), and more.

I want to share an example that I used in my recent Built Environment lecture. It’s simple, but a good place to start. Ready to play along? And, go!

Recently, I traveled through Prescott, Ontario, a town on Canada Route 2 along the St. Lawrence River. I stopped in what appeared to be the center of town. As a preservationist, I always enjoy getting out of the car and wandering for a few blocks to snap photos and observe the area, stare at buildings – that sort of thing.

Here is the view standing on the corner of Centre Street and Route 2. Note the historic building block on the right. On the left, however, is a large parking lot. Parking lots always raise an eyebrow for me – why is there a large parking lot in the center of town? Historically, towns were not built with parking lots in the middle. Let’s have a look around.

Slide1

Parking lot (left) & historic building block (right) in the center of Prescott.

 

Slide2

Top left: the same historic building block mentioned above. Right: tower and parking lot at the SW corner of Route 2 and Centre Street. Bottom left: The same parking lot as seen from the other end of it (note clock tower behind the tree).

 

You can see the photos above. Now let’s step across the street. These Google street views (below) show that SW corner (in the first photo I stood next to the clock tower).

Once I did a 360 observation of the block I had a few guesses. In the United States, if there is a hole (read: parking lot) in a town or city, I automatically think 1960s Urban Renewal era. However, this was Canada, so I wasn’t sure on Urban Renewal.

But, the drug store adjacent to the parking lot had a mid 20th century vibe (see image below). The general automobile culture (1950s/60s) often falls in line with demolition and parking lots for auto-centric businesses.

Slide3

Google Street views of the corner and drug store.

My guess? A historic building was demolished for the drug store and parking lot, and the clock tower built on the edge of the parking lot to “honor” the historic building. Classic, right? Always the preservation nerd, I did some Googling to see if I could find information about Prescott development. It took a while, but eventually I did find my answer!

Yes, there was a historic building there. This one:

Slide4

Prescott, Ontario 1876 Town Hall. The clock tower was a later addition.

According to this source, the town hall was demolished in the early 1960s due to neglect and lack of available funds in the town for repair. While I couldn’t find when the drug store was built, I have a pretty good guess that it followed shortly after demolition of the town hall.

While this was not the most uplifting example of reading the landscape, it is important to understand how our cities and towns are shaped by individual projects and decisions. And the lesson? When you see a large hole in the center, spin around and look around. It’s probably not supposed to be there.

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Pirelli Tire Building

What remains of the Pirelli Tire Building, as seen from the Ikea parking lot in New Haven, CT.

Passing through New Haven, CT on I-95, you might notice a large mid-century concrete building – if you’re not blinded by the blue & yellow Ikea building just south of the concrete building. Or perhaps the Ikea advertisement on the building distracts your attention.  I hadn’t paid too much attention on this section of I-95 before, and Ikea may have caught my attention first (usually we’re traveling this way after daylight hours).

Vinny and I recently stopped at the New Haven Ikea on our way back to Vermont and once I had the time to look at this building, I was struck by its beauty. Normally I wouldn’t characterize mid century concrete buildings as beautiful, but there was something about this one. And it’s smack in the middle of an Ikea parking lot, which seemed odd. We figured it must be Ikea offices. It looked modern, like the general aesthetic of Ikea.

Once I started looking, it was not hard to find information about this building. It is the Pirelli Tire/ (originally) Armstrong Rubber Company Building designed by Marcel Breuer in 1968. The building was meant to serve as a gateway to New Haven, since it is located near the I-91/I-95 interchange and to mark the cultural rebirth of the city, hence, the choice for a modern building. Read more about the design of the building on the DOCOMOMO_US record. The building was listed in the Connecticut State Register of Historic Places in 2000, which makes it eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The building has been vacant since the 1990s and there have been a few unsuccessful plans to rehabilitate the building.

In 2002, Ikea announced its plan to demolish the Pirelli building in order to create enough parking for its big box store. (It was a huge news story in the preservation world, but that was when I was just learning of preservation so I missed it back then.) Fortunately, they were not successful, at least not completely. The image you see above is only a portion of the Pirelli building; originally the two stories on the bottom extended and those floors served as a warehouse as well as a research and development wing. This image from Architecture Week shows the original building.

Pirelli Tire Building. Image via Architecture Week. Click for source.

Now, the Pirelli building is overshadowed by the Ikea building. The green space is gone, and the two-story wing is demolished, which destroyed its iconic asymmetry (and possibly its architectural integrity). The building is surrounded by a parking lot. Ikea uses the building as a billboard. See the original extent of the building on A Daily Dose of Architecture.

What is the worst part? The building is empty, not even one floor is used for offices or business or anything else. Ikea owns the building. Ikea is probably waiting for the right time to attack and destroy the iconic building (though the company says it is in agreement with the City of New Haven that the building should remain).

What is interesting about this? Ikea and Marcel Breuer, Pirelli building architect, have a lot in common. Ikea is known for its modern design using affordable materials and production and distribution.  Marcel Breuer, is known for mass producing objects with common materials, such as bent steel tube chairs and Ikea. Wouldn’t you think that Ikea would find this to be an ideal location and a wonderful building to showcase the company? Instead, the building is a billboard for Ikea. Why couldn’t Ikea think creatively about a building? A 2003 Preservation Nation post ponders whether saving half the building was a bad decision or a good compromise.

Ikea demolished a significant building (a portion of one, but took integrity with it) for parking spaces – more asphalt.

As always, local zoning and architectural appreciation by city officials could have helped to preserve this building or come up with an actual compromise. Of course, retailers such as Ikea should be culturally responsible, too.

And now I feel guilty for shopping at Ikea.

Land’s End

By now, everyone has heard of the tragic demolition of Land’s End, one of Long Island’s Gold Coast mansions. This particular mansion happened to be the one that provided inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, The Great Gatsby.  The Gold Coast of the 1920s stretched from Great Neck to Huntington Bay on the Long Island Sound.

Can you imagine living among stars and lavish parties, so much wealth all in one room? The images are remarkable. F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the roaring 20s. Land’s End represented that time.

Have you watched the CBS Sunday morning video yet? I hadn’t until yesterday. I didn’t want to see a building demolished (abandoned, still standing buildings pull at heart enough as it is). But I finally watched it. And it is heartbreaking. You can see a short video by News12 or a longer (much better) video clip on CBS.

Click for video.

A realtor, Bert Brodsky, and his son bought the $18 million property seven years ago and claimed that the upkeep was too much. So they let it fall. And eventually were able to have it claimed “beyond repair.” Now they plan to construct five $10 million dollar homes. At the end of the CBS Sunday morning video the realtor/owner said that he was sad, but life goes on.

CBS Sunday morning video

What a horrible loss to our heritage. How is it fair and allowed that someone can purchase such a significant property, likely knowing of the upkeep, and then just let it fall to pieces until it is just bad enough to be declared too far gone? It makes me so angry. I have to think that it was carefully calculated, particularly when developers are involved. How about you?

For more information, images, and video read the post and scroll down to the links of the blog 80,000 words. One link is to a New York Times article about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Her flickr set has devastating photographs of the end of the demolition. The strong, lonely chimneys are astounding.

Visit Old Long Island for pictures, and then follow Zach’s lead to Jen Ross’ demolition photos. She has an earlier set of the house in its sad, abandoned state. They are tragically breathtaking.  It is worth your time to browse.

Friday Links

Rather than tell you about the remaining school assignments I have, I thought I’d find some interesting preservation links for you. Happy December! Happy snow!

Enjoy.

* Ah, Long Island, or ultimate suburbia as I call it. Fortunately, there are still some hints of its interesting past. I have no idea how I came across this blog, but Old Long Island features historic images of the great Long Island estates (think Great Gatsby style).  Some posts have Library of Congress images, some have real estate ads, others are from books and other printed materials; most are linked with images to Google Earth. Even if you do not have a Long Island connection, the architecture of these estates is beautiful.

* Sabra, over at My Own Time Machine, always finds interesting articles and current event topics. I love a recent post of hers about Historic Heidelberg – Kerlin Farm, located outside Philadelphia. From the post, this is the issue:

WHAT:   Now under threat of demolition, one of the oldest residences in Pennsylvania at 1050 Ashbourne Road, Cheltenham, PA.  The 300+ year old estate hearkens to the very beginning of European settlement in this region.  It would be difficult to stand in a place that more completely describes the settlement and growth of a particular place over the course of three centuries.  Now it is facing the wrecking ball.

Click through for more information. Be sure to read Sabra’s comment to mine addressing issues such as how much is too far gone, stabilizing ruins, and the education system.

* Route 66 News talks about an article that finds John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley to be fiction. Personally, I could care less if it’s fiction. I love the book anyway. You?

* Are you an alum of the UVM Historic Preservation program? Check out the new HP alumni website. And come to the party on Saturday.

* This warrants a much longer discussion, but for now: the University of Mary Washington has a master plan to raze seven buildings including the historic 1931 Seacobeck Dining Hall. Seriously, UMW? Your historic preservation program is one of the best undergraduate programs in the country and you’re not going to take the advice of that department? Bad move.

* Actually, Preservation Nation’s Story of the Day feature often has stories about demolition threats. Yikes! (Not to be confused with that yikes!) Isn’t it time people got over the whole demolition thing? It’s not green, people.

* Christmas and historic mansions? Oh, how grand living that life must have been.

Shared with me, courtesy of Sabra, who found this on Etsy (via caramelos). If anyone has sent one the way of Preservation in Pink, I’ll love you forever (ahem, sisters). Just kidding! But they are adorable.

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Unrelated but worth sharing:

Follow my sister Annie O’Shea through the skeleton World Cup race series this winter.

Send thank you notes to the United States soldiers! (It takes about five seconds.)

A Lost Historic School: Francis M Drexel School

Exterior of the Drexel School. Click for source.

Take a look at the picture above. What comes to mind? Most observers would be able to say that this building was beautiful in its heyday. It has an impressive institutional feel about it. So, what will happen to it? Doesn’t it look like the perfect subject for adaptive reuse? Why does it look like that? Clearly it is not respected by its neighbors.

What was it? This building, the Francis M Drexel School was built in 1888, designed by architect Joseph Anshutz and financed by Anthony Drexel. Francis M. Drexel was an artist, a banker, a family man, and a philanthropist who wanted to provide education to all regardless of race, gender, or social class. His son Anthony Drexel realized his vision with the construction of approximately 75 schools across Philadelphia, all similar to the one above. It served the Philadelphia city schools until the 1970s, after which is was declared a surplus property. Very few survive intact or survive at all today. The Francis M Drexel School is the oldest extant Drexel School and it does not have a promising fate either.* In December 2009 it demolition was ordered. It will be replaced with brand new luxury town homes. Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything, and demolition will begin next week.

The Francis M Drexel School in Philadelphia, PA.

This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visit the exterior and interior photo sections of the Drexel School website to feel the beauty of such a school and the impact of its current condition. It’s heartbreaking, even for someone who has never heard of the building. Trust me, but see for yourself, too. You can also find the blueprints of the school in the blueprints section of the sidebar.

And it is the case of another historic school lost. And perhaps a reminder that it is never too early to advocate for saving a structure — empty buildings never fare well. Was there anything that could have been done? How can we learn from this lesson? Readers, what can we do? This is a situation we find across the country, all of the time. What are your thoughts? A use could easily have been found – it is in the center of a neighborhood, like most historic schools. There is not a resident of that neighborhood who has seen the cityscape without the Francis M Drexel School. Sadly, since it has been surplus since the 1970s, most people have not seen it as an active part of the community. Perhaps they have had trouble looking beyond the neglected building. And with all that time of neglect, it had become unsafe and deemed ineligible for rehabilitation.

What sort of mitigation would be appropriate? Suggestions? Do you have advice or know people in Philadelphia to help, those who care about the school’s memory? Leave a note here or email drexelschool [at] verizon [dot] net. Your help is much appreciated.

*Historical information provided by the Drexel School website: http://www.thedrexelschool.com

Lake Champlain Bridge Demolition

For those who haven’t heard, the Lake Champlain Bridge is scheduled to be demolished on Wednesday December 23, 2009 at 10am. (Talk about a terrible Christmas present for preservationists, huh?)

See this NYSDOT Press Release. The public may view the demolition at specific areas, such as on Vermont 125 (read this release from VTrans). If you are unable to attend the demolition, it will also be available online via live streaming – see the NYSDOT website on Wednesday morning.

How do preservationists feel about watching the demolition of a bridge they fought to save? Is it a once-in-a-lifetime type of situation or more of an I-can’t-bear-to-watch issue or more like I-will-not-dignify-this-decision-by-watching-it? What lessons could preservationists learn from watching it? Please share your thoughts.

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UPDATE: NYSDOT has issued a press release stating that the bridge demolition will be on December 28, not December 23. Read it here.

Discussion: Additions, Design, Significance … Opinions

When a historic house has been altered by an addition, how do we decide what to do with the addition? If the house is being restored to a certain time period, then a modern addition can be removed without regret (because it is not historic)? However, how do you approach a historic addition of a historic house, one that has altered the original image?

Take this house for example: An 1890s front gable house has a 1920s side addition, which altered the roof structure to pyramidal. Now the house looks like a wide four-square, the building lacks symmetry, and has terrible, unpleasing fenestration. The proposal: remove the addition and change the roof to front gable. The opponents say: the 1920s addition has gained significance and should not be removed. The supporters: remove the 1920s addition. Poor design should not be preserved because it is old.

Who would care to dissect this issue? I know everyone has an opinion on this.

Andrew Deci, PiP contributor and Spotsylvania, VA planner, shares his thoughts:

I’m troubled by an argument based on ‘poor design’, ‘ugliness’, or unattractiveness–how can we impose our contemporary values on a structure of the past?  Certainly, if there is significant research to back a restoration to a specific time period (and the addition does not stand on its own as significant), by all means, move forward.  But if that addition represents a change in values, planned design, or community philosophy, think again.

I think we do our field a disservice if we move back to a time of preserving that which is found important by the few or that which is ‘pretty’.  This conversation certainly harkens back to the recent work at Montpelier, where an old addition of GREAT design and significance WAS torn down.  My personal thoughts–a travesty.

More thoughts to be shared as they come in. Leave a comment or send an email.

[Thanks to Andrew for sharing this issue and your thoughts!]