Thursday, August 7, 2014

Living in History

When I was in middle school, my family moved to a farm in rural Virginia. The house had been unusually divided into apartments for the extended family that lived there before us, the water well needed upgrades, and the massive tin roof was in disrepair.

I hate using that word, because disrepair doesn't mean what it implies. We repaired the roof, we restored the oak floors and cherry doors, and we modernized the home's water supply. 

It wasn't cheap, but it wasn't unheard of. 

Insignificant, but why not?

Throughout the South, older homes are readily renovated or simply restored. It may seem surprising, but some of the most conservative parts of the country abide by the creed, "the greenest house is the one already built."

Many of my childhood friends lived in homes without central air, and they weren't all poor farmers. Preserving the legacy of the past, some lived in tediously restored plantation homes which, with the exception of modern plumbing and electricity, existed exactly as they did prior to the Civil War.

I'm not simply regaling a lost era. I'm not that old. When I was in high school in 1993, a Mennonite family I knew purchased a farmhouse near my own family's farm. But they didn't purchase the land. Instead, they had the house lifted and moved to a new location. It may not seem unheard of when you consider the offer made to move the Main Line's palatial La Ronda all the way to Florida. But the Berry residence was a simple, late 19th Century farmhouse, one that can be found in abundance throughout Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

So why bother? The house bore no family connection. It was a simple respect for history, and a nod to the fact that the greenest house is the one already built.

Another childhood friend of mine was the heiress to a massive poultry corporation. I remember practicing for my role in West Side Story at the Wampler house when my love for architecture kicked into gear. The simple farmhouse didn't just look original, it was original. When the Wampler's purchased the house - clearly with the means to raze the humble home for a mansion and swimming pool - they opted to restore the beleaguered and historically insignificant residence, going as far as replacing the rotten wood paneling with lumber farmed from the same region in which it originated.

So now ten years into residing at the pinnacle of American history, Philadelphia, I'm obviously perplexed by the region's willingness to discard its history at the mere mention of disrepair. Disrepair that simply cites broken gutters and detached stucco. I didn't just know people who lived in such homes, I lived in one myself. 

Sadly in Philadelphia, the apex of American history, a lack of central air can mean disrepair.

A century old home in Chestnut Hill is learning this the hard way. At 415 West Moreland Avenue, a handsome Colonial Revival mansion, well within the neighborhood's National Historic District, is slated to be demolished by Blake Development Corporation simply because the aesthetic challenges of renovating the property have deemed it to be in a state of disrepair.

415 West Moreland

Of course the fact that Blake wants to raze the property for two new houses exposes the transparent agenda. Obviously two Chestnut Hill homes are worth more than one, especially if they're new.

Still, like the fate of the historic La Ronda, the likely end to 415 West Moreland calls into question not just the irrelevance of any historic designation, but our own regional interpretation of what's worth preserving. 

In Asheville, NC, Biltmore Estate is a beacon of historic preservation and a source of regional pride, even though its namesake is derived from a region that might as well be its own country. In the North, its Gilded Age sister, Lynnewood Hall, is blighted abandonment just waiting to become another cul de sac community. 

That's not to say the South is without its architectural losses. Low County plantations have made way for golf courses and their own planned communities and cities like Atlanta and Charlotte continue to chip away at what little history that remains. But for every Atlanta mansion razed for condominiums, numerous mansions have been preserved throughout Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. 

Perhaps we Yankees don't have the same respect for our history because we won the war, perhaps these locations aren't deemed culturally significant, just big buildings built for another time and place. We look at Lynnewood Hall and 415 West Moreland the way we looked at Pennsylvania Station when it was demolished in the 1960s: irrelevant and useless.

Lynnewood Hall: How is this abandoned in anyone's America?

But Penn Station should be proof that we shouldn't let progress run away from ourselves. There isn't a soul on this planet that wouldn't want to have New York's grand Pennsylvania Station in lieu of what replaced it.

While the South continues to learn from its mistakes, New York and Philadelphia continue to blindly eradicate our past on the assumption that we're too good to preserve our history, and in particular, to live in it because it isn't climate controlled.

La Ronda was a treasure. Lynnewood Hall, even 415 West Moreland, still are. If you want new construction or an indoor hockey rink, there is plenty of land within the tristate area to erect a grand estate. 

But there is no legacy to be made in eradicating history, only superficial gratification. Learning to love history, the history of our built environment, and being a part of that, that is what makes a great Philadelphian, and a great American.

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