Wednesday, April 29, 2015

An Ethical Case for Preservation

When academics, preservationists, historians, and neighborhood advocacy groups rush to save sites as revered as the Divine Lorraine or as humble as the Race Street Firehouse, the discussions become endless. 

The Boyd Theatre drove the community to establish The Friends of the Boyd, a Facebook group, and managed to stall the wrecking ball for years. As the conversation charged on, blogs and articles piled up, and talk began to question the effectiveness of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the ethics of developers and property owners, and the profound cultural impact of our most storied landmarks. 

The topic of the Boyd Theatre frequently strayed into the place of historic movie houses and their role in our modern, multiplex mentality. Or even more so, the silver screen's wavering foothold as the prime mover of Hollywood blockbusters. 

The Boyd was Center City's last "movie palace," a moniker reserved for movie theaters erected when Tinseltown was America's Silicon Valley. Where software companies sprawl and telecom towers rise today, the social revolution of the early 20th Century was proudly projected inside these Art Nouveau and Deco masterpieces. 

But the frustration raised by the demise of the Boyd wasn't rooted in cinema's history, and it quickly became evident that a lost art wasn't responsible for its demolition, it wasn't even brought on by a dispassionate Historical Commission or shameless developers. As the conversation quickly strayed to the Metropolitan Opera House, the fate of the Divine Lorraine, and the crumbling Church of the Assumption, a broader question emerged begging for an answer.

What are we missing?

Despite the abundance of press surrounding the Boyd, the Church of the Assumption, and the Divine Lorraine, the ire of preservationists tends to get shrouded in its' own rhetoric. "This is the last historic movie theater in town," "once the church is gone, it's gone for good," and "they don't build them like this anymore" are chanted from megaphones and printed on t-shirts. Advocacy groups throw legal maneuvers at City Hall, and City Hall does what it can. 

There is clearly a lot of soul and passion devoted to saving a landmark, but by the eleventh hour it's muddled by confusion, the public looses interest, and before we know it, that grand hotel, theater, or mansion is a parking lot.

So what is missing? There is one very powerful reason to preserve the landmarks that rose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it's a reason that's impossible to debate. 

Yes, the Boyd, the Divine Lorraine, and the Church of the Assumption are showpieces that share invaluable architectural and social importance, and the same can be said for later sites like Falling Waters and the Society Hill Towers. But unlike buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei, buildings designed by Horace Trumbauer and Richard Morris Hunt, buildings built throughout America's Gilded Age and Roaring Twenties, were done so with a ferocious and cash fueled disregard. 

Sites like Lynnewood Hall and Biltmore Estate are America's Pyramids, and understanding how they were built can be just as quizzical. Preserving Victorian masterpieces like the Hale Building or infrastructure like the robust stone arches of the Reading Viaduct isn't the cultural legacy of the barons that bankrolled them or the political backdoor deals that got them done. No, preserving them is a cultural obligation to the slave labor and indentured craftsmen that did the heavy lifting.

They don't build them like they used to because they can't...and shouldn't. If there's any reason to preserve every masterpiece built between the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression, that's the one.

It's easy to look at the Middle East and China and know exactly why we no longer compete for height and architectural prowess, but it's just as easy to ignore that we were once Dubai or Beijing, locking our least fortunate into servitude to build taller, wider, and ever astounding. 

Some day Eastern Nations may find themselves with the same ethical dilemma, staring up at the Burj Khalifa or across the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, wonder what's so marvelous about them. Until someone reminds them of the hundreds of immigrants that died building their cities. 

As we continue to embrace later architectural legacies of the 20th Century - International Style, Arts and Crafts, Brutalism - let's not forget that each era comes with its own, unique narrative. The Divine Lorraine, the Church of the Assumption, the Reading Viaduct, these aren't just architects and cultural movements, they're the bloodied knuckles of the Africans, Irish, and Native Americans who built them.

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