When is Demolition Justified?

Posted on: December 5th, 2007 by Barbara Campagna

The Jesse Baltimore House, Washington, DC demolishedThere was an article on WashingtonPost.com today that really got me thinking about when demolition is appropriate. Entitled “The District Shows Some Spine”, the columnist applauded DC’s Historic Preservation Office for standing up to some local preservationists in the Palisades neighborhood and refusing to landmark a deteriorating Sears-kit house.

I had seen the many articles about the house over the past few months in my local Upper Northwest newspaper, and without thinking too much about it, just assumed, “Why of course it should be saved.” But we can’t and we shouldn’t save everything, and instead I found myself this morning admiring the journalist for his views and the DC Preservation Office for their gumption.

But, beyond cultural value, demolition of buildings takes on a new urgency in these days of climate change and disposable living. A report from the Brookings Institution projects that by 2030 we will have demolished and replaced 82 billion square feet of our current building stock. In other words, over the next 23 years, we anticipate demolishing nearly 1/3 of our existing buildings. Where will we put it all? Other than the whole embodied energy/embodied effects discussion, which is worthy of a separate posting, what does this say about our respect for our planet? In many ways, we are all struggling with the disposable lives that we have found so easy to live thanks to the industrialization and technological advances of the past century. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer – if I did, I’d probably win the next Nobel Peace Prize. These statistics keep me up at night and as much as I personally try to do my bit at recycling, I know I could do much better. But does it mean retreating back to pre-history? Never tearing down or replacing another building, regardless of their significance or durability? I’d like to think (at least I hope!) that the intellects on our planet will come up with a way to continue advancing technologically, live comfortable lives AND stop the rapid climate change. Call me an optimist…

So the article on the demolished Sears house finished with a call to DC’s preservationists to The Richardson Towers at the Buffalo Psychiatric Centertransfer their energy for a house like this one to standing up to the federal government for its plans for St. Elizabeths Hospital (a National Historic Landmark psychiatric facility). This has been an ongoing battle to find the appropriate use for a site of national significance. It’s a massive institutional complex significant for social history, architecture, landscape architecture, hospital planning, and our historic approach to serving the mentally ill. There are a variety of complexes like this around the country and most of them have not fared well. But there are some success stories, including the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, which I’ve been involved with for more than 20 years and is the only building I would chain myself to, to keep it from being demolished. http://www.richardson-olmsted.com/

The National Trust has been involved with both complexes over the years, and while I agree with the journalist’s call somewhat, it does concern me that his implication was that St. Es is more worthwhile to save because it’s of national significance, whereas the Sears house was only possibly of community interest. One of the beauties of the National Register process has always been to me that it doesn’t rank the significance of sites – all sites listed are important as contributors to the story of America – and no story is any more important than another.

You can see I’ve been all over the place with my thoughts regarding the demolition of the Sears house in the Palisades. No, not everything can or should be saved. Yes, community landmarks are as important to the story of America as National Historic Landmarks. Yes, our landfills are too full as it is and losing embodied energy is never a good thing in how it affects climate change. We can’t build our way out of climate change, but we also can’t freeze our way out of it either. The answer will be much more complicated and require preservation when it makes sense, and sound green building when that makes sense. We can’t save them all but we can be wise about what we save and what we build.

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Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at bcampagna@bcampagna.com.