[Preservation Tips & Tools] How to Save Ugly Buildings

Posted on: April 29th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi 10 Comments

“It’s always easier to save a place that people consider beautiful than a place -- no matter how historically significant -- that people think is ugly.”

So writes Tom Mayes, our National Trust colleague who spent his time as a Rome Prize recipient examining why old places matter. And as any preservationist can tell you, he’s right: Styles with architectural features that challenge viewers, sites with stories that outweigh their architectural merit, and spaces with layers of grime that obscure their charms often require that, before we can get down to the hard work of saving a place, we first have to prove to a skeptical public why it should be saved.

How, then, do you persuade people to fall in love with a place that doesn’t fit the traditional mold of “beautiful?” This toolkit starts the conversation about ways to inspire love, passion, or at least understanding for the homelier places in our midst.

Join the debate of what defines beauty.

Tom Mayes says, “As I talk to people about beauty and old places, I note that many architects and artists -- like many preservationists -- hesitate to talk about beauty. The hesitancy is for many reasons -- the difficulty of defining what beauty is, the loaded cultural aspects of beauty, the subjective nature of people’s experience of beauty, or even the simple fact that decision-makers sometimes consider beauty frivolous or expendable.”

Then what better way to engage others than to join the millenia-long discussion yourself? Even when others disagree with you about beauty’s exact definition and application, at least you’re all talking about the place you care about and keeping it top of mind for them -- maybe even long enough to change said mind.

Explain the architectural merit.

Sometimes a style, even though it might be unpopular, represents a daring innovation or new technique in the field of architecture that should be preserved. Consider Brutalism, the name of which comes from the French béton brut, or “raw concrete.” As David Hay recently wrote in Preservation magazine, the style “promised a raw and rough materiality that had a social and artistic purpose” -- a monumental yet affordable approach for many public buildings. Looking at such places again when you know their intent lends a depth and interest that perhaps you missed before.

Inside the Houston Astrodome. Credit: Jim Lindberg
Inside the Houston Astrodome

Make an emotional connection.

While the Houston Astrodome, a National Treasure, can lay claim to being the world’s first domed stadium, even more resonant is its place in the hearts of fans in Texas and across the country. In its 40-plus year run, the building served as a dramatic backdrop for just about every sports and entertainment event imaginable.

When the time came for a crucial vote in November 2013 regarding the Astrodome’s future, the National Trust asked people to share their personal memories about the Dome. The result: an outpouring of love, support, and affection that met the more negative comments head on.

Share the place’s unique history.

When you first look at the John Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, New York, you simply see a modest brick ranch house built in 1952. Yet Coltrane recorded, rehearsed, and wrote some of his most well-known pieces there, including his masterpiece “A Love Supreme,” in the three years before his death in 1967.

Now, local group Friends of the Coltrane Home is working to save the site, with the hopes of one day restoring and interpreting it as an education center. In the meantime, sharing this everyday home’s extraordinary past teaches those who encounter it how history crops up in unexpected places.

Inside the John Coltrane House in Dix Hills, N.Y. Credit: Polivision Productions
Inside the John Coltrane House in Dix Hills, N.Y.

Go inside the place.

Letting people experience places from the inside out not only gives them a new perspective (literally), but also encourages them to make a personal connection with the space. Take Miami Marine Stadium, another National Treasure. It hosted boat races, concerts, and Easter services in its heyday, but was closed to the public twenty years ago after Hurricane Andrew swept through the region.

Despite the closure, however, its funky look and cantilevered roof continued to beckon teenagers, Parkour practitioners, and graffiti artists. So, when Instagram aficionados recently had the opportunity to go in and take pictures legally, they jumped at the chance to capture the inherent “cool” of this local landmark -- and in their enthusiasm, helped others see the unexpected beauty of a neglected place.

Encourage people to consider the alternative.

The real question here is, “What else would we lose if this place disappeared?” As Tom Mayes discovered, losing old places -- no matter their level of “beauty” -- means we also lose our senses of identity, continuity, and memory. He puts it this way:

“Old places help people place themselves in that “great, sweeping arc” of time. The continued presence of old places -- of the schools and playgrounds, parks and public squares, churches and houses and farms and fields that people value -- contributes to people’s sense of being on a continuum with the past. That awareness gives meaning to the present, and enhances the human capacity to have a vision for the future.”

Don’t be afraid to ask detractors, “Imagine if this place were gone. Then what?”

Lincoln Center, an example of Modern architecture. Credit: Matthew Bisanz, Wikimedia Commons
Lincoln Center, an example of Modern architecture in New York City

If nothing else, remember that perceptions can -- and will -- change over time.

Places reflect the ideas, passions, tastes, and technologies of their time. The elaborate Victorian style drew on the Industrial Age’s manufacturing prowess. Art Deco’s colorful ornamentation lent optimism in troubling economic times. Modernism symbolized innovation, experimentation, and a break with tradition. All these styles were derided at one point or another, and all have found greater love as generations pass.

In Tom Mayes’ words: “The history of preservation demonstrates a remarkable march of the ugly transforming into the beautiful.” Take heart, then, that the place you love, even if others don’t find it beautiful, has a lot to offer -- and you can help them discover why.

Have you ever helped people fall in love with an “ugly” place? Share your stories and tips in the comments.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

Architecture, Preservation Tips & Tools, Tools

10 Responses

  1. Jan S

    April 29, 2014

    One evening I happened upon an architectural walking tour of downtown Greensboro, NC, where I didn’t even live any more. When I did live there in graduate school (mid-90s) you couldn’t get anyone to go downtown. This evening in the early 00s, there was a little progress in numbers with one restaurant in a renovated building and I was going to it when we happened upon this tour. Jeff Briggs of Preservation Greensboro pointed out the significance of Brutalism near the end of the walk, after he’d talked about the cast iron buildings, the classical buildings, the art deco buildings. Since that night I have never met a Brutalist building that I didn’t love. I just wish everyone could have Jeff explain the style to them. These are some of the most maligned and torn down buildings in North Carolina. At this rate, none will be left, with most people saying, “good riddance.” Makes me sad.

  2. Peter F

    May 6, 2014

    Well, beauty is subjective but there is, unfortunately, a typical standard in people’s minds about what is definitely ugly, especially in architecture. I am a big fan of buildings which are usually considered as out of this world, because those make me think about the intention of the architect and the reason, why did he make them so different. I really agree with the last point of the article that perceptions and tastes can change, so I believe that we should preserve all and the government should help with it. These are the parts of our history and we cannot just delete this fact… I’ve recently read an article which says that if you buy a heritage property in Toronto, you can get a high grant for maintaining it, and you can even apply for it more than once. I feel like this is the right attitude: to keep old buildings “alive” by using them, and get support to renovate them (in the borders of the law, of course).

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  5. Amanda Kirk

    May 21, 2014

    I disagree. For me, historic preservation means saving all pre-WWII architecture, inside & out, allowing no destruction of original features. Nothing after 1939 falls under the category of historic preservation for me. I am upset they tore down the old Met; I would not fight to save the new one.

  6. Devin Colman

    May 21, 2014

    Historic preservation isn’t just a beauty contest, is it? Reducing the equation to pretty vs. ugly buildings seems too simplistic. All architectural styles go through phases of popularity; Victorian, Art Deco, Moderne…all unpopular at one point, but not because they are ugly. They just weren’t understood, and labeling styles that are unpopular today as “ugly” doesn’t help the cause!

  7. Michael Centanni

    May 22, 2014

    I have to say that I disagree with much of this. Beauty is not as subjective as many think. There are elements that are common to what is considered beautiful. That aside I think that while we need to consider the architectural merit it is not enough to force an owner or a community to live with what they consider an eyesore. In my city of Washington we had a church designed in the brutalism manner. It was not functional for the church and was an eyesore. I don’t really see the historical significance of this building and why it needs to be defended for its own sake. Another example is Nationals Park, the baseball field in DC. The design is mediocre at best and there are multiple problems regarding function. Bad ideas do not have to be immortalized forever. Some should just be relegated to books.

  8. Bruce Booher

    May 22, 2014

    I could not have been more alone when I fought to save the historic Globe Mills here in Sacramento. It was not only ugly due to fire and vandalism, but at it’s best it was utilitarian industrial building. But my fight wasn’t with “people”, it was with bureaucrats! Like a Hydra, I was fighting the city council, the building department, the fire department, and the redevelopment agency, all determined to destroy the building, and me for getting in their way.
    Ultimately, it was saved by me buying the building, and fighting the Hydra until I could show it’s special place in history, and the “consider the alternative” long enough to change it’s future. It is now an award winning mixed housing property that stands alone as a unique historic place in Sacramento History.

  9. Sarah Cody

    May 22, 2014

    Thank you for this piece! I was just debating the merits of locally designating a Brutalist building in Miami. Historic preservation isn’t about saving what is beautiful – though much of the historic architecture certainly is that. Historic preservation is about preserving and celebrating resources that speak to a significant style or period of design, and like it or not, Brutalism was a legitimate era in the evolution of architectural design. Every few years, a proposal comes up to demolish the Brutalist Boston City Hall, which is a building I personally love, not because of its beauty, but because of what it represents architecturally. Thank you again, for this great reminder that “ugly” historic buildings deserve to be saved just as much as the beautiful ones!

  10. Sharon Karpinski

    May 24, 2014

    There’s a reason for the “60 year” designation for historic buildings—history is constantly in the making. It didn’t stop at 1939 nor is our definition of “ugly” going to remain the standard fifty years from now. Remember when Victorian residential architecture was considered an eyesore? That judgement was the prevailing view during my childhood sixty years ago. Now people are replicating “delightful Victorian villas” and studiously preserving the originals. In Frank Lloyd Wright’s era, Richardson Romanesque fell from grace as the style for public buildings because it was “heavy, dark, and ugly.” And monumental too but that was ignored at the time. Passing judgement requires the perspective of years.