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No Cause for Shame

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The Barrister at Maggie‘s Farm links to a collection of photos of the previous Penn Station in Manhattan. He begins by quoting a NY Times editorial:

"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn't afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed."

—"Farewell to Penn Station," New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963

The building was a remarkable monument. And Minneapolis went through it own period of catastrophic renewal, where the most notorious lost monument was the Metropolitan Building.

Ironwork in interior court of Metropolitan Building, MinneapolisThe most notable feature was its interior court, with extensive ironwork and glass-floored walkways designed to allow natural light inside.

It is not so grand as Penn Station, but a lost treasure just the same.

My reaction to the loss of history has changed, however. I acknowledge the point in the editorial quote, that these old buildings have tremendous costs of operation, and that monumental buildings are not as important to society as they once were.

The Barrister writes:

When you drive through downtown Bridgeport, CT, Hartford, or Nashville, you will be hard put to find an old building. Lucky towns escaped this frenzy of "modernization," which I term "dehumanization." Nobody wants to be in those sorts of downtowns.

I have felt that, and said the same thing. But it is wrong. Dowtown Nashville is teeming with people and commerce. They’re just not into architecture. Sure, many modern buildings stink. But so did many old buildings. Time tends to erase the warts from history. Most modern buildings serve their purpose just fine. That’s nothing to denigrate. We have other things to spend our money on than ironwork and massive piles of stone.

If The Met or Penn Station were still standing, I would rarely experience their wonders. Unless I had business that took me inside, the interiors would be just pictures and memories.

I would drive past The Met just like I drive past the Lumber Exchange, Rand Tower, or any of the other gems which escaped the Minneapolitan planners’ schemes. I hardly notice them.

I have visited many great buildings. Architecture is cool. I am happy that the Foshay Tower has found a new purpose. But I never go there. The Union Depot in St. Paul is being converted back to a train station. It represents a black hole of public subsidy into which many will pay and from which few will benefit. I will visit as a railfan, not as a genuine patron.

These great and grand historical buildings are like public television. Only a handful watch, but the majority are happy it is there. We want to be the sort of people who appreciate art and culture and history. As long as it doesn’t interfere with our lives.

Buildings are packaging. Most of what people do is simply not grand. It would be foolishness to serve Big Macs in rosewood boxes. Monumental architecture is a luxury, an indulgence. It is no insult to a city or its people that preferences change, that technology advances, and sometimes the best choice today is to let the past become history.


Buildings are more than packaging, otherwise, we could have engineers design a series of buildings in various sizes to suit the needs of clients. Landmark buildings tie us to a place, and many early memories are linked to a particular building.

While I would agree that grandly ornate structures are an indulgence, they also serve as public art, and a point of pride for citizens. I don't believe that tastes have changed a lot, but the cost of erecting such a monument is now beyond what almost anyone is willing to spend.

In the last dozen years the ability to retrofit old buildings with modern, efficient systems has made it economically feasable to save historic places rather than tear down and build new.

I’m not arguing against grand buildings or their preservation. The deep anguish preservationists tend to project is too much drama. Eventually all monuments fall.

There’s a human tendency to romanticize history. We do not read so often about how any of these grand buildings were so wonderful for the people who actually used them. Was Penn Station an effective efficient place to change trains? Were offices in the Metropolitan hives of high productivity and happy clerks?

Or were there columns in inconvenient places, did they have dead corners and quirky traffic flow? They look awesome, but were they good buildings?

We have seen schools of architecture dedicated to the concept of buildings as packaging, as machines for living. And we preserve those, too.

Having been involved in more than a handful of preservation efforts, I’m not sure I can agree that retrofits are “economically feasible”. Preservation and restoration almost always requires massive public subsidy, or an angel willing to set his fortune on fire to keep a beautiful pile alive.

These kind of buildings, like passenger railroads, may have made sense only in a brief window of history. The kids today will get their sense of place some other way.

Probably from hideous modern buildings, also built with massive subsidy…

Yet it’s the blocks of New Hampshire granite that have made the strangest journey. They are the hand-carved remnants of the Metropolitan Building, Minneapolis’ most famous lost landmark. The Met opened downtown in 1890 and attracted national attention for its 12-story light court, glass floors and elaborate Romanesque Revival exteriors that proclaimed the city’s turn-of-the-century prosperity.

Despite a public outcry from preservationists, the city tore the building down in 1961 as part of its determination to wipe away the Gateway District neighborhood that housed the region’s infamous Skid Row. Someone realized that the huge arches, column capitals and other ornamented stonework might be worth keeping, so about 250 granite chunks were trucked to a stone company in Delano and dumped in a field.

That’s where they sat for nearly 50 years, until the business changed hands and the new owner of the stone business offered them for sale, warning that if someone didn’t buy them, they might be ground into gravel.

Remes found out about the stones and bought them for several projects, including Ice House Court. He tore down a building to make room for a new plaza designed by Julie Snow Architects.

Tear down an old building to make a place for people to sit on pieces of another old building. The Mayor apparently displayed the kind of anguish that was bugging me:

Mayor R.T. Rybak visited the site the other day and was clearly moved to see the Metropolitan Building remains. “I believe these stones are laced with the heart of Minneapolis,” he said.

Puh-lease. The carving is cool, but the soul leaked out into that field for the past five decades.

Mojsilov [the sculptor] is less sentimental. “You let them knock down the whole goddamned thing,” he says to anyone who makes the argument that these are sacred things. By reshaping these stones, “I’m collaborating with dead people,” he said.

No, you’re frying them with a torch. There’s something about architecture that brings out the crazy.