Monday, October 3, 2011

Old Buildings

Parts of downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, especially the area known as "Lowertown", are, like many American cities, made up of buildings raised in the latter years of the nineteenth-century and first half of the twentieth. St. Paul is also well-known as a reliable center of "progressive" politics. New cars sport "Wellstone!" bumper stickers, though the popular socialist senator died in a plane crash eleven years ago. The political atmosphere is permeated by not only draconian anti-smoking regulations and "living wage" ordinances but also an enthusiastic historical preservation movement. Exteriors of old buildings are to be preserved in their original appearance and new structures must fit in with their surroundings dating from a previous era.

One can't help but wonder what the situation would have been if similar ideas had existed when these buildings were erected. At that time they were state-of-the-art, the most modern and technologically advanced structures in the country. Could the residents of nearby neighborhoods have insisted that new buildings be compatible in appearance with existing log cabins and tar paper-covered shacks? Who decides when history begins? And how can forcing the owners of property to conform to these historical imperatives be justified? Is it really "progressive" to require that buildings appear to have been built a hundred years ago?