Justifiable Edificide?

Some of our architectural mistakes might just be worth saving. 

By Dwight Young

Someone asked me the other day for a pithy preservation quote. I started to respond with the famous "How will we know it's us without our past?" passage from The Grapes of Wrath or something from the ever-reliable John Ruskin, but then I remembered a line that a crusty old reprobate named Noah Cross (played by John Huston) delivers in the 1974 movie Chinatown: "Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough."

That über-pithy assertion, or at least the part about ugly buildings, popped into my head recently when someone sent me an e-mail about the historic Mountain View Black Officers' Club at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. It was a good-news story: The U.S. Army, which had planned to demolish the World War II-era club, had instead signed an agreement that allows the Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers to rehab it as a black military history research center. Of course I'm glad it's been saved, but I must admit that when I looked at the picture on my computer screen, all I could think was, That is one homely building.

Lots of people seem to feel the same way about 2 Columbus Circle, which appears on the Trust's current 11 Most Endangered list. A new owner proposes to give the building an extreme makeover, and although some preservationists view Edward Durell Stone's 1964 creation as an icon of modern design that shouldn't be messed with, others believe that mankind (or at least New York City) would be better off if the quirky structure's peeling marble skin, porthole windows, and lollipop colonnade were hauled to the landfill.

It isn't surprising that people have different—sometimes wildly different—opinions about a particular building's attractiveness. It is surprising (and tragic) how willing we are to allow places with a legitimate historical pedigree—like the Fort Huachuca officers' club—to collapse or be demolished simply because we don't find them pretty.

For years, whenever I had to play tour guide, I always gleefully pointed out to visitors my two candidates for the hotly contested title of Washington's Ugliest Building. A few years ago, one of the offending buildings—a squatty box shrouded in a dark metal screen that made it look like Goliath's nutmeg grater—got torn down. And now the second, a midrise office tower with a facade like a concrete honeycomb, is gone too—flattened, one hopes, by someone who finally decided he couldn't stand to look at the place for one more minute.

As far as I know, neither of those structures was associated with a person or event of historical significance (one of them housed a social service agency, as I recall, and I suspect the other was full of lawyers and/or consultants), and in architectural terms they were flat-out dogs. I can't bring myself to mourn their demolition: In fact, if you ask me, it was a clear-cut case of justifiable edificide. But I can't get Noah Cross' words out of my head. If they had lasted long enough, would those eyesores have achieved respectability? And is it possible that someone, someday in the future, would have been willing to fight for their preservation?

I think the answer to both questions is probably yes. After all, there were times—not so long ago, either—when Victorian architecture was considered hideous, art deco was tacky, and postwar modernism was beneath contempt. Times have changed, as have our opinions of what's worth preserving, and it seems certain that similar reevaluations will occur as long as there are buildings and building watchers. With this in mind, I've decided that some issues will just have to be left for future generations of preservationists to wrestle with. As for the here and now, I've concluded that (1) we don't have to save everything, but (2) we have to be very careful about deciding what not to save, and perhaps most important, (3) "because it's so awfully ugly" is almost never a good enough reason for letting an old building go.