Historic Preservation, Community Identity, & the Gospel of Progress in Britain and America

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Washington Square Park in New York City

This excellent article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation came to my attention today: https://savingplaces.org/stories/a-tale-of-two-planners-jane-jacobs-and-robert-moses#.VyMoSjArKCg.  It describes the 1960’s struggle to save Greenwich Village and other parts of lower Manhattan from the threat brought about by a developer’s plan to build a massive elevated highway that would have destroyed Washington Square Park, as well as parts of Little Italy and SoHo.  Having attending NYU as an undergraduate, and having spent a lot of time in and around that park playing chess, eating lunch, spending time with other students, chatting to little old ladies, and listening many times in silent admiration to a talented homeless blues singer named Jimmy play the guitar and sing, I cannot imagine my time there without it.

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Looking up 5th Avenue through the Washington Arch

 

We clearly need more people like the amazing Jane Jacobs, the preservationist detailed in the article above. Having consulted and worked with architectural historians, developers, and planners on a number of archaeological and historical projects over the last couple decades, I can say that these kind of struggles have only intensified since the Jacobs v. Moses era. Savannah, Georgia is another wonderful example of how 7 determined ladies fought and saved it from being turned into just “another soulless city” (http://www.myhsf.org/about-us/the-story-of-preservation-in-savannah/). Thanks to them and their successors, Savannah is now one of the most beautiful historic cities in the U.S.

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Savannah, Georgia street scene

But it’s an unending battle to retain community and identity and hold off those with the money and the power, who are usually championed by the local Chamber of Commerce zombies and their monosyllabic grunts of “Jobs, Roads, Development!”  Since the 1950’s thousands of unique structures have been demolished across America so that developers could “pave paradise and [sometimes literally] put up a parking lot.”  And usually the long-term heritage and unique needs of the community (think centuries) are scoffed at in favor of the short-term benefits (think years or at best a couple decades) of the latest schemers, who are usually benefiting financially in the process somehow.

Unfortunately our European cousins are not exempt from the myth of “progress” either, though they generally have more respect for their surviving architectural heritage than Americans do for theirs. One major exception is beautiful Oxford, England, which has so many incredible examples of truly historic buildings.  It even has its own wonderful story of victory over the demolishers of tradition and history in the fight to preserve the quaint area called Jericho.  Unfortunately, Oxford also has a tremendous amount of the ugliest architecture anywhere.  Just walk the grounds of St. Johns College, for example, to see numerous dorms with giant glass windows looking out over 500 year old buildings.  There is even one that looks a bit like a bee hive.  And the Oxford County Council continually overrules the concerns of citizens and local preservationists, since the university almost always gets whatever it wants, from ugly buildings being plopped down onto beautiful college quads to disastrous student housing ideas that were never properly reviewed for environmental or visual impacts to historic green spaces (for more on Oxford’s complete lack of concern in preserving its unique architectural identity, take a look at this blog: https://timmyatt.com/tag/oxford-architecture/).

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St. Cross College, Rear Quad, Oxford, 2013 – notice Pusey House, a 100 year old chapel and focus of the Anglican Church’s Oxford Movement, behind students

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St. Cross College, Plans for New Building, 2016 – notice dramatic visual impact to Pusey House

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St. Cross College, New Building under construction next to 100-year old Pusey House, 2016

Although I do not see the point of monarchy (bloody Americans and 1776 and all that), and I doubt I have anything remotely in common with him, I do think Prince Charles was very brave and spot on when he addressed post-World War II London architecture by asking: “When did we lose our sense of vision?  How could those in control become so out of step with so many Londoners who felt powerless to resist the destruction of their city…?”  (for a short video clip of his excellent critique of modern big box architecture, click this link – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/9502425.stm).

But for the best quote on British architecture over the last 70 years we must return to Matthew Arnold’s “sweet city with her dreaming spires” – Oxford – and put ourselves into the minds of those with the power and determination to say yea or nay:

“You know, we’ve been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let’s have an ugly one for a change.’  Then the planning authorities had to say, “Well, why not?  Plenty worse in Basildon”….Then…the whole of the city -students, dons, shopkeepers, office workers, members of the Oxford Preservation Trust – had to acquiesce and not kick up a fuss. Multiply this by, say, 200 or 300 and 400 and you have modern Oxford.  And you tell me that it is one of the most beautiful, well-preserved cities in the world?  I’m afraid not.  It is a beautiful city that has been treated with gross indifference and lamentable incompetence for far too long, and every living person in Oxford should feel a little bit ashamed.”

Bill BrysonNotes from a Small Island, 1995

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Categories: Architecture, Churches, England, Historic Preservation, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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