Public Comment

Commentary: Historic Buildings Make City Unique By JANE POWELL

Tuesday February 21, 2006

Since buying my first bungalow in Berkeley 19 years ago, I have restored eleven other houses, consulted on many others, and written six best-selling books about bungalows, including Bungalow Kitchens, Bungalow Bathrooms, and Bungalow: The Ultimate Arts and Crafts Home. 

What I’ve learned in my travels for these books is that historic buildings are just about the only thing that makes cities unique or gives them a sense of place. America now has a terrible sameness—everywhere the same chain stores, fast food, same dense new construction, all designed to “revitalize downtown” or whatever. But what is even more important than historic buildings is those buildings in context. For instance, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas house in Springfield, Illinois, one of his finest Prairie houses, is now surrounded by ugly brick apartment buildings. My own house in Oakland, a 1905 Arts and Crafts mansion, has had its context destroyed by a 1952 fourplex resembling a double-wide trailer built only 10 feet from the north side. And I’m sure when all these things were built, the excuse was the same as now: We need more housing. 

Everyone seems to have drunk the smart growth Kool-Aid—“density in the inner cities will prevent the paving of farmland in the Central Valley.” Except the only real connection between density in cities and paving farmland in Turlock is money—the same developers lobbying for density in Berkeley are also paving farmland in Turlock—because there is money to be made. I’m sure it is developers who are lobbying for changing the Landmarks Ordinance. Explain to me exactly what is sustainable about tearing down buildings which are built with hundreds of board feet of old-growth timber, which have lasted 80 to 100 years or more, in order to throw up overly dense buildings with toxic vinyl windows, built from crappy second-growth lumber and fake stucco. As Russell Baker said, “Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things.” 

Trophy buildings are not enough. I’ve been to the cities that have nothing left but trophy buildings and strip malls. Other cities have Berkeley envy; people tell me things like, “Oh, Berkeley, they have such beautiful buildings there.” That should not be thrown away for some perceived short-term gain because you can’t ever get it back. 

There seems to have been a lot of hysteria in the past couple of years—“Oh my God, the preservationists are out of control!” I would submit that it is developers who are out of control, it is population that is out of control, it is politicians and city planners who are out of control. Preservationists are merely trying to defend the very things that make Berkeley a desirable place to live.  

Why is it always historic buildings that are threatened? Why doesn’t anyone ever want to demolish the cheaply built and architecturally dreadful buildings from the ‘60 and ‘70s that blight this city?  

John Ruskin, writing in the 19th century, said this, “Old buildings are not ours. They belong, partly to those who built them, and partly to the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead still have their right in them: that which they labored for… we have no right to obliterate.” 

The mayor’s plan to remove structures of merit from the Landmarks Preservation Ordinance merely takes away one of the few tools that ordinary citizens have to protect the historic fabric and context of their neighborhoods. A tiny bungalow, a working- class Victorian, a small commercial storefront, or an old warehouse has just as much right to protection as an elaborate building by a famous architect. Those who say otherwise have an agenda, and that agenda is money. 

Those who want to destroy cities or neighborhoods always say that change is inevitable and must be accepted. They lie. The kind of accelerated and usually awful change they promote is not inevitable, it is not progress, it is merely their moneymaking agenda. Never forget that. 


Jane Powell is the author of many books on Arts and Crafts architecture.