Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.  —Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

A bout a week ago, I was driving through a little town where my family lived for a number of years when I was growing up. It is the kind of place in which little changes over time and much remained the same since we lived there 30 years ago. One change I did notice was the jarringly empty lot where the Catholic Church once stood. All that remained was the very large steeple which had been removed and placed to the side of what was formerly the church parking lot.  Across the street was the old school building; now the center of all parish activities including Mass which is held in the gym. Looking at the empty lot, I felt sad to think of the many years of celebrations and sacraments held within walls of the church and the unceremonious end to its existence.

Out With the Old

Of course, a church community is more than the building in which ceremonies are held but the demolition of such a large, beautiful building is a loss. The most troubling thing about the destruction of the grand old church was the simple economics of it. A shrinking parish. An aging church. There was no money available to maintain or renovate the old structure. Or, to put it differently, the old structure and size of the parish did not justify the investment needed to save the church. It cost less to destroy it than to repair it.

I have felt a similar sadness as I’ve watched the growth of my Alma Mater, Butler University. A school with beautiful old buildings and much tradition now changing rapidly with the newer, taller structures that are veering quickly away from the original design and feel of the campus. The first casualty was Schwitzer Hall, a beautiful stone building built as a residence hall in 1956 and named after the first winner of the Indianapolis 500. Next on the demolition list: Ross Hall, another beautiful stone residence hall on campus slated for destruction in 2018. In both cases, normal proceedings ensued. Impartial consultants were engaged to make recommendations and their findings concluded that renovations were not cost effective. So end the useful lives of two icons of the Butler campus.

In the Name of Progress

The destruction of old buildings is simply the course of progress, right? The world changes as do the needs and moods of leaders, occupants, and would-be occupants of these structures. Change is necessary and it makes sense that we make practical economic decisions as they relate to the changes needed. Fortunately, we have created protections for certain structures that are considered historically important. However, historical importance is in the eye of the beholder, or at least the federal or state agency assigning it.  What are we losing in the name of progress?

Flipping through a “Then and Now” book of photos of Indianapolis I came across an old photo of the old Marion County Courthouse/City-County Building. The structure, built in 1876 in the Second Empire style, was a wonderful example of the best of Indiana courthouse architecture. Grand and ornate with a 97 foot clock tower, the structure served Indianapolis residents through a  massively changing world: post civil war industrial revolution, WWI, the Depression, WWII, the Korean War and into the social upheaval of the 1960’s when it was deemed to be past its useful life and torn down. In its place now stands an icon to 1960’s bureaucratic industrialization: a 28 story steel and glass rectangle with prefab walls in the offices and a dated flavor that surely echoes the fatigue that planners saw in the original courthouse building which it replaced.

The Slippery Slope

Progress is a slippery slope and change has its cost. As I watch areas of our city undergo revitalization, I see the good and the bad of all that we call progress. Often, we lose the charm and character of what once was when  we tear-down and replace. My lament is not a cry to return to some lost time but to recognize the beauty and continuity gifted to us in the legacy of the old. Yes, old buildings often retain dangerous elements of our past within their walls and these remnants can be expensive to mitigate safely. Yes, technology has changed and our needs have changed so old designs can be difficult to retrofit to current access or energy standards. In spite of these challenges, perhaps it is worth it to seek the path of renewal.

In these old buildings, we find the voices of our past. The struggles and the successes of those who came before us and gifted us with the possibilities of our time. From the beginning, we have been amazing builders and our creations tie us together across time. They tell a story and not only reflect other eras, but give us a platform on which to retain those stories as we add our own. When you look closely at an old building, you can see the ingenuity of its designers and maintainers as well as peer into the days of its inhabitants.

Hidden Costs

We replace these old buildings in the name of progress but the deeper reality is that we want an easier, cheaper path forward. Like a relationship that has become painful, we look to cast it aside to make way for something newer, less costly, or perhaps more shapely. The reality is that we pay a different price when we raze it and there is loss in what we thought was progress. Often, the more difficult path yields greater rewards and we find something else along the way. When we seek renewal we connect our self to a broader story and the legacy of those before us. We tap into a community that was as we seed the community yet to be.

As I consider these old structures and the possibilities in their renovation, the word “renaissance” comes to mind. Renaissance means “rebirth” or “reawakening” and seems very appropriate as we consider the renewal of our communities and the structures that underpin them. Our homes and buildings are physical reflections of our priorities and sense of self. Pride in our communities stems from our heritage, institutions, and the places in which we work and live. We should strive to reconcile our need for progress with the legacy of our past and avoid throwing out the good with the bad as we seek the best for our families and neighbors. Along the way, we might discover that these calculations require more than a cost-benefit analysis from an impartial consultant and that the cheapest path may ultimately cost us the most.