In the Chicago Tribune this morning architecture critic Blair Kamin made a convincing case for the rebuilding of New Orleans and several cases for historic preservation. There was the issue of the image of the city, defined by its elaborate wrought iron balconies and exuberantly ornamented houses, from the grandest to the meanest, all with a touch of celebration, a bit of show. There was the argument of the city’s unique cultural blend (choose your metaphor: gumbo, jazz, Mardi Gras) and the argument of its tourist attraction.
One of Kamin’s most interesting and astute observations was that neighborhoods built in the post-World War II era were much more easily devastated by flooding than older ones. “Time went forward, but building practices went backward” said Kamin, making one of the most convincing arguments for historic preservation there is: they don’t build them like they used to. Kamin’s argument was mostly about practices like building first floors above raised basements, but it could easily be extended to materials and construction techniques.
Several times in recent years I have tried to get new house developers to say that their products are built better – or as well – as historic houses, and not one has yet taken the bait. We can build houses faster and workers are considerably aided by nail guns and all sorts of precuts, but when I suggest that new suburban homes built since 1990 will not survive longer than their mortgages, no one contradicts me.
Part of the reason for this is construction techniques – a century ago skilled carpenters and craftsmen were less expensive – and part is materials – most of 19th century America was built with old-growth wood. Today you survive on 30-year old pine and spruce and those fabulous glues and steam presses that turn sawdust into steel, at least for a while. Can even the best wood survive a flood? Depends, but old wood, with dense growth rings, with the long-gone possibility of hardwood members, resists water penetration in a way that no postwar house can. New Orleans of course had a terrible termite problem – one of my first thoughts in reaction to the flood was a hope that it had drowned the termites.
The sheer scope of this disaster and the massive belated federal attention to it will bring to bear a host of political and economic pressures that will have a greater impact on what gets preserved than the actual structural integrity of the buildings involved. Kamin ably notes this: absentee owners will push for demolition; planners will seek massive clear sites; politicians will want one glitzy photo-op rather than an everyday rehabilitated neighborhood. They will blame the buildings of course, since they can’t speak for themselves. Which is why the preservationists are there now, seeing what can be saved.
Watch this one closely (i.e., not on television).