Stepping Back in Time … And Saving It


I am always DSC_0005 (2)fascinated with old, derelict buildings. They remind of days gone by. Imagine what it was like when this building was in full use, the people that used it on a daily basis to, in this case, make their living. I hear their ghosts going about their day. I live in Loudoun County, Virginia about 30 miles west of DC. This abandoned farm sits on a parcel of land about a mile and a half to the west of busy Dulles Airport. Just a few feet away is construction for the soon to be opening Metro Stop or train stop. And in this particular part of Loudoun County, the ever burgeoning construction of Data Centers leads the growth so it seems. It has been rumored that some 80% of all internet traffic routes through Loudoun. Clearly, this large tract of land is destined for development and I know it is coming soon as is evidenced by the one heavy piece of equipment that sits in next to one of the barns.

The United States is a mere 243 years old. By many places around the world, we are just a baby nation.  Many of these other countries have buildings and structures that are many hundreds of years old and some are not even museums but to an extent are still in use. The middle east is teeming with these old structures as are many places in Asia and Europe. But here in the US as we don’t have that kind of history, few older building exist. But it is perplexing that we don’t even try to create a history of architecture. Certainly not in commercial real estate. In residential homes, Frank Lloyd Wright created beautiful “way before his times” dwelling that are prized today. Falling Waters come to mind. New York City has some wonderful examples of residential real estate that have endured by US standards, for years. But we still continue to develop “throw away” buildings, residential and commercial. Partly, that is because in today’s fast paced technological advances, the technology developed for a particular structure may change so fast that it renders that en year old building obsolete and rather than retrofit it, it is easier and more cost efficient to plow it under and start again. But again, that leaves US architecture with no legacy and no history upon which to build ideas.

Turning to residential architecture, again, I believe there is no enduring plan to build homes that foster a sense of history and that their construction lends itself to enduring for years to come. Take Levittown, PA where in 1950 the first suburban town was built by William J. Levitt. The suburban dream of affordable homes for the masses was developed. Much heralded, much maligned, much copied. But all of these homes will fall as, in reality, there construction will never stand the test of time. Look at the opening photo above. That property was abandoned only ten years ago and look how it has fallen into such a state of disrepair rendering it impossible to renovate. Its fate is only the wrecking ball even it it had not been absorbed by the inevitable commercial development of this area. 100 years from now, 200 or 300 years or more, what will we have to show for our architecture? Nada, Zip, Nunca! Maybe technologically advanced buildings, but probably uninteresting, featureless structures with no imagination and no history.

Have you ever seen a re-purposed building? If you look into more of the industrial cities, it is not uncommon to see an old brick factory constructed of heart of pine frame work and a brick exterior. Richmond, Philadelphia, Hartford, CT are teaming with these beautiful old building where rather than tear them down, some have been developed into trendy European style condominiums. Sometimes an office space. In some cases where the building has been slated for demolition, at least some of the wood beams have been extruded from the building and been cleaned and cut for the value of their wood, often as wood flooring or mill work pieces. And an incredibly novel use for these soon to be destroyed factories have been to create these structures into urban farms using vertical farming methods. With a creative mind, many of these wonderful structures can be saved and maybe we, as a country can begin to think more long term in regards to our architecture rather than thinking of a structure, residential or commercial as just a single purpose building. It good for the country and good for the environment.

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