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Seeing eye to eye

July 3, 2009

I’m often stunned by how shortsighted people can be about the places and the buildings that create atmosphere — the sense of “special.”  Smart, creative use of unusual structures are the best way to make “place.”  Yet the world seems in danger of becoming one giant chain store experience.  Every day we lose they-don’t-make-them-like-that-anymore structures and they erect new fast food/big box/developer’s acres places that could be anywhere in America.  I get that people want to be able to buy cheap tvs and tube socks at Walmart but at what other cost?  

Threatened structures are often threatened because of money — or lack thereof.  Economic realities are tough to argue with, but I’ve seen too many examples where the real problem is short-sighted thinking and a misunderstanding of the value of evocative “age” in a sense of place.  (I am intentionally avoiding the use of “history” to avoid having to duke it out with the lobby that claims if George Washington didn’t do something important there, it doesn’t count). 
I want to cheer on the people who believe where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way, the matchmakers who can find creative people and money people and work to find a solution the benefits the owners and the community.  
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s just issued their newest list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.  Have a look and see if you don’t agree that the world just won’t be quite the same without them.
The Manhattan Project’s Enola Gay Hanger, Wendover Airfield, Utah
Dorchester Academy, Midway, Georgia
Century Plaza Hotel, Los Angeles
Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois (Frank Lloyd Wright, $ urgently needed before it collapses!)
Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth, New Hampshire/Kittery, Maine
Cast-Iron Architecture of Galveston, Texas
Miami Marine Stadium, Miami, Florida
Lana’i City, Hawaii
Ames Shovel Shops, Easton, Massachusetts
Human Services Center, Yankton, South Dakota
Mount Taylor, near Grants, New Mexico
When I read about Lana’i, I just shook my head and sighed.  Haven’t they learned anything? When you destroy the characteristics that define the place — erase the layers of its history expressed in built form — then you’ve got a place that could be anyplace. Not good if you derive major income from tourism.  Some parts of Hawaii might as well be Florida (which is a shorter, cheaper flight than Hawaii).  
Oahu used to be an island destination of choice but now simply serves as the waystation before one departs to another island.  People have little movies in their head about what they want their tropical destination to be — I used to live there and can still remember the charming little lei stands at the old airport, the 1920s movie theater on Kalakaua Avenue with full size palm trees and stars on the ceiling, the banyan treehouse in International Marketplace, the proud pink presence of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  Those “tropical touches” are gone or completely obscured now.   
Oahu has become so built up it ceased to resemble an island paradise.  The last time I visited I stood on a street corner in downtown Honolulu (the tourist area, not the business district) and I could have been anywhere — you couldn’t see sea or mountains.  I was in a narrow canyon of bland modern buildings and street, surrounded by traffic.  The island is built out and up.  And the same thing is happening on the other islands.  And the more it happens, the less appealing these places become as vacation destinations.  
On Lana’i, Castle & Cook have already built two high rise hotels and now seek to demo much of Lana’i City — “the last intact plantation community in Hawaii.”  I haven’t been there, but there has to be a creative solution that could utilize much, if not all, of the existing buildiings — as shops, getaway cottages, etc. — and preserve the character of the area.  The National Trust asks you to “make your memories part of the debate over the future of Lana’i City” — send them to 11Most@nthp.org
The item on the list that has personal meaning for me is the bridge that spans the Piscataqua River flowing between New Hampshire and Maine.  I was born on the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in the middle of that river.  I have very early memories of crossing the bridge to go to Portsmouth where we’d stop at the bakery with the amazing cinnamon sticks or browse the counters at Woolworth’s to pick out the perfect Halloween costume (Caroline Kennedy and I both wore the same witch costume with the green-faced plastic mask.)  After seeing a movie in Portsmouth to celebrate my (sixth?) birthday my mother drove a station wagonful of rowdy kids over that bridge — and I remember how she startled them all into quiet by making the back window go down mid-span (keep in mind this is long before the era of car seats — we were all packed into the cargo area — so a rear window disappearing was dramatic).  I remember the hum of the tires on the bridge decking.
Built in 1923, Memorial Bridge was the longest vertical lift bridge in the country and is still considered an engineering landmark.  I remember waiting in a line of cars while the lift was up to allow ships to pass below.  And I remember construction underway of the high-arching new bridge that allows uninterrupted flow of traffic on I-95 heading to outlet shopping and vacation lands.
Today Portsmouth is a hip and happening town filled with buildings that reflect its history as  a thriving port town and shipbuilding center.  Kittery, across the river, is a quieter little village with charming homes (including the artist’s studio my parents rented when they first moved there in the 1950s) and popular outlet shopping on Route 1.  
Memorial Bridge provides pedestrian and bicycle access between the two towns but requires “immediate rehabilitation.”  NTHP reports “in 2008, estimates for repairs came in higher than expected, and both the Maine and New Hampshire departments of transportation (which co-own the structure) began a joint study that could result in the removal and replacement of the historic span within five years, a solution that could prove far more costly than repairs.”
I don’t know their rationale for wanting to demolish the existing bridge; perhaps it is a long-term maintenance cost issue.  But I think an explanation is owed before discarding this character-defining bridge, with its elaborate tracery metalwork and the two lift towers that are striking visual landmarks.  The NTHP article asks that letters be sent to Maine Governor John Baldacci to encourage rehabilitation of the bridge.  (That’s an unfortunate word — sounds like it should be sent to work camp to think over what it’s done wrong…)  I don’t know why they don’t also ask that letters be sent to New Hampshire Governor John Lynch….
Contact info (click links above for email page):

NH:  Office of the Governor 
State House
25 Capitol Street 
Concord, NH 03301

(603)271-2121
(603)271-7680 (fax)

Maine:  Office of the Governor
#1 State House Station
Augusta, ME 04333-0001
Phone:  207-287-3531
Fax:  207-287-1034 

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