The Murder of Middle-Aged Architecture

By Scott Sidler • January 20, 2020

The Murder of Middle-Aged ArchitectureWhat is middle-aged architecture and how is it being murdered? That may seem like a very odd title for a post but stick with me because this is something that affects all of us and I bet you didn’t even have a clue it was happening!

It was recently pointed out to me by a colleague that middle-age is the most dangerous time for architecture. Meaning that if a building can last past the half century mark then it has a good chance of lasting another 100 years. It’s the time between 40 and 60 years that is the most dangerous for most buildings and when many treasures are lost to the wreaking ball.

Jodi Rubin, who has been a mainstay of historic preservation in Florida since the late 1980s, was the one who came up with the theory and I think it bears some consideration especially if you are a preservationist or city planner. Understanding what this means for your city and its future is huge.

Buildings We Lost in Middle-Age

To illustrate my point I want to show you some of the buildings affected by this ageism that I believe today would undoubtedly be preserved as landmarks. The losses do more often fall into years when the economy is in growth mode, but the spread of decades shows that this was not just something we began doing in earnest in the 1960s.

Demolition has been happening throughout our history in the name of growth and progress. Both are necessary and good for our country, but demolition should always be given a deeper look before proceeding than it is in most cases. Here are just a few of the amazing structures that we lost in middle-age.

Why is Middle-Age So Dangerous?

Today we can look at these buildings through the perspective that only time can bring. In 2020 I would hazard a guess that most people would recognize the huge loss the buildings above are to our architectural history, but at the time of their demolition fewer people saw their significance.

Prentice Women's Hospital
Prentice Women’s Hospital 1975-2013

That may seem hard to imagine, but put yourself in their shoes. How architecturally significant do the buildings of the 1970s and 1980s appear to you? If I’m being honest, that generation of buildings seems tired and ugly to me in most cases. I wouldn’t shed many tears if we lost buildings from that time period today. That may be for several reasons.

Reason #1: Maybe the buildings were not particularly well built or properly designed. That is more typical of post war buildings than it is of pre-war buildings in America, but should apply to buildings of any age though it may be more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. Assuming they were well design and constructed then this argument should be moot.

Reason #2: The style of the time doesn’t appeal to me. This may be because the post modern style and other contemporary styles of that time don’t appeal to my sensibilities. The bigger question behind this is why. Is it merely personal preference or am I a product of my time? Likely it is a bit of both, but mostly I believe it to be a product of my time. Society rebelled against Victorian style in the 1900s and turned toward American Craftsman style which eventually fell from favor as well. Styles change and society dictates those changes and we are all a part of society.

Just like today I see 20-somethings wearing what I can only describe as mom jeans (after all that’s what my mom used to wear in the 80s) today and thinking they are trendy, architectural styles come and go too. They just have a longer cycle than fashion.

What Can We Do?

The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. And there definitely is. But the solution is difficult because as preservationists and city planners you have the duty to preserve important history, but also ensure things are moving forward in your city.

I don’t have an answer for you, but rather I think this is a pivotal conversation that needs to be happening in local government and preservation organizations. Before more important buildings are lost to the wrecking ball we need to figure out who and how we decide what should stay and what should go.

Leave a comment below and share how you would resolve this or what your thoughts are.

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