Art Deco Galore

Thursday, August 07, 2008

One job fair down. One to go. Some emailing to do. People to meet. Dismuke to the rescue with material for a quick post! (He's been fairly active lately, so stop by there if you haven't in awhile.)

Pursuant to yesterday's post on an art deco building that houses a Sears -- and could well serve as a metaphor for the current state of its whole business -- Dismuke pointed to a YouTube video excerpt from a British movie "that just oozes with art deco". Elaborating further, he says:

The set designs are a fun little visual reminder of a time when the word "modern" had positive aesthetic connotations of excitement, elegance, grandeur and glamor. Outside the realm of technological advances, the term "modern" in the context of today's culture has become a dreaded and almost dirty word for rational people with standards and good taste. It is a term that has increasingly become synonymous with the worst sort of nihilism - which, of course, is completely incompatible with and looks down on excitement, elegance, grandeur and glamor.
Later in the day, he emailed me a link to a site about art deco architecture in Houston filled with examples of the architecture of that time (indexed by decade), including a better shot of the same Sears building. Even laundries and gas stations could be handsome buildings back then!

I love the site, but find that I may have to purchase the book it advertises used, if I decide to do so. Why? Because it is being published by (and will likely fund) an organization that, in the name of preserving a few old buildings, is advocating public policies that are exactly the opposite of what made these buildings possible in the first place -- or will permit them (or something even better) to return in force one day:
GHPA [The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance] works with Houston City Council, the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission, the Houston Planning Commission, the City of Houston Planning and Development Department and other public entities to promote historic preservation in public policy.
This may sound inoffensive and harmless -- until one considers the only possible meaning of "working with" the government to "promote historic preservation as public policy." (For the record, Dismuke was not advocating preservation as "public policy".)

The government is the sole social institution that can legally use force against ordinary citizens. The proper function of this institution is to protect individual rights (which include the right to property), but the government is increasingly being used for anything but that today. In this case, the "dictator fantasy" peculiar to the preservationists is that they will succeed in forcing people to abide by their standards of what constitutes a building worth preserving.

So they short-sightedly support and attempt to pass legislation that will make it impossible for property owners to use their own land and buildings as they see fit. A short look at their own link to the Sears building immediately demonstrates the foolhardiness of this approach!
In the 1960s, Sears "updated" the store with aluminum siding and bricked the ground-floor display windows. Rice University now owns the property and leases the building to Sears. The store is threatened by the proposed construction of a Metro transit center. [bold added]
While it is true that the property's original owner vandalized it himself, much of its original grandeur could still be reclaimed easily.

So, if your goal is to preserve beautiful architecture, which way could best insure that such a property is brought back, if ever? Insisting on (and working for) a return of full government protection of property rights and raising funds to buy and restore it? Or entrusting the government with its protection, when it may decide -- as it has here -- that some undefinable "common good" outweighs the architectural value of this building and that it should therefore be demolished? If the government were in the business of consistently protecting such individual rights as private property, this kind of "endangerment" would be taken completely off the table. Furthermore, while efforts to save an individual building here or there would inevitably fail, we would be free to protect or build as many others as we like.

Brian Phillips, commenting on the American Planning Association, an organization that may or may not be tied to the GHPA, sounds a similar note to mine regarding their agenda of enforcing what it hopes is an enduring, popular consensus on everyone at the point of a government gun:
Consider the results if Thomas Edison had suspended his own judgment and submitted his ideas to a vote. His genius would be subject to the whims and decisions of others, including the ignorant and ill-informed. The truth that he saw was not seen by others, and had he left the decision to them, the world would have remained in self-imposed darkness.
If one really cares about returning to an age of excitement and glamor, he will work to bring about constructive cultural change -- for example, by persuading rational minds that architecture needn't and shouldn't be ugly or boring -- as well as working to bring back the political freedom of capitalism that made such an age possible in the first place, and will make an even better age possible in the future.

-- CAV

P.S.: Dismuke and Galileo make some very good comments below. Also worth perusing are Galileo's posts on preservation.


: Added P.S. with link to posts at Galileo Blogs regarding "preservation" efforts that serve only to corrode freedom.


Galileo Blogs said...

I hope Houston strenuously resists the preservationist disease that has infected so much of New York City. A huge and growing percentage of the city has been declared off-limits to progress and development via "landmarking." A non-elected (not that being elected makes would make it right) board of a few people sets aside a growing number of buildings and literally square miles of land (in an island that is 13 x 2 miles in size) into "landmarked" preserves, never (or only with extremely politicized difficulty) to be altered by man again.

Don't let Houston go there. Housing and office prices in New York are a large multiple of what it costs to live in places like Houston in large part due to landmarking and related zoning rules. Houston is one of the fastest-growing and most prosperous cities in our country because it largely has neither.

Here are two of my blogposts on New York's massive and growing violation of property rights and destruction of its citizens' standard of living. The second post discusses the subject in its totality, and the first one provides a close-to-home egregious example, which is typical of how this arbitrary tyranny is carried out:

Dismuke said...

My experience is that a very significant percentage of people who share my passion for old buildings think preservation laws are a good thing. Like the rest of the population, they do not understand the proper role of government. Like pretty much everybody else today, they think the ends justify the means.

I am certainly not without mixed feelings whenever a genuine work of art is bulldozed to be replaced by bland, banal, sanitized crap. But if one has the proper hierarchy of values, the proper approach is pretty clear, even if the results are unpleasant. Does one prefer to live in a dictatorship with lots of very cool buildings or live in freedom where some people will put up all sorts of trash?

The best approach to historical preservation I have heard of is through the creative use of deed restrictions. Basically, a historical preservation group would raise money to purchase significant buildings, place legally binding deed restrictions on them and then turn around and sell them to a willing buyer and use the proceeds to purchase more buildings. There is a 1929 skyscraper hotel in Fort Worth where a local historical group has an easement to the facade. Basically, the owner owns the building - but the historical group has legal veto power over any changes to the facade, which is the only artistically and historically significant aspect of the building left. I am not sure how this facade easement was granted - but the proper approach would be for an owner who is already planning to restore a building to either donate it or sell it for whatever price such an easement might lower the market value by.

You also hit on the ULTIMATE solution to the problem - cultural change. For the most part, historical preservation was not an issue when the really cool buildings in the 1920s and 1930s were built. If you read vintage newspaper accounts of the old buildings - some of them neat and impressive in their own way - being demolished to build art deco era skyscrapers, any sadness expressed is merely about people's sentimental attachment to the location. It was where they used to work, where they met somebody important in their lives, etc. Unless the building was VERY old and had a VERY significant history (such as when it was proposed in the 1910s to tear down the Alamo for a bank building), people rarely talked about the need to preserve an old building. The reason was because beautiful buildings were commonplace and the expected norm back then and it was axiomatic that the building which would replace an old one would be bigger, better and more beautiful in every way.

Unfortunately, since World War II, that has all too rarely been the case. People grasp that something great is giving way to something less than great. People grasp that the pre World War II decades were a sort of "Golden Age" by comparison in terms of our daily pop culture. They realize SOMETHING has been lost and is missing from today's world - but they don't have the philosophical knowledge necessary to even begin to articulate what and why.

In many respects, we are very fortunate to be living in today's world verses the Golden Era. Our standard of living is much higher. Air conditioning is everywhere (which is important in places such as Houston!) We enjoy technological advances and conveniences too numerous to mention. And, of course, we enjoy advances in health and medicine. On the other hand, in terms of the overall culture around us and the pop culture - well, today's world is a very shallow, empty, sterile and sometimes nasty place by comparison.

The reason old buildings are so special to so many people is because they are reminders of a world which once existed that, looking back from the context of today's culture, was special. And it was a world in which beauty in man-made items mattered and was expected and was not sneered at by nihilistic savages. To quote from the fellow who frequently writes about abandoned old buildings at, such buildings "are rare, immediate evidence that a world existed when people sought to make buildings beautiful both inside and out, just to do so."

It is a major symptom of cultural decline when people have to look back to the past in order to see a "Golden Era." In a healthy culture, the "Golden Era" is always in the future, not as a wild science fiction fantasy but rather something which we can reasonably project and expect. And that is one of the reasons I LOVE art deco so much - it is VERY forward looking and futuristic. A lot of the buildings that came before it looked backwards for inspiration in a Peter Keating-esque sort of way. Art deco buildings did not. And they are proof that "modern" does not have to be flat, sterile and bland. They are proof that "modern" CAN be ornamented, filled with a wealth of visual detail both from afar and up close and, above all, beautiful."

Maybe someday we can get to the point where, once again, we can look forward to newer buildings that are better and more beautiful in every way than the old. Personally, I cannot conceive of what that would be like. To me, art deco was the highest point of evolution in architecture - since then, it has been little more then decline mixed with some genuine and interesting creativity with new materials that were not in common usage in the art deco era. There is a reason I cannot conceive of new architecture that will be able to surpass art deco - the person who comes up with it will be an artistic genius, which I certainly am not.

Dismuke said...

One more comment I forgot to include in my previous one.

Today's historical preservation movement is also getting worse.

For many years, I have been sympathetic with the desire of most preservationists to preserve beautiful and grand buildings from the past - though, of course, I strongly disagree with their ends justifies the means approach of resorting to government coercion. I placed them in the same category as opera fans who were okay with government subsidies for opera companies. I was inclined to regard most of them as people with noble aesthetic tastes but who were probably merely misguided when it came to wider, more fundamental and more important issues.

In recent years, the movement is becoming a reductio ad absurdum. There are a growing number of preservationists now who assert that ANY building over a certain age, regardless of its individual merits, must not be torn down.

Furthermore, as the hideous and ugly post World War II buildings begin to age, it becomes more and more obvious that such people regard "preservation" as such as an end in itself.

When the historical preservation movement got started, it was because people were increasingly saddened and shocked to see beautiful old buildings being torn down and replaced by brutal, sterile and ugly modern ones. The proposed destruction of Grand Central Station to be replaced with a sterile office building was the tipping point that brought the movement national recognition. Now that those brutal, sterile and ugly modern buildings are themselves getting past an arbitrary number of birthdays, the new breed of preservationist is asserting that we need to preserve them as well.

In other words, this new breed of preservationist is not able to offer any REASONS for preserving a building - aesthetic, cultural or historical. To them, a building must be preserved because it is old in the same way that an environmentalist asserts any random plot of land must be preserved because it is "natural."

Personally, I cheer whenever I see a building from the 1950s - 1970s being demolished.

Looking back, it never did make a lot of sense that certain preservationist types I have run across would actually enjoy the same buildings and historical eras that I do. The fact that they are now embracing the period that I aesthetically despise makes MUCH more sense to me.

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for pointing out your posts on this topic!


You write: "Does one prefer to live in a dictatorship with lots of very cool buildings or live in freedom where some people will put up all sorts of trash?"

This makes me think of Havanna, Cuba, which is FULL of classic architecture, as measured by age, but it is crumbling under the weight of a dictatorship.

Also, I am glad you pointed out some legitimate legal tactics to aid preservation of buildings without violating individual rights.


Dismuke said...

Havana is a great example. A once VERY beautiful city. It still is beautiful - it is just rotting away. At least Cuba has been so impoverished that they have not built as many of those nasty Soviet buildings that blight Eastern European cities. They just live in the rotting splendor left over from pre-Communist times.

An American example of the same thing is Detroit. It has the third largest collection of pre World War II skyscrapers in the USA - and a great many of them are abandoned and in ruins. Detroit is heartbreaking. There are some INCREDIBLY beautiful and significant buildings across a very wide range of functions and architectural styles that are just rotting away. Their ornate and highly stylized fixtures are stolen for resale as are their exterior architectural details - often in broad daylight. Entire floors of such buildings have been gutted by scavengers seeking copper and other valuable scrap metal. And, of course, there is the ever present enemy of the elements. Unused buildings go downhill very quickly - and once the roof begins to leak, damage spreads very rapidly.

The problem with Detroit is that there are SO many such buildings that there simply is not enough money to fix them nor is there enough of an economy in that region to support them even if they were magically fixed. Indeed, entire residential neighborhoods in that city have now reverted back to a natural state criss crossed by what were once roads and sidewalks.

Detroit's plight is entirely a result of the overwhelming statism in that part of the country.

It is true that prosperity brings development pressures on neat old buildings as well - and that is what a lot of fans of vintage buildings fear. But, here too, cultural change is what is the ultimate answer.

In the past several years, downtown Dallas has been emerging from its long time decline as old buildings are converted into upscale lofts and apartments. For a while, unrestored pre World War II buildings were VERY much in demand by developers for apartment conversions - developers actually started to complain that there was a shortage of them. They were in demand because of their vintage architecture and by the fact that such buildings are FAR more beautiful and "cool" than the sort of econo-boxes they would otherwise be replaced with. THAT is the way it should be - in a rational culture, a building's beauty would translate into market value. Destroying one to replace it with something less would be no different than throwing a beautiful 1930s wooden cathedral radio in the trash and replacing it with a cheapo plastic radio from Walmart that has stereo, a CD player and can bring in more channels. From a strictly functional standpoint, the cheapo Walmart radio is a better radio. But you will pay a LOT more for a 1930s cathedral radio precisely because it is beautiful and no longer commonplace. In a decent culture, tearing down buildings with genuine aesthetic value would rarely make sense from an economic standpoint - and in the cases where it does make sense, there would be such a public relations stigma to it that most businesses would not wish to risk their customers regarding them as low life aesthetic vandals.

Galileo Blogs said...


Thank you for your thoughtful post. You provide the contextual explanation for why many people are preservationists. However, it is also true that by unleashing the "power of preservation" (i.e., the coercive power of the state to block new uses of an owner's property), a different sort of "preservationist" with political pull now commonly uses these laws simply to block construction of a building that might block their view, for example.

I have seen this on numerous occasions here in New York. In one instance, on my very block a group of residents protested the demolition of what used to be a horse stable. I honestly believe they never gave the appearance of the building a moment's notice until a developer came along who wanted to tear it down and put up a larger building that would block their views. (They won; the building will be "preserved.")

The ignorance of people who supports such actions is stunning. They wonder why they can only afford to live in postage-stamp sized apartments in New York, and in the same breath they denounce new construction that would make apartments larger and cheaper.

In any case, even for those with the "purest" motives as you describe, as you point out the end does not justify the means.

A larger point about "preservation" is: what does it take for a society to create beautiful buildings that people want to preserve? The answer: reason and its offshoots, good taste and wealth. Without both, you will not have beautiful buildings. The 1920s Art Deco buildings were built during one of the greatest periods of prosperity in our nation and also a time when reason still had a reasonable hold on the minds of men.

As a final note, observe this irony:

The Empire State Building was built on the site of the old Astor hotel. (I am told this, but not 100% sure of it.) By being free to destroy one "landmark," the old Astor hotel, a far greater landmark was built in its stead.

Isn't this so often the case? What grand old building stood on Fifth Avenue before the Guggenheim Museum was built there in the 1950s? Was it beautiful and worth preserving? If it had been preserved, the world may never have gotten Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim. How many more Guggenheims, or Falling Waters, or Johnson Wax Buildings are never built because land costs are too high and people don't have enough money because of: landmarking laws, zoning laws, and sundry other regulations?

The best friend of preservation is a free market and a rational culture because only such a society can produce the kind of wealth necessary to create great buildings, and the kind of people who will want them and can appreciate them.

I live for a more free future where new architectural geniuses and their wealthy sponsors will create new "landmarks" that will eclipse the greatness of what man has already made. As much as I love Art Deco and Frank Lloyd Wright, I yearn for a society where people can freely tear down even buildings such as these. For it is only in such a society that even greater glories will be built.

Gus Van Horn said...


I, too thought of Detroit, but thought Havana was a more clear-cut example. having said that, Detroit shows that yes, it CAN happen here.


Thank you for pointing out the additional (and inevitable) other types of abuses that this kind of land use regulation can and does cause.

The comments to this post are rapidly becoming a mini-primer on what is wrong with "preservation" and what alternatives there are to it for people who value these old buildings AND freedom. My thanks to both of you!



Dismuke said...

"The Empire State Building was built on the site of the old Astor hotel. (I am told this, but not 100% sure of it.) By being free to destroy one "landmark," the old Astor hotel, a far greater landmark was built in its stead."

Actually, it was the site of the old Waldorf and Astoria hotels. The two hotels had a merger of equals so it became known as the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel. (If you see the name with a hyphen and not an equal sign, they are misspelling it.) Not only was it replaced by a grand masterpiece, the Empire State Building, they built a brand new Waldorf=Astoria hotel which is an art deco masterpiece in its own right.

When they tore down the original Waldorf=Astoria, the reaction was what I described in my earlier comments. Lots of talk about how it was where the powerful captains of industry met and interacted during the Guilded Age - but very little sentimentality for the building itself. Its chandeliers, by the way, ended up in Fort Worth and still grace the ballroom of the Fort Worth Club to this day.

The Hotel Astor was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by something that is utterly ghastly and without any merit whatsoever - and I look forward to the day it is torn down because as bad as most of today's architecture is, on balance it is much better than the stuff put up in the 1960s. Unfortunately, even the nicest of today's buildings - and there are some that I actually like a lot - can't even begin to hold a candle in my book to the Empire State or Chrysler Buildings or the "new" Waldorf=Astoria.

Gus Van Horn said...

And a primer on historical buildings. Neat.

Mike said...

My biological grandfather was an architect during the 1950s-1970s, and in his book he is highly critical of "trendy" architecture, "matchbox" buildings with no aesthetic merit and the design of which barely even reflects the building's purpose. I think the old man was on to something, because though some of his work looks dated now, virtually none of it has been razed, and that's the real acid test, I suppose.

Gus Van Horn said...

I think that there are some things that can have a timeless beauty and, as such, asre immune to passing fashion. We once saw an exhibit about Jackie Kennedy's wardrobe. This was all 50 years old and, like your grandfather's work, some looked dated (because of what was popular at the time), and yet all was stunning.

Jim May said...

In recent years, the movement is becoming a reductio ad absurdum. There are a growing number of preservationists now who assert that ANY building over a certain age, regardless of its individual merits, must not be torn down.

Welcome to Los Angeles.

Gus Van Horn said...

Very interesting read, Jim. Thanks for pointing that out.