Thursday, September 01, 2005

Idaho Falls Downtown

(c) 2005, m. wells

Idaho Falls, readily identifiable from afar by the gleaming white spire of the Latter Day Saints Temple on the falls, is a small town that boomed in the early 1950s, due to the precursor of INL, the NRTS. NRTS and Argonne National Laboratory-West brought scientific and engineering talent to the area, and created work in the Idaho desert. The people I met in Idaho Falls were modest about their small city, and particularly about their downtown, which admittedly was like many towns you see across the United States--but I liked it.

I set out early in the morning, crossed the falls from the Red Lion Hotel, walking towards the Museum of Idaho. There are about six intersections of interest in the downtown, and unless you're heading out to the strip for some shopping sprawl, everything is quite walkable. While many of the old storefronts are closed (including this Chinese restaurant, seen above) the bakeries and antique stores appear to get a lot of business. There is poverty and grit, as in all small cities, but I was pleased to see the local police force treating the homeless population with respect.

The downtown has perfectly preserved (probably by virtue of the fact that they have been empty all this time) its 1920s-1960s storefronts. There is a melange of style, from the more ornate eclectic period, to Moderne (that is, Art Deco in a more horizontal style), to the permastone and colored siding applied to buildings in the modern era. Some of these buildings, modified in the 1950s and 60s, are, I think, superior examples of the style. After all, as these modifications age, and no longer look contemporary, they are often dismantled. While they look bad to us now, we may regret the wholesale destruction of them later on. I will be posting a few photographs of these "modern" storefronts shortly.

At the edge of the downtown is a wide, dusty strip of railroad tracks (about six tracks, I think). Across the tracks is the Museum of Idaho, a partially historic, partially modern building which was previously a library. The nose of a aircraft is emerging from the modern structure, to announce the Space Exhibit currently on display.

Finally: the mystery of the low houses. On a drive around town, I saw two of a group of low houses--houses in which all the living space was below ground, and only the top of the house and the roofline was above ground. Unfortunately, I was not able to snap any pictures of these. I speculated that this might be some kind of natural disaster protection, but as local Bill Ginkel told me, the explanation is much simpler. When people moved to Idaho Falls in the 50s, they bought land and started to build their houses. Often, the money they had was only enough to build the basement, and in order to make it through the year, presumably, a roof had to be put on the half-built house. Some of these houses were never finished, and remain basement houses. The story reminded me of the garage houses in Chicago.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Vermont: Endangered?

Since my family (consisting of all two people) moved to Vermont, I have paid much closer attention to what goes on in this feisty little state. Of course, as preservationists, you all are aware that Vermont has been on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered List twice, most recently in 2004. The National Trust has endured the complaints of those who feel that their assertion--that Vermont is endangered--is merely the whining of summer and winter tourists who will miss the "quaintness" of Vermont's small towns as they change with big-box growth. But of course it isn't just the tourists who find this kind of growth disturbing. But, Vermont residents are ambivalent. Because my family will feel the effect of any growth or lack of growth in this state makes the issue more present for me, but also more complex.

California, my home state, is policy-laden, overflowing with legislature and public programs. For the most part, I believe these to be extremely important for the health and well-being of the population of California. Even so, all these laws and regulations haven't slowed the overwhelming growth of the state, nor have they sufficiently protected the residents and the land. Such are the problems of a large and diverse state.

Vermont's approach to policy and regulation is a little different. The state is quite small (the largest city, Burlington, is home to only about 40,000 people) and as a result, it can afford to do things differently. One of the longstanding traditions, with regard to policy, is to allow individual freedoms to prevail as much as humanly possible. Vermonters may have strongly held beliefs, but are generally unwilling to impose them upon others. The state legislature is replaced with startling frequency, and politicians make house calls to their constituents. All of this allows for a fluidity which is difficult in larger states.

Conversely, the small size of the state is a problem for residents. It is difficult to attract businesses of any size (even with IBM in Essex Junction, and UVM in Burlington) to the area, meaning that Vermonters have been making do with a few centrally located department stores which anchor small malls. Main streets flourish only in the busiest areas, such as Burlington, Rutland, and Bennington. In smaller towns throughout the state, the main streets cater to tourism, if anything--ski shops or lodges, a few restaurants or cafes, things of that nature.

What is difficult for city or suburb residents to understand is the lack of services in most parts of the state. And while the map may look small, it takes hours to cross the state, over multiple mountain ranges and curvy roads. Rural Canadians and people from upper New Hampshire flock to Williston, St. Johnsbury and Burlington to do their shopping. There still isn't much, compared to the bounty of resources I've enjoyed in San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington.

Having a lack of resources, combined with a small population, makes it difficult to maintain culture in all its forms. Architecture is not the only victim--the arts, too, the theater and musical events--are also bound to fail as people move towards areas of new growth. The problem is bigger than Wal-Mart, and the imminent arrival of a number of box-sores.

People are not thrilled about the influx of Wal-Marts. Believe me, this is a state that finds McDonald's so distasteful that it has taken measures to ensure that the few fast food restaurants in the state are well hidden. But I think people are easily captivated by the promise of employment that a big-box store will supposedly bring. Will it? Probably not. Not without a cost in employment in other areas, and not without the cost that it will bring to the state, since profits return to the corporate headquarters. Of course it will bring in sales and property tax dollars. But will the cost to Vermont be too much, in the end?

I'd like to talk about two of the cities slated to get a Wal-Mart: St. Albans, and St. Johnsbury.

St. Albans is a beautiful town with a French-Canadian air. Its public school system is superior, especially in its approach to underserved communities. Most of all, the look of the town is compelling. There is a central square, surrounded by churches, an historical society, and a row of businesses. A main street. The main street has been failing now for a while. What is left are one or two restaurants, a jeweller, and one lone privately owned clothing shop. The bookstore is gone. Up the road a little is a one-floor JC Penney, and a little further down, a Price Chopper, and a strip mall.

Architecturally, St. Albans is marvelous. It has so much potential for business on the main floor, and offices in the second and third story spaces. There is parking, and a place to sit and meet. It should attract new residents for its superior schools and housing that is more affordable than Burlington. But it will not if it continues to fail to attract revenue.

St. Johnsbury, located on the otherside of the state in the Northeast Kingdom, may be worse off. It has some of the most stunning houses I have ever seen (think Kenwood, but better) and two great museums, too. But St. Johnsbury is far from lots of things--much further than St. Albans is from Burlington, for example. St. Johnsbury is a hike. But it too has a school of national note: St. Johnsbury Academy.

These towns deserve better. Will a Wal-Mart help? Probably in the short-term, yes. It well bring people from the surrounding countryside to shop. BUT . . . they will not shop the downtown areas, and chances are they will not move to the town because a Wal-Mart has arrived. They will shop and leave, leaving very little profit for a town already sinking in the mire.

What preservationists can do--and what Vermont residents should do--is approach these things with the air of realism. A few more Wal-Marts is probably inevitable. Of course, I support insistence that Wal-Mart use existing structures such as the now defunct Ames stores as its location. But why not pursue a better option at the same time? City planners ought to aggressively seek business for their stunning downtowns--businesses that are more willing to fit themselves to a location, like Pier One has done on Church Street in Burlington. Better merchandise ought to be available to the professionals of the state (not everyone can wear jeans to work). Above all, there are a number of small businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs throughout the state, and they are looking for places to start their businesses. Vermont is full of enterprising people, people who create their own work, and whose work varies from season to season. I would take advantage of this, and set an example of smart and sustainable growth in a beautiful, historic setting, for the rest of the world to see.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Robert E. Lee Motel

(c) photograph by m. wells

Somewhere between Bristol, Tennessee, and Abingdon, Virginia, stands the Robert E. Lee Motel. Back in the summer of 2001, I and my car made a series of trips around this area. It was before I was a preservationist, but the seeds of it were in me: history, art, architecture, and storytelling.

My friends gave me exceedingly complex directions to backcountry locations. One of these was a junkyard, seemingly abandoned. Cars from the 30s, 40s, and 50s were sinking into the soft earth here, only their headlights visible from the road through the thick brush and Virginia Creeper. My search for the perfect grille was abruptly ended by an adrenaline-inducing chase though the forest by junkyard dogs and a man in a blue pickup truck. On another backcountry trip, I encountered a revival in yellow and white striped tents.

In the case of the Lee Motel, I was armed with only one thing--the camera. I came to an abrupt stop at a gas station across the road from this fetching Moderne motel. If only it had been night-time, and the place had been open: the neon sign would have been lit, and so enticing. But it was not open, and it was heavily overgrown. Some of the plants had come in at the windows, and through cracks in the structure and pavement. A man at the gas pump was watching me. I could hardly try and slip through the windows, or around back without rousing some suspicion. But I snapped this picture, and I still remember the crickets humming.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Intaglio Exhibit

Miriam and other DCers,

Did you see that the National Building Museum has an exhibit on concrete including intaglio composites? See or Looks like they have other cool exhibits as well.

Anybody else get a job yet?
Take care,

Sunday, November 07, 2004


I hope this posting is appropriate for this blog. Miriam, if it is not, please let me know discreetly and I'll stop with the nonsense.

Does anyone know the difference between a Historic Structure Assessment and an Existing Conditions Report? Is this something we went over but I was daydreaming about something else (islands, no doubt. warm sunny islands with the faint smell of coconut and mangos and fine soft sand inbetween my toes......)? I know we did an ECR for Mark Igleski, but were HSAs covered?

Oh, and a word about the election (because anyone who knows me expects it from me) - SHIT.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Lowenthal on Heritage Sites

I’ve been thinking about David Lowenthal’s chapter in Giving Preservation a History, “The Heritage Crusade and its Contradictions.” I find the chapter to be a little incendiary, considering that Lowenthal is writing to an audience of preservationists, and he himself has been working with heritage sites, most recently with ICOMOS. Still, a little professional unease is good--it means that we’re thinking critically about our work.

He was, I think, on the mark to say that the American obsession with heritage is a little out of control—and he means heritage in the broadest sense, from founding fathers and battlegrounds to baseball cards and lunch boxes. Heritage has grown to encompass all that is past, trivial or grandiose.

Interestingly, he notes that this kind of heritage--heritage as a physical manifestation--is particular to Western countries. He talks a little about Asia, and specifically China, in illustration of this. I was interested in this, in light of the Historic Preservation Department’s recent trip to China, and I wonder if this ever came up in discussion, either during the trip, or afterwards. Citing Wang Gungwu and Pierre Ryckmans (and others), Lowenthal writes that heritage in Asia is best understood through living tradition--creative skills, art, letters, memory—and not through remains or monuments. This does fit with my impressions of the intellectual history of China in the past century and a half, and while monuments and sites may be destroyed there (and they have) it is less easy to erase traditional thought and practice. In the end, this may have been looked to for its essential Chineseness.

But it seems that the Western notion of heritage is spreading too, since the proliferation of monuments and heritage sites is occurring abroad as well as at home.

There is something to the heritage movement, in all its forms, that makes sense to me (besides its creation of work for me to do). Durkheim once wrote that socialism was “a cry of pain,” rather than a political movement. Heritage, too, perhaps. While heritage is not a directly opposite reaction to rampant capitalism and the discomfort it causes, neither can it be seen as in line with capitalism, philosophically. I can easily see how heritage could be an emotional response to a real threat--to anything that doesn’t constitute the highest and best use of your little chunk of property.

It is one thing to say that we don’t need a glut of old material (be it buildings, excess paper at archives, or a never-ending supply of collector’s items) and that there ought to be room for innovation. It is another to ask that we take losses in the way of historical remains, and get neither innovation nor beauty in return--but things which were not intended to last and which do not make us very happy.

Lowenthal suggests, all too briefly, that we might turn our efforts to preserving our traditional creative skills, our cultural and intellectual tradition, and of course, memory. All of this is fine, of course, but none of these things serves well as currency, and as a result, they aren’t always valued. Real estate does, and is.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Oakland, California

(c) photograph by m. wells

This photograph was taken in 2002, near downtown Oakland, very close to the Fruitvale BART Station. The building was not being torn down in its entirety, but modified from its former life as a commercial-industrial structure, to a new one as loft housing for the growing Bay Area population. Still, seeing the building like this, with rebar and concrete everywhere, seems a little sad, nonetheless.