(Part two of a three-part series. See Part 1.)

Last time, we recounted how landmarks such as New York City’s Penn Station and San Francisco’s Fox Theater were lost to development pressures during the early 1960s. In fairness, preservation and profit sometimes coincided splendidly even then, as they did at San Francisco’s pioneering Ghirardelli Square or at Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Yet for the most part, developers then and now have had neither the foresight nor the monetary incentive to be entrusted with preservation-worthy buildings.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the private quest for profit often tramples the public good–it’s both obvious and understandable that, for developers, the bottom line controls all else. What’s more inexcusable is that our public servants are often equally clumsy stewards of our architectural legacy.

To cite the most egregious example, one could hardly hazard a guess at the number of preservation-worthy buildings–not to mention whole neighborhoods–that have been destroyed directly or indirectly by our government’s postwar obsession with urban freeway building. Initially, there were good reasons to improve the nation’s transportation routes.

Eventually, however, this freeway program simply became a juggernaut, with state engineers aiming to entangle every major city in an ugly and brutally conceived web of concrete and asphalt. For three decades, the heart of San Francisco’s incomparable waterfront was blighted by just such a structure. It took an earthquake to accomplish what public protest had failed to do: destroy it.

Dozens more American cities remain saddled with freeways that slash through their downtowns, dividing and devastating everything in their path. Even our sensible neighbors to the north were not spared from postwar freeway mania: In Toronto, the elevated, rusting hulk of the horrendous Gardner Expressway still chokes off the city’s dazzling view of Lake Ontario, an insult that residents are forced to resign themselves to.

But urban freeways haven’t been the only disaster foisted on us by state planners. As freeway building has mercifully declined, they’ve found other ways to kill us with kindness. In California, for example, scores of superb school buildings dating from the 1920s and early ’30s have fallen victim to a well-meant but blundering campaign to ensure the seismic safety of public schools.

In 1967, the state passed legislation requiring all pre-1933 schools to be examined for seismic safety. Unfortunately, officials took the path of least resistance in effecting this worthy goal. Rather than retrofitting these lovingly crafted Revivalist buildings, which ran the gamut from Medieval to Gothic, Tudor to Spanish Revival, wholesale demolition ensued.

Almost without exception, the hurriedly built replacements for these grand old buildings were bland stucco boxes that may–or may not–be seismically safer given what we’ve learned about earthquakes since.

In the short term, this campaign produced plenty of feel-good press for officialdom. In the long term, it deprived the public of splendid buildings harking from an era of unmatched civic pride, and condemned generations of students to school careers spent in tawdry, third-rate surroundings.

We may shrug off these losses as the lingering planning biases of the Modernist era, confident that such things could never happen in today’s preservation-savvy climate. Not so: Fine architecture remains just as much at risk today as it ever was. We’ll see why next time.


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