When urban revitalization is nothing more than a façade.

Among the more controversial results of arbitration during urban redevelopment is the retention of a building façade, while demolishing everything that comes behind it because, presumably, the layout, traditional use, and possibly even the entire floorplate fail to meet contemporary needs. The growing practice of façadectomy has entered the general development parlance, though the closet etymologist in me hates this; after all, isn’t that word implying that it is the façade that is being removed?

Putting the incorrect suffix aside, historic preservationists have amplified their criticism in recent years of this practice. As Michael Lewis put it in a 2002 New York Times article:

“It is no coincidence that this innovation, which treats a building as graphic art, appeared in the heyday of Pop Art. But in its blithe indifference to the real essence of architecture, which is the poetic shaping of space, such a flaying is scarcely preferable to demolition. It leaves the image of the building, but not the building itself. They are to real buildings as dentures are to teeth.” By the same token, other theorists—generally from a more pro-development vantage point—assert that façadectomies assume no more or less of a cavalier attitude to design than the individuals who originally conceived these structures, since the office buildings of the turn of the 20th century (which often now face threat of the wrecking ball) were little more than warehouses for commerce with a carefully conceived, meretricious exterior.

Inevitably, this process, which both developers and historians originally may have perceived as a last resort, has become a facile solution and sometimes even a knee-jerk response. It may easily satisfy the grassroots citizenry who want a great old building to survive, so that the only ones left wagging their fingers are professional preservationists—alas, never a group given the respect they often deserve in a nation whose prerogative often leans more toward continued redefinition by building anew. When the neighbors are happy because the essence of the building survives (as embodied by the façade) it gives the developers free reign to take liberties with the remaining 99% of the structure, resulting in some ungainly liberties with massing, scale, building material, and details. This proposed façadectomy of the original St. Vincent’s hospital in Indianapolis was announced just a few days ago and has drawn its fair share of ire on the blogosphere. I withhold further discussion of this proposed façadectomy because it is still just germinating, though I suspect it won’t be the last time this particular blog mentions it.

Instead, I show two particularly idiosyncratic—one might say cynical—examples of what appear to be façadectomies. The one below is at WashingtonDC’s Penn Quarter, midway in the 8th Street NW block between E Street and D Street NW. Penn Quarter is a widely publicized revitalization effort at the far east end of downtown Washington that has included offices, theatres, restaurants, nightclubs, and residences, as well as the VerizonCenter arena. It is also blocks away from the relatively new WalterE.WashingtonConvention Center, so many of the uses in this redevelopment cater to tourists and convention-goers seeking evening entertainment. 7th Street in particular is a major entertainment destination. The example below appeared to be the loading dock for a large office building that fronts 9th Street NW.

The picture dates from July of 2008. Hopefully a DCist who lived there longer than I did can tell me if this portion of the building has evolved beyond this stage, though it showed no evidence of a stalled project: the entrance on 9th Street is clearly up and running. This effort looks to me as though, after the initial façade preservation, the builders surrounded the remaining structure with a molding and filled it with plaster of Paris, then used draftsman’s tools to trace the remaining missing features: window treatments, doorways, transoms. And they painted the space above the spartan Romanesque structure a soft blue—the sky, apparently. It almost makes the viewer forget that the only real doors are service gates for unloading merchandise, and the only other real apertures are the vents at the far left and far right of the picture. It looks like a work in progress, and unless the architect or developer was trying to making a witty postmodernist statement on the delicate temporality of urban reinvention, the message connoted here is unclear without being tantalizingly nebulous. Most passersby scarcely notice it; it has the same effect of one of the many street-level blank walls in redeveloped urban environments all across the country.

This façadectomy in the heart of one of Washington’s most emerging districts suggests to me the developer’s contempt for historic preservation as a discipline. No doubt preservationists have often earned a reputation as “no”-men and women, stymieing redevelopment efforts by drawing attention to projects whose demonstrable historic value could only be tucked away in a dusty vertical file. But such an interpretation casts a negative sheen on an artistic and scientific practice that helped salvage New Orleans’ French Quarter from an urban freeway and protected Philadelphia’s City Hall from devolving to a traffic circle. Their continued labors have brought awareness to what Americans have lost—painful victims of the wrecking ball such as New York City’s original Penn Station—and they have consequently helped promulgate an ideological platform under which laypersons can also more effectively organize and advocate to save treasured structures and sites. So it seems all the more tragic that the time spent around the negotiation table for the Penn Quarter redevelopment would lead to this. Is this really the best they could come up with? The most flattering thing that could be said is that it perceives preservation as a continuous streetwall with minor accents. But it’s far more likely to suggest far worse, such as “Here are the remnants of the more interesting buildings that used to stand here before we built a big plaster box.” It effectively relegates this block of 8th Street to a service road, and that’s the level of ambiance it is likely to convey to pedestrians, who could—and probably will—just as easily opt for the next block down to reach their destination.

Memphis has taken an altogether different approach to façadectomy on what clearly is not intended to be an ancillary or service road. Beale Street is the music and entertainment main street of the city, effectively preserving its blues heritage for general tourist consumption. (My suspicion is that the “real” blues haunts frequented by locals or visitors who are more than dilettantes are scattered elsewhere throughout the city. But my familiarity with Memphis does not extend this far.) At any rate, a handful of buildings haven’t simply undergone a façade preservation treatment within their redevelopment; they received a façade preservation in lieu of a redevelopment.

All that stands are the façades, with girders holding them upright under which the less superstitious pedestrians stroll along. Behind at least one is a patio seating and a small stage for live music.

Stepping back a bit, one can see effectively the result of a more intact main street through the retention of the façade, though the girders are more than a minor distraction:

Lacking the development insight of an insider and unable to find verifiable data on what actually happened (only hearsay), I can only infer (the real point of this blog, actually). Perhaps it was a redevelopment effort that stalled, where the façadectomy was part of the plan but financing fell through. Maybe. But someone had the money to shell out for the interior patio—chump change compared to an actual building, I know, but financing shouldn’t be difficult on the most pedestrian-rich street in Memphis. Most developers would scramble for site control along Beale Street. Maybe internecine squabbling between preservation advocates and developers or landowners led to a stalemate, and this was the result. Something had to be preserved, and the streetwall is more critical from a main street aesthetics point of view. Maybe—and this is my own strongest guess—this area of Memphis, long an African American enclave, suffered greatly after 1967 race riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King , and black flight from the neighborhood as anti-segregation civil rights laws opened their opportunities to move in other areas of the city. Despite being declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966, Beale Street was depressed and largely abandoned until the 1980s, when a music-based revitalization campaign gathered full steam. The discerning eye can easily spot which buildings simply could not survive the disinvestment period—my suspicion was these façades were preserved only because they were the only salvageable element remaining, and landowners realized they could still earn potential preservation tax credits or other financial incentives if they held onto something. Witness this effort elsewhere on Beale Street:

Clearly the building to the right involves some degree of façadectomy: it would be impossible to fit a flight of stairs and a usable space on what survives of the third floor. The landowner retained the façade and took complete artistic license with everything behind it. Perhaps this is a noble effort when placed into the context of the building’s neighbors, which are either infill because the original structures were demolished, or the façades have been altered to such an extent from their 19th century origins that they no longer bear any passing resemblance to the three-story façade still standing.

To its credit, Beale Street in Memphis manages to achieve the essence of a vintage commercial Main Street, which is less than can be said about the redevelopment of those Penn Quarter structures in WashingtonDC. The linearity and largely contiguous string of storefronts survive to cultivate a pedestrian oriented entertainment district. The scars of Memphis’ turbulent history remain visible along Beale and are glaringly obvious if one ventures even a block away from it, since shiny new sports arenas (and their requisite parking garages) flank this street—a total rupture from the urban fabric that might have stood at the time when the city genuinely served as the incubator for American musical legends. Beale Street is an artery of life surrounded on either side by what are two dead zones, unless a major sport event takes place.

Several blocks away, a façadectomy stands that may actually achieve a multi-dimensional expressive content that most other attempts lack: the National Civil Rights Museum retains part of the Lorraine Motel façade, including the balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. Lacking any largely agreed upon architectural merit, the motel’s earned its historic import solely as the site of this tragic event.

The majority of the motel was demolished for a total redevelopment into the museum, giving the visitor the chance to see a replica of King’s hotel room, and to view out upon the balcony where the assassination took place. This façadectomy injected literal semantic content for educational purposes—some may argue it sensationalizes or even trivializes the event by integrating it into a museum which ultimately serves as a major tourist attraction, but it shows an understanding of the employment of façadectomy for memorializing purposes, and it avoids merely embalming and petrifying a certain vague character. Although the doors and windows of the museum do not typically align with the original openings in the Lorraine Motel, the communicative intent of this museum/hotel façade combination is precise.

A defense attorney would likely have a field day with this argument I have made, because the evidence I have provided against façadectomies at Penn Quarter and Beale Street are outliers, scarcely representative of the more sincere efforts performed elsewhere. But I conclude with a defense of façadectomy, even if flies against the reasoning employed in the photographs. Rather than looking at the nature of preservation integrity, negotiators should focus on the full implications of a compromise—how do we quantify the sacredness of a building such that it cannot be altered. Many historic structures and sites remain so vigilantly preserved that disabled people cannot access them—preservationists determined that the slightest addition of a wheelchair ramp or lift will damage the integrity of the site in question. This hardly promotes the idea of democratizing truly sacred spaces by making them universally accessible. Many structures undergo ADA compliance with handicapped ramps, installing them as sensitively as possible in order to protect the historic character. Such solicitousness cannot be applied uniformly to all structures—arguments of historic importance are simply more compelling in some cases than others. It remains to be seen if a façadectomy of the St. Vincent’s Hospital (neither a National Historic Landmark nor on the National Register) in Indianapolis—if approved—will at least respect the integrity of the building’s face to the point that the front door provides an entry and windows actually offer a two-way view. But, if a fight begins for this and other structures, one can only anticipate that it will require an extensive documentation of the project’s historic merits before a façadectomy will seem—as it often does—to the slightly more disinterested general public as a perfectly reasonable compromise.

2 thoughts on “When urban revitalization is nothing more than a façade.

  1. Uri

    I am surprised that the Penn Quarter idiocy is still there. It looked the same back in 2005-6, when I lived in DC. I always hated that incomplete effort. Nearby are some interesting counterpoints where fully-preserved facades only partially hide a large glass office building. I actually find the juxtaposition quite appealing.

    I would fall on the side of folks who would say that keeping the facade is the most important thing to keep to preserve the character of the neighborhood. After all, most people in the neighborhood never go into the buildings, but the feeling on the street can be preserved.

  2. Graeme

    Saving the facade is important, because the way that historic buildings address the street is much different in modern buildings. Code required setbacks and fire separation issues have changed the character of modern streets. So yes, I agree that the facade is the most important thing to keep. But it isn’t the only important thing to keep.

    For Ivy Tech to think this particular solution is acceptable fills me with disgust. That building would add a lot of historic authenticity at a low cost. And the goodwill created would generate a lot of PR. Boo on Ivy Tech, this stinks.


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