10 April 2008

Stone Buildings

Our house was dark and quiet. Everyone was asleep, the city outside was still. Moonlight was coming in through the window, and I looked out to see the shadows on the brick and stone walls. I thought: How is it that I am so lucky to inhabit such a beautiful building? Built over 130 years ago by hand and mule?


We are a middle class family, but we live in a structure that would take millions of dollars to rebuild. Why is that? Why do people abandon such places and choose cheaper construction?

Century-old buildings in this city are demolished everyday. The same story has happened throughout the midwest. The waste of this demolition is massive.

I like old wood building too, but I am particularly fond of the brick and stone buildings. Many of these buildings have stone foundations 3 feet thick that extend dozens of feet into the ground. The bricks were made of local clay and the timbers are hundreds of years old. The horse-hair plaster is layered thick on solid wood lath, the handrails are wide solid cherry and the windows and stoops are carved from that fantastic Dayton Limestone that was floated down the canal or sandstone floated down the Ohio river from Shawnee Forest.

Think of all the embodied energy lost each time one of these structures is demolished and put in a landfill; or when one is lost to fire as happened last night at Elm and Green.


What kind of society lets such accumulated wealth, (not to mention the cultural significance) go to waste, and collapse by neglect?

Top of building at 15th and Vine, vacant for 20 years, that is now being demolished:

For the price of a modest new house, one large aparment or sometimes a whole building can be modernized with kitchens, windows, and mechanical systems. And one of these renovated buildings can stand indefinitely. The same cannot be said for new houses.

In my job, I often see new suburban houses under construction. Home builders have cut every single extra cost out of a new home. I mean they are counting pennies. They have cut and cut so much that they barely meet minimum code requirements. Wood is thinner and of lower quality, the joist and stud spacings are stretched, the sheathing is changed from plywood to OSB then to cardboard (yes cardboard), the furnaces are shrunk, rebar is removed from foundations, brick veneers and drywall are applied as quickly and cheaply as possible by laborers who cannot even communicate with the carpenters.

And to think that our national economy was being driven for years on the continued construction of these houses of sticks. What a massive waste of resources.


Matt said...

Another great post Mike. I think the same thing every time I drive down suburban streets (which is pretty regularly lately), and I wonder how some of the huge glass windows they've installed don't break in strong winds, or notice the amount of siding they put everywhere (except the front - to give the illusion of it being a sturdy brick home), and question the thinness of the walls, etc. Even new, big homes in the burbs (or anywhere for that matter) not only are cheaply made, but look cheap.

I don't understand it either, but I do understand that there's a huge perception problem with people from outside OTR, or even outside the early suburbs (which obviously also have the same structural substance). I drive down Elm Street, for instance, and think about how the early, wealthy citizens of the city used to live there... and why in the hell aren't the wealthy realizing the value there and moving back in droves? It would be different OTR if just even a small percentage took part in this. It makes no sense to me. I understand the motives behind urban sprawl - the desire for land being one, and the escape from crime being another - but does anyone in today's burbs really have that much land anymore? It's just as crowded there as it is downtown, if not more. And again, crime wouldn't be as much of an issue if the buildings in OTR were inhabited (especially by responsible, caring people, such as yourself).

Ah... I need to cool it on the coffee...

columbus exile said...

The fact that these buildings could not be recreated now should carry more significance to people. Unless the future of the country is cardboard track homes preservation need to be become a real priority.

Chris S said...

Excellent post, as a lifelong lover of the craftsmanship of old homes, it very much rings true. Our problem is space, even today, relatively infinite space (for our population - speaking nationally of course). Due to cheap gasoline (until relatively recently), this has presented the consumer with the choice between "new" and "used". Between the two, our culture has taught us the new is always better. Few people realize the structural and functional integrity of a well built old home, and its a shame.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant post. My wife and I have only lived in Cincinnati for 16 months (transplants from NJ), and we've come to realize that the future of Cincinnati rests in preserving, showcasing, and marketing -- yes, marketing -- her rich architectural heritage. It is hard to imagine what happened to the generation of hard-working craftsmen who built such grand structures -- where did they all go? We've seen a few exceptions -- some contractors whose work ethic and skills come close to matching those of the previous generation -- but much of it seems lost. And that's sad.

Our modest Tudor Revival on the west side of town has revealed many secrets to us -- and while the variety of materials used in her construction (brick, stone, wood, clay tile, etc.) continue to foster a busy maintenance schedule -- I wouldn't trade these solid bones for any of those suburban paper shells.

Much of Cincinnati's future lies in her past -- if the Queen City would focus more of its resources on preserving, restoring, and glorifying these elegant old structures, then people will come. They will come as tourists, they will come as businesses, and they will come as residents.

How different is it in Europe where they pride themselves on structures hundreds of years old?

Listen to the buildings. They're telling you a story. It is your past. It is your future.

Jimmy_James said...

I couldn't agree more. As I read this post, I couldn't help but think: "Wait, did I write this?"

This part I especially identified with:

"I thought: How is it that I am so lucky to inhabit such a beautiful building? Built over 130 years ago by hand and mule?"

I think the same thing every time I come home to my 101 year old brick house.

Randy Simes said...

Fantastic post Mike, and we would be a better nation if more people thought like you on this matter.

Anonymous said...

Great post, I couldn't agree more with you and whats been commented on already. My wife and I both just don't understand people's attraction to building new, cheap, and ugly large houses out in the suburbs when there is a plethera of beautiful, untouched italianate architecture just waiting for someone to give it the care and restoration it deserves.
As matt hunter ross commented on above there is a definite problem with people's perception of downtown and OTR that biases them towards thinking the suburbs are the only way to live.
Though I agree with him that the desire for more land and less crime is part of the reason everyone fled to the suburbs, I think the problem is much more complex than that.
What drove everyone out of the cities during the late 1950s and 1960s was actually growing racial tensions during the civil rights movement. The "great white flight" as its been called happened because the urban centers began having increasing numbers of african american citizens and the white population, who was still very racist at the time, couldn't stand the thought of having to "share" their schools, restaurants or living units with african americans. So, when the concept of a suburban home with a white picket fence and a big back yard and car for every member of the family came around, everyone jumped on the same band wagon and fled the city. Ever since then suburban children have been raised to believe that the city is a dirty place full of bad people and all sorts of terrible things go on there. This has been the dominant frame of mind that most of the older white suburban population has lived on for decades now, whether its concious or sub-concious.
Thankfully people are becoming more educated now a days and the younger generations of suburbanites have learned to rise above the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. Racism is still a very real problem in our city and many others in the midwest, but its getting better everyday.
My hope and prediction is that more and more people will continue to want to move back to the city and live in a culturally diverse place where everyone can learn to get along.
However its going to take time, especially in Cincinnati where there are a large number of hard core conservatives slowly things down.
Sorry this got off subject from your post, but I thought it was important to point out.

Matt said...

As Anonymous pointed out (^), I didn't mean to simplify the issue of urban growth/sprawl, where of course, race has been (and still is) one of the unfortunate reasons for segments of the population to move. Though, redlining 'rural' areas for low-density privatization has been a driving factor by (mostly) the wealthy for generations (long before the 50's 'white flight') - note the mansions in Cincinnati's earliest "suburbs" of Clifton, Mt. Auburn, Avondale, Walnut Hills, etc. Also, as transportation modernized (such as the development of the streetcar), it gave the 'everyday citizen' access to these outlying areas, crowding the once "green" areas which the rich adored, and essentially driving the wealthy out even farther.

Interesting site here:

If anyone's interested, UC's School of DAAP always holds interesting lectures and forums for urban planning and history of the city. Also, architecture and planning "Adult-Ed" courses are always a good investment (they were to me, at least).

Jimmy_James said...

"However its going to take time, especially in Cincinnati where there are a large number of hard core conservatives slowly things down."

Anonymous, I don't want to turn this thread into a political argument, but I'd like to go on record stating that I'm a hard-core, small-government conservative, and I live in the city and I love it. Maybe I'm reading too much into your post, but it sounds like you're implying that "conservative = racist", and if so, I take exception to that. I also don't believe that conservatives are slowing down the growth of our urban core. I know many liberals and conservatives living the suburbs, and their attitudes (positive and negative) toward the city don't seem to correlate with their political opinions. Many of Cincinnati's development issues (ie the 10 year wait for The Banks and the current opposition to the streetcar plan) are the result of politcal grandstanding and lack of cooperation by local officials of every political persuasion, not just one. The revitalization of our urban areas is essential to our future success and we need to focus on what needs to be accomplished now, rather than naively assigning blame to others with a different political viewpoint.

Again, Citykin, I've really enjoyed these last few posts about home size, quality, & age. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...


I think you raise a good point. Being a conservative and being passionate about the city are absolutely not mutually exclusive.

However, if you were to ask me if Liberals were generally more inclined to dig this sort of stuff, then I would say yes.

The simple fact is free-market economics let our urban core get the way it is, and the free-market isn't going to fix the problem on it's own (at least not at first). You need better public schools and tax-subsidized mass transit (not of the bus variety) among other things. Not many conservatives care about either of those two issues.

Just my 2 cents

Jimmy_James said...

^ Cool anonymous. I agree with that.

Anonymous said...

I know that many things attributed to sprawl and urban emigration. One though has been rectified....that being the capital gains tax on buying a lower priced house. Since just after WWII, the law deferred any capital gain on a personal home if the seller bought one at a higher price. This naturally steered people to buy "up and out." This law existed for almost 50 years until a bipartisan effort resulted in the passage of a law which effectively did away with the accrued gain's exposure to a tax if one bought down. People need to be forced by government policy and leadership to right this ship. As the costs of building new with infrastructure etal. always being there, only continuing the ignoring of these will leave us to fail.