Old public buildings plagued by more than leaks

Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things …

– Mark Wigley,

Columbia University

As our own Steve Crawford reported last week, the architectural and functional masterpiece known as the Richmond County jail (aka “The 401”) has been quietly emptied of most inmates and now awaits an uncertain future.

When asked, the sheriff shrugs like a man imagining a room full of dynamite and long fuse.

Let me bring the matches.

I have long maintained that our jail be removed not because it encourages escape attempts, but because it justifies them.

Not only is it architecturally unimpressive but it also defies repair. It’s a mess and has been for a quarter-century. The roof leaks rainwater; the bottom-floor ceilings leak raw sewage.

Well, it turns out, we’re not alone in suffering from the public buildings of the 1970s and ’80s. It’s nationwide, according to The New York Times.

In Goshen, N.Y., for example, the city hall “has long been plagued by a leaky roof and faulty ventilation system and, more recently, by mold.”

A picture of the building shows what looks like a jagged stack of tan boxes.

Still, sometimes such ugliness has its champions.

In Chicago, preservationists have been fighting to save Prentice Women’s Hospital, a concrete, cloverleaf-shape 1974 structure.

In New Haven, Conn., the 1972 Veterans Memorial Coliseum was demolished in 2007 despite a campaign to rescue it.

Some of this type of architecture even has a name – Brutalism, a style associated with the Swiss architect Le Corbusier – and one that tends to “produce weighty monoliths like the FBI headquarters in Washington,” according to the article.

One critic interviewed by the Times called Brutalist buildings “absolutely hideous, like scouring pads on the retina.”

I might not feel that strongly because I also admit there is some caution against tearing down old eyesores.

“There was a time when people weren’t concerned about saving Victorian houses, bungalows, Art Deco buildings – all were not favored styles,” said John Hildreth, a vice president at the National Trust. “You have to focus on the significance of the building and not its style, because styles will come and go.”

I see what he’s getting at. Take, for example, another 1970s Augusta building, the main post office downtown on Eighth Street. Forty years ago, it was considered sleek and modern. Now it’s sort of boring and blah.

We tore down the beautiful and historically significant Union (train) Station to make room for it. Why? Maybe because we thought it boring and old. Maybe we knew the train era was dead.

Or maybe, just maybe, the roof leaked.

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