Saturday, February 4, 2012

Now You See It, Now You Don't (2-B)

So yesterday was the day that the last part of the Seneca County Courthouse came tumbling down.

Not surprisingly, that last part was the central clock tower, seen here being nibbled away on Thursday:

According to the news story that accompanied these photos, the Art Deco tower top replaced the ornate 1884 original in 1943 - not the 1950s as I had speculated here. It was supposed to be the prelude to a general modernization that never took place. Not only was this replacement some 30 feet shorter than the original, it was also about as stylistically jarring as seeing 1959 Cadillac fins fused onto a Model T. If it taught a lesson to other cities contemplating a similar "renovation" I guess it served its purpose.

And even ugly has its place. Much of history is ugly. We haul it away and forget it at our peril.

Not that I always felt this way. In reviewing my own personal history I seem to remember finding demolitions quite the exciting event when I was young. There's a drama and an excitement associated with heavy metal balls and claws tearing into brick and stone and glass and metal right in front of your eyes that's hard to experience any other way. You learn just how much damage one man with a machine can do. And you learn how buildings are put together as they're stripped away, bit by bit. Perhaps best of all is the visual absurdity of intact doors suddenly opening onto empty space, and stairs suddenly leading up to empty sky, and terribly stupid signs pointing the way to places that are disappearing even as those signs point on and on in their ignorance.

And of course as a child all that drama was coupled with high anticipation as to what might come next. "Out with the old and in with the new!" you know.


"Higher and higher!"

"Every day in every way, things are getting better and better!"

Except that after a few years or decades of watching demolitions, you start to realize that that just isn't true.

Not always, anyway.

And perhaps - in some sense, on some level - never.

Information as well as brick and mortar is destroyed with every demolition and it's a wise person indeed who knows exactly which information we can dispense with without regret.

And even the brick and mortar has its value as an enduring symbol, if nothing else, of the countless hours of labor expended by the many people who drew up the plans and ordered the materials and hauled it to the site and then put it all together in a functional and often quite pleasing way. The ease with which one man with one machine can quickly reduce it all to rubble is sobering, to say the least.

Among other things it raises the question: What might one man with a machine do next?

When I was about 8 I watched a crew tear down a house in my neighborhood by hand rather than by machine. Well, by hand and crowbar. It was a slow process, to be sure, but it allowed them to salvage everything salvageable. And it seemed somehow much more humane. More respectful of the labor that went into the house in the first place... and more respectful of all the people who had kept the house clean and in working order in all the years since.

Does anybody still demolish buildings that way? Not that I know of. Who has the time? Or the willingness? Or the need? Labor costs more than diesel. And I'm sure it's safer to take a building down from a distance than from within. Nonetheless, it seems to me that something is being lost in the process. Maybe the same thing that's lost when one goes from tending a back yard garden to using an air conditioned combine to harvest 400 acres of corn before dark. What is it? A deeper connection to life? To reality?

Or does watching the one-man demolition of a 126-year-old courthouse provide us with the opportunity to connect with the deepest reality of all? You know - the one that says that the courthouse players are long gone now, and the stage is quite properly being struck.

But if we don't take the plays of the past very seriously, why should we pay any attention to those of today?

In any case, and for what it's worth, you can find an interesting video summary of the demolition here:

Deeper issues aside, it's always fun to watch the colorful pixels dance, isn't it?


  1. I can't watch the video now because my bandwidth is maxed out listening to the Prairie Home Companion.
    We have a church downtown that was discombobulated to the last phase shown in your second picture, more or less, but they saved the bell tower and now it's the center of a small office suite building.
    It was a Catholic church two blocks from another Catholic church and the diocese couldn't afford to maintain both of them during and enduring dwindling donors and donations.
    The church that survived is the one I was baptized in. I guess I was blessed.

  2. Glory glory hallelujah. Progress marches on.
    I watched the video. "Shame on you. Shame on you, sir!"
    The most interesting part was the back hoe using a long steel I-beam to poke out indivdual stone chunks.
    I'm surprised there weren't any air monitors present. I'm sure they liberated a lot of toxic stuff in the dust and debris. Hell, they have to hang toxic-material containing curtains just to remove my old front door because it's cheaper than testing to confirm there's no lead in the varnish.
    Now I'm regretting that I typed all this blather and wishing I had just typed, "Why didn't somebody consult with al Qaeda for a more efficient way to bring down the building?"