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“WE LIKE TO THINK OF BUILDINGS as being permanent, unchanging. They feel permanent; after all, it is part of a building’s basic purpose, reliably sheltering us from the elements. But the unfortunate truth is that most buildings do not last long. It might shock you to learn that a 2001 U.S. Census report found that the average age of a residential building was a mere thirty-two years. In neighboring Canada, the average age of all non-residential buildings falls just short of eighteen years. Nor is this perpetual youth—a symptom in part of wear and tear, constant development, and demolition—restricted to everyday buildings; it’s true of capital-A architecture as well. Many Modernist buildings, even those designed by important architects, are considered obsolete after only two or three decades.
Fortunately, for some buildings, the large institutions behind Capital-A architecture and Capital-P preservation devote considerable time and resources to safeguarding the architectural legacies of Great Artists, or the buildings that once housed Great People or played spectator to Great Events. These are the fewer than 2,600 buildings deemed National Historic Landmarks, those structures which, according to the qualifying criteria: “have the strongest association with a significant event in our nation’s history, that best [tell] the story of an individual who played a significant role in the history of our nation, that are an exceptional representation of a particular building or engineering method, technique, or building type, and/or have the potential to yield new and innovative information about the past through archeology.”
In reality, even this loftiest of federal designations lacks the teeth to prevent significant alteration to historic buildings: property owners are free to make any changes (including demolition) unless doing so is prohibited or restricted by local law. And the more common designation, inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, which covers over ninety thousand sites, still leaves many buildings vulnerable to demolition or significant modification—all the better to please the rentier class. In an article debunking “common myths” on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, homeowners with listed properties are reassured about the supremacy of private ownership over history: “Some people may consider your house to be a national treasure, but it’s still your house. You can rent it out, lease it, transfer it, will it away, or dispose of it in any way that tickles your fancy.” Local and state historic registers offer more stringent legal protection of their listed buildings, but these designations apply on an intensely politicized case-by-case basis. Often, this means old buildings are fussed over, or otherwise protected by laws and cushy tax benefits, in an effort “to preserve community character,” implying that newer buildings have none.”
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