Category: Ruin Porn

BGT deTours: Oldham House

The Blue Grass Trust’s deTours  is a group of young professionals (and the young at heart).  The program provides behind-the-scenes tours of  historic buildings, places, and sites in central Kentucky.   BGT deTours are free and open to the public. They occur on the first Wednesday of every month.

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Five bay, 2 story Federal Style house ca.1835 at 245 South Limestone.

This month we were able to tour a Federal style house widely reported as the first built by a free African American in Lexington.  Though it was extensively renovated in recent years and retains little of its original interior decoration due to prior years of neglect, the building is a remarkable link to the even more remarkable story of an even more remarkable individual.

These are the facts:

In 1826, Lexington was a major slave trading center. The same year, a slave named Samuel A. Oldham bought his freedom.

Working as a barber, Oldham was able to save enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife, Daphney Harris Oldham, and their children in 1830.

By 1835, he was able to build them a large and elegant home less than a mile from Cheapside, the largest slave-trading location in Kentucky and one of the most well known slave market districts in the South.

The property was sold in 1839 and records from 1840 show that Oldham had purchased the freedom of at least three more individuals.

gilpin masonry before

The Samuel Oldham House before renovations began. Image via Gilpin Masonry

In 2004, the house at 245 South Limestone sat vacant, condemned, and slated for demolition, when it was “discovered” by the playwright, Ain Gordon. Gordon was visiting Lexington by invitation of LexArts, which asked him to delve into the cities past as a part of his series, In This Place…  Gordon’s goal was to “find forgotten historic stories and theatrically remember them, rescuing them from a vanished past.”

“I started walking around downtown and saw all of those historic plaques,” said Gordon. “My first reaction was, it’s all been taken care of. There’s nothing for me to do. This town is covering its history.”

But then he started to think about the plaques and how in most cases they couldn’t possibly tell the whole story of what happened at each site. That’s when he noticed 245 South Limestone, which didn’t have a marker despite being obviously older than some buildings that were marked. He did some research and reported that he’d found the first house built by a freed African American in Lexington.  (According to 1978 National Register nomination of the South Hill Historic Distirct, this is not the case. Michael Clark a “house joiner and freed man of color,” built a log cabin in the same neighborhood in 1807 and later replaced it with a brick house in 1818. The caveat may be that Oldham was the first to both own the land and house – it is unclear).

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A framed newspaper article describing the history of the Oldham House and Callaway’s purchase of the property proudly hangs in the “break room” of the downstairs office space.

“Following a multi-year development process, including numerous interviews with local historians and archival research, Gordon wrote and developed “In This Place…,” which imagines the Oldham’s lives and 19th century Lexington through the eyes of Samuel Oldham’s wife, Daphney. In the play (that stars Michelle Hurst), Daphney comes back as a ghost striving to remember her “living days,” and her history. Interwoven images of her after-life and a phantom Lexington populated by the famous and the disappeared, a land where every building that ever stood — still stands. In fact, Gordan’s efforts and the original production saved the Oldham house from demolition. “In This Place …” imagines the full story behind these bare facts from Daphney’s perspective and underscores via a quote: “A forgotten man is still better remembered than his wife,'” according to the Philladelphia Tribune.

In 2006, the property was purchased by Coleman Calloway III in order to save it from demolition and preserve its history. The building was in a sad state. It featured evidence of vagrant camps, small fires, vandalism, and looting.

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The new historical marker is the perfect place for a mini-preservationist to hide.

The the same year, Gordon’s play, In This Place… premiered  in Lexington and a “new-concept historic marker [was] unveiled at the house. Rather than try to encapsulate the history into a paragraph like the familiar bronzed signs dotting downtown do, the new marker direct[s] viewers to a Web site full of research Gordon did while writing In This Place ….”  Reportedly, the site also showcased “video from and for the play’s production shot by Lexington documentary filmmaker Joan Brannon.”  The historical marker still stands in front of the house, unfortunately, the website http://www.OldhamHouse.org no longer exists less than 6 years later.

Gilpin Masonry

“We stripped the paint, replaced the mortar and rebuilt the chimneys.” – Gilpin Masonry

Calloway did a remarkable job renovating the building for modern day use.  The house is located less than a block from Lexington’s central business district in a highly sought after high traffic location, therefore Calloway adapted the first floor for office space and created a spacious two bedroom/two bath apartment on the second level.

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First floor office space.

Original interior elements were maintained when possible and most interior changes to the floor plan are reversible so that it could easily be returned to a one family dwelling in the future.

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Spacious living room in the apartment occupying the second floor.

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Modern kitchen in the upstairs apartment.

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The original grande central staircase currently leads to nowhere – the apartment is accessed by way of a modern stairway at the back of the building. The wall at the top of the original stairs is designed to be removed easily.

It is currently on the market for a respectable $725k (a rumored loss to Calloway, who thinks of the project as as true labor of love).

To see posts about past deTours click here or visit the Kaintuckeean.  If you’re in Lexington and would like to come to a future deTour or learn more about the program, check out deTours’ Facebook page for details.

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Ruin Porn

Ruin porn is an artistic movement characterized by photographs of the blight, decay, and abandonment of structures in post-industrial cities, most notably Detroit.  It is a trend that seems ubiquitous and is only growing.  It was named Trend of the Year in 2011 by Architzer, the web’s fastest growing database of architecture.  Type “ruin porn” into any search engine (even Pinterest!) and millions of results pop up within seconds.  It can be found in museums and galleries, in newspapers, and on TV news.   So what is with the provocative name? Why are so many people into this trend? Is it good or is it bad?

Why “pornography”?

Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, image from “The Ruins of Detroit” (2005- ) (image from thestapleton.com)

por·nog·ra·phy 3: the depiction of acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction < the pornography of violence>

Ruin porn elicits an emotional reaction from the viewer – as does the word pornography. Both the term and the movement are tinged with sensationalism. They are both considered a guilty pleasure.   There is also a sense that these photographs are being taken by outsiders and that the photographs are exploitative.   People who don’t have to deal with the effects of the urban decay they photograph swoop into an economically depressed area, get their images, leave, and then show everyone what they saw for their own personal gain.

The word pornography is attention grabbing.  It gets press. The Germans have a word for a love of ruins and abandoned places. They call it ruinenlust.  Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite the same, does it?  I really can’t see ruinenlust grabbing headlines the way Ruin Porn has.

What is the appeal of ruins and decay?

https://i0.wp.com/www.feministe.us/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/ruins-of-detroit_marchand-and-meffre_8.jpg

The ruined Spanish-Gothic interior of the United Artists Theater in Detroit. The cinema was built in 1928 by C Howard Crane, and finally closed in 1974. Photograph: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Germans love it. Americans love. The Romantics of the early 19th century were fascinated by decay and ruins. Painters of the Renaissance obsessed over Grecian ruins… But why?

Done right, the images are beautiful, provocative, and nostalgic. They stir the emotions.  They draw you in and peak your curiosity.  They beg the questions, “where, why, how?”  (Don’t believe me? Check out abandonedamerica.us).

Psychologically, ruin porn images are appealing because they are startling.  According to Tim Edensor, a professor of geography at Manchester Metropolitan University, they “offer an escape from excessive order.”  It takes your brain more effort to sort out what its seeing, and it enjoys the challenge.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the term “ruin porn” because of its sensationalism and its silent accusation of wrong-doing, I am a fan of the genre.  I find the images arresting. They elicit an emotional response from me – one of nostalgia and wistfulness.  As a preservationist, it troubles me to see an historical structure crumbling due to neglect.  At the same time these images offer a unique look at historical spaces.  The deconstructive narrative of the images is as informative as it is beautiful. Flaking paint layers, crumbling plaster, exposed structural elements – all reveal something about the space and how it has been used.  The debris remaining in a space also offers clues about how it was used and who used it.  Ruin porn offers an uncurated link to the past.

Harmful or Helpful?

Old Courthouse Rotunda Lexington, KY

Ruin porn is more than an artistic movement. It is a comment on society.  Post-industrial cities are falling to ruin because of a changed economic climate that has given birth to the “rust belt.”  Ruin porn highlights how this economic change has effected the built environment.  Its critics claim ruin porn is condescending to the residents of the rust belt.  Ruin porn ignores them altogether – there is rarely a human element in a ruin porn image.  Therefore, ruin porn is not an accurate portrayal of the cities in which they live.  Citizens  have pushed back with ant-ruin porn rhetoric and and projects that actively  combat these misconceptions, like Can’t Forget the Motor City, a collaborative photo-project showcasing the vibrant culture of Detroit.  These cities have more to offer than urban decay.

Proponents of ruin porn believe in its possibility.  According to Richey Piiparinen of Rust Wire, ruin porn “outed” ruin. It pulled back the sheets and exposed the blight caused by a failed  system.  “… By outing and framing it—not to mention capturing the inherent beauty in broken things—Ruin Porn exposed the  failure and decay, thus clearing the secrecy, the shame, and leaving perceptual room to see less emptiness and more space.”  By raising awareness, ruin porn has the potential to change the way America responds to the economic failure of its cities.

Ruin porn has attracted tourists to cities – both foreign and American. It  has brought artists and professionals in search of urban decay.  Edwin Gardner calls this “intellectual disaster tourism.”  In a poll last month, the Huffington Post asked, “does photographing urban decay actually aid the communities at stake?” I think the simple answer is yes. Tourists spend money in the communities they visit – on food, accommodations,  transportation and maybe even souvenirs.

I agree that ruin porn has exposed decay and blight. I believe the awareness it has raised can save important historical structures.  I also believe that ruin porn documents structures that might otherwise have escaped notice; ruin porn photographs have the possibility of being useful to future research. For those reasons and more, I am a fan of ruin porn.

What do you think? Is ruin porn friend or foe?

The Olympics and Preservation II: Abandoned or Demolished

Sunday, the 2012 Summer Olympics went out with a big British bang. The closing ceremonies included Peter Pettigrew Winston Churchill reciting Shakespeare and other wonderful absurdness. But what happens to the 500 acre, $760 million Olympic Park now?

The Olympic Committee  promised that the park would become a legacy. The buildings that once showcased and housed the best athletes in the world will not be abandoned, but will be used to benefit the community.

In yesterday’s post, I discussed some success stories: former Olympic facilities that have been maintained and are still in use as sports and culture facilities or as housing. This not only  preserves these important cultural assets, but also provides economic benefits to communities.

Unfortunately, not all cities are able or willing to continue to use former Olympic facilities. Some cities have abandoned the facilities, while others have demolished them to make way for new development. The following are a few examples.

Demolished

In London, the 1908 Olympics’  White City Stadium or “Great Stadium” was used for several exhibitions, athletics, grey hound racing, and other events (including the 1966 World Cup) until 1985  when it was demolished to make way for the BBC Broadcast Centre Building. Although demolishing such a storied structure isn’t a preservationist’s dream, the BBC made an effort to commemorate the site. The 1908 Olympic athlete’s are listed on the side of the building and the finishing line is marked on the sidewalk.

White City Stadium via The Telegraph

 

 

Berlin’s Deutschlandhalle, where the boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting events for the 1936 Olympics were held, was demolished in 2011. Built by Hitler, it was once the largest sports arena in the world and was the site for large Nazi rallies. It was replaced by a conference and exhibition center slated to open next year.

A demolition company explodes the support beams and columns in the roof of the Deutschlandhalle: Nazi sports stadium demolished in Berlin

Berlin’s Deutchlandhalle demolition via The Telegraph

 

 

The original Wembley Stadium was constructed in 1923. It hosted the British Empire Exhibition, several world cup finals, the 1985 Live Aid concert, as well as the 1948 Olympics.  Controversially, it was demolished in 2003. The new Wembley Stadium opened on the same site in 2007.

Demolition work on the famous twin towers in 2003

Demolition of Wembley Stadium in 2003 via BBC

 

 

Abandoned

Though the Olympic Stadium built for the 1994 Summer Olympics in Athens is well-maintained and still used for sporting event, other Athens venues have been abandoned, including the beach volleyball stadium, the training pools, the Taekwondo and handball arena, and the softball field.

Athens Volleyball Stadium via i09.com

 

 

1984 Sarajevo Olympic Village via oobject.com

 

 

1936 Berlin Olympic Village via The Telegraph

 

 

Just 17 months after the Beijing Olympics, some Olympic venues were already overgrown and dilapidated, including the $750,000 BMX track.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics BMX Venue 17 months later

2008 Beijing BMX Track via BMXnews.com

 

 

It could definitely be argued that not all Olympic venues can or should be preserved.  However, it seems an awful waste of time, money, and resources to invest in these facilities only to tear them down or abandon them.  A greener and more economically beneficial alternative is almost always the reuse of an existing structure.

I hope London can make use of their multimillion dollar investment in the future.  But at the very least, I hope that promises are kept and the facilities are not abandoned. Abandoned and neglected sites not only do not benefit communities but can be harmful. Abandoned buildings can be dangerous and cause nearby property values to plummet.