The vanished cityscape
During the 20th century Bloomington lost a major portion of its older housing stock and commercial buildings. The blighted corridor along south College and Walnut was once lined with gracious homes and trees, but today there are more parking lots than structures through that area. Smaller towns in the vicinity (Spencer, for instance) retain a far greater number of Victorian buildings than Bloomington did. Ironically, this might be because Bloomington’s economy was better than that of the smaller towns. Touring through England some years ago, visiting the medieval villages of the Cotswolds, the tour guide explained that the reason these places reached the modern day without being massively rebuilt was because they had been so poor for so long. Economic vitality equals the ability to demolish and rebuild, unfortunately.
Part of the problem was that for much of the 20th century, no one respected old buildings. Victorian houses were viewed as bloated monstrosities that would be better off torn down and converted into parking lots. The association of Victorian houses with decrepitude, creepiness and even ghoulishness pervades mid-20th-century culture: think of the isolated house in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” or even the houses in “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters.”
There was no preservation movement in Bloomington until the 1970s, when two things happened. First, the once-elegant mansion of a Civil War general was demolished in order to erect a drab strip-mall structure near the top of Walnut Street. Secondly, the city proposed to create a west side bypass along West Third, which would have taken out the 1850s Paris Dunning house and the entire half-mile of bungalows behind it. The demolition of the general’s home could not be stopped, but the bypass project along West Third was so significant that it galvanized the entire neighborhood, which rose up en masse to oppose the changes in a Jane Jacobs-style revolution. That’s the reason why four-lane Third Street abruptly narrows to two lanes at Rogers: it’s because Prospect Hill’s fledgling neighborhood association firmly said “Not in our neighborhood.”
Today things are different. The city’s demolition-delay ordinance allows the Historic Preservation Commission to weigh the value of any house that is proposed for partial or full demolition. Bloomington Restorations, Inc., refurbishes old houses and sells them to good owners, thus reinvigorating core neighborhoods. And on Facebook, more than 770 people have friended “Bloomington Fading,” a husband-and-wife team who document vanished buildings and splice them into modern photos of cityscapes to show what our streets used to look like. I can’t count the number of times in the past three weeks that friends have asked me “Have you seen ‘Bloomington Fading’ on Facebook? What they’re doing is just SO COOL.”
This surge of interest obviously signals a groundswell of support for local history and historic preservation. That’s good for many reasons: old buildings are “green” buildings; old buildings contain embedded energy that’s of greater value intact than destroyed; it costs significantly less to rehab than it does to demolish and build anew; old buildings provide architectural interest and aesthetic diversity. In short, it simply makes far more sense to save buildings than to tear them down.