Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nothing lasts forever -- especially in Madison

Doorway to Nowhere
Modern buildings are almost as mortal as their architects, and some are more mortal than others. Nobody is planning to tear down the Woolworth Building in New York. No one would dare demolish the U.S. Supreme Court Building. These are classics by architect Cass Gilbert, 1859-1934.

This arch is all that remains of a minor Gilbert classic, Madison Central High School, pictured in vfm4's 1915 postcard on the right. The school closed in 1969, and in 1986 it was blithely torn down to put up a parking lot. The arch was allowed to stay as a means of assuaging local preservationists, Central alumni and the occasional fan of Cass Gilbert -- an architect in the Beaux Arts tradition who was eclipsed by modernism but is now recognized as a groundbreaking American architect. Taking down the building was a tragic act of cultural vandalism in a city that all too often fails to value its treasures (see the Humanities Building controversy).

There's a nice line in Wikipedia about Gilbert's design philosophy that seems especially appropriate for the architect of a high school:
His public buildings in the Beaux Arts style reflect the optimistic American sense that the nation was the heir of Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanism.
Not exactly the world of George W. Bush, but there you are.

One of these days the demise of Cass Gilbert's presence in Madison is likely to be complete. The arch was almost torn down five years ago to make way for a new Madison Children's Museum. That didn't happen, but mainly because the Children's Museum found another location. What officials said at the time, as quoted in the Capital Times, was not encouraging.
The carved elements at the top of the arch could be preserved and incorporated into the new museum, he said. But because the brick is so deteriorated, the arch would fall apart if disturbed.
If it's that fragile, it's hard to imagine anybody investing much to curb the deterioration (which, as commenters noted at the other view I posted on Flickr, seems to be advancing rapidly). But, hey, that's no tragedy. (In the view of one city preservation planner, anyhow.)
But Katherine Rankin, city preservation planner, said it wouldn't be that big of a loss.

"It's a pleasant little feature. But keeping such a small remnant of a historic building isn't good preservation. I wouldn't be too sad to see it go," Rankin said.
In another context, Rankin might have a point. But in a city that knocks down its landmarks as casually as Madison does, her remarks could just as well be seen as a symptom of the problem, rather than the solution.

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