We Don't Build Them Like We Used To (And Thank God?)
An unambiguous case where newer is better
Baby Jim’s, a burger and milkshake joint, was a classic, long-running business in Culpeper, Virginia—one of my favorite towns—dating back to 1947 and residing for most of its life in the bottom level of an 1875 apartment building.
Here’s the building and the neon sign:
The building was catastrophically damaged in a fire back in July, and was completely demolished in October (the sign was saved).
That’s a real shame. There’s a chance the business will return in another space, but there’s so much history in that spot. Places like this are part of people’s mental maps of places. And when these legacy structures go, they’re rarely replaced with something that looks and feels the same.
But maybe that’s a good thing.
I want to share a long excerpt from a local news story about the fire:
The worst of the fire damage is in Baby Jim’s, as well as in the walls and attic of the residential portion of the building, the deputy chief said, describing how the fire traveled upstairs through walls built without fire stops. The entire building suffered heavy smoke and water damage.
“Once it was in the walls, we were chasing it from floor to floor,” Perryman said.
He stated Sunday’s fire illustrated a classic example of “balloon construction,” used on the 19th century structure. Pre-1940 homes were built without fire stops between the studs, he said, of horizontal pieces of wood placed to slow fire, used in today’s construction.
Construction methods in the late 1800s also used lather and plaster instead of drywall, which had yet to be invented. In the walls at Baby Jim’s, small two-inch strips of wood were nailed horizontally inside the building and plaster applied on them.
“This dried to be super hard and is quite the exercise to break or cut into these walls when searching for fire in void spaces,” Perryman said.
“These type structures hold heat, like an oven almost, until a wall is breached, or we can ventilate via the windows.”
The fire looks to have started towards the north side of Baby Jim’s and traveled up the wall to the floors above and into the root/attic area, he added. This happened on at least two sides of the building. Firefighters had to peel away the metal roof to gain access to the fire, according to Perryman.
Plumes of smoke could be seen around downtown, large masses created by the heavy vintage materials used to construct the building — like real wood — burning hot, Perryman said.
Well, I wouldn’t want to live in a building like that.
This structure was solid as anything, even after nearly 150 years, and any number of small renovations and remodels. But that extremely solid design also meant that it was very difficult to put out the fire. Break through plaster, peel up the roof, dense smoke and intense fire from thick solid wood. I suppose fire stops could have been included holding all the other workmanship the same, but even then the fire might have been catastrophic to the structure (though less dangerous for any occupants). Thank God nobody did die. But 12 people, two of them children, were displaced.
A lot of safety regulations add cost to buildings—sprinklers, multiple stairwells, fire stops and firewalls. Probably many others. One way to respond to increases in construction costs is to not build. This is one factor in the reduced number of small-scale buildings like this one. Another way to handle increased costs is to build more units to spread out those costs. Once an expensive building element, like sprinklers, is triggered, it makes sense to build as much as you can until the next big regulation kicks in. Mid-sized buildings are reduced because they’re just on the “wrong” side of the sprinkler requirement; 5-over-1s are popular because they go right up to the point where all-masonry construction is triggered.
This increase in scale and size has effects on land use and the built environment, since it often doesn’t fit with the scale of traditional Main Streets. It also affects how solid, sturdy, or high-quality buildings feel. A lot of new buildings feel flimsy and cheap. They are probably not going to last anywhere near as long as these solid old workhorse buildings. They lack a lot of the “character”—idiosyncrasies or small imperfections—of old buildings. This can make them feel detached and impersonal.
Americans are paying ever more exorbitant prices for old housing that is, at best, subpar and, at worst, unsafe. Indeed, the real-estate market in the U.S. now resembles the car market in Cuba: A stagnant supply of junkers is being forced into service long after its intended life span….
many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it.
The first time I heard this argument, I didn’t like it. It’s hard to believe these flimsy new buildings are better. Cheap windows, paper-thin walls, builder-grade fixtures and finishes—they’re practically falling apart before you even move in! But that just isn’t true, overall. And the accumulation of deferred maintenance and, often, poorly done renovation work means that a lot of buildings that look great from the outside are in a deteriorated state and would be extremely expensive to fully renovate and modernize.
I’d like us to build more stuff—especially in old towns, like whatever will eventually replace the Baby Jim’s building—that fits in visually and aesthetically with the town.
Sometimes, this happens. There’s at least one new building in this Google Earth view of High Bridge, New Jersey’s Main Street, for example. Not bad!
But dislike of cheap new buildings with lackluster styling isn’t really a reason to glorify the very ordinary buildings of previous times, especially when a large number of them are fire traps like this one in Culpeper.
I definitely feel the tension here, between nostalgia and history and memory and mental maps on the one hand—the things that make a place feel settled and real and in continuity with itself over time—and the seemingly mundane and technocratic question of how to make sure these places also enjoy the benefits of decades of advancement in construction safety. In a lot of ways, this is a subset of the questions I think about in regard to development and urban growth in general.
What do you think?
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