A Proper Lament for Fading Mid-Century Suburbia
When I visit my old home in New Jersey, I usually drive down a semi-rural stretch of U.S. Route 202. It used to be totally rural. I pass the Sunset Pancake House, boarded up for as long as I can remember, and the living anachronism next door, the Sunset Motel, its antique neon sign still lit and a station wagon or two parked out front.
There used to be two other motels along the same route: one was replaced by a shiny Holiday Inn Express; the other was torn down but never replaced, and only the signpost remains.
Along U.S. Route 22, closer in to New York City, there’s a mediocre hibachi joint that replaced the somewhat famous “Leaning Tower of Pizza” restaurant. And my favorite theme park as a child, Bowcraft Playland of Scotch Plains, is slated to be razed and turned into another hulking apartment block with a pastel facade and fake balcony railings.
Mid-century buildings, and their futures, inspire a variety of opinions, to say the least. The historic preservation scholar Howard Mansfield wrote, in his book The Bones of the Earth, of the Americana that still lines Route 22: “On days when you thought the Republic was rotted to its sills, these buildings stepped forward as exhibits….They were ugly; they were a dead end.”
Others are more sanguine about the future of aging American sprawl. In a fascinating master’s thesis titled “The Death and Life of Great American Strip Malls,” architecture student Matthew Manning suggests that strip malls and other popular roadside architecture are indeed of historical value and deserve to be treated seriously by preservationists. Nonetheless, preservationism usually loses when it comes suburban Americana, as it does in almost every sphere.
Perhaps such buildings were ugly, and few have aged well. There is something ironic about reading serenity and simplicity into them, when at least some 1950s New Jerseyans surely railed against bulldozing more farmland and covering it over with another gaudy neon-signed motel. Why is the motel more worthy of nostalgia than the farmland?
And yet even artifacts like this, having survived so long, deserve entry into the club. They are not just old buildings; they are little pieces of a way of life that has been superseded, but should not be forgotten. It seems silly, but it might also be valuable, to meditate on how a family of five or six and their dog could fit happily into a motel room smaller than an average New York City apartment. Old buildings can teach us humility.
The debate over historic preservation is ultimately more than one of aesthetics; it is one of cultural memory and even morality. It might be a sin to tear down a building, and sometimes demolition is truly cultural vandalism. Yet other than demolition and replacement, what realistic option is there for much of our built infrastructure? Sunset Motel is no Chartres Cathedral or colonial Jamestown, and it only appears unique because it is one of the last of its kind. We cannot force owners to keep languishing businesses open in perpetuity, nor can we turn every postwar motel and restaurant into a living museum. It is more the idea of such places which inspires nostalgia, not the buildings as they really exist. In all likelihood, Sunset Motel is not a time capsule of the Dick Van Dyke era, but a dingy hovel adorned with faded wallpaper and smelling of stale tobacco smoke.
Our society has developed mourning rituals for people—we have not developed them for buildings, or more broadly for fading artifacts of culture. There is something disconcerting about finding our built landscape unceremoniously transformed, often without warning. We are largely past the point where replacing one building with another confers any real benefit but satisfying the fickle interests of developers. The futurist Alvin Toffler wrote—in the 70s!—that only in America could a shopper, upon walking down the wrong street, conclude that the store had simply been torn down overnight.
Perhaps we need a “wake” and a “funeral” when it comes time for demolition. A day or two before the bulldozers come, the old building could be opened up for viewing, and the owner could take a few hours to do a final tour of his business. Pictures could be taken, memories could be shared. Some small consideration for the patrons and the community of which the business was a part could be shown.
No clear line can be drawn between the demolition of aging Americana and our existential loneliness and rootlessness that lead to distinctively American phenomena like angry talk radio and even mass shootings. Demolition is not murder. Yet if American life is sometimes water torture, the ever-changing roadside landscape, and the unceremonious ripping away of little pieces of our communities and their histories, is surely one more drop.