It’s really not a question of whether the building was worthy of designation,” then-alderman Edwin P. Fifielski said of the Chicago Stock Exchange Building in 1971, months before it was demolished for a modern office building, 30 N. LaSalle. “It was a matter of weighing the aesthetic value of the building with the money involved to buy and maintain it. It would be true of any landmark in the city.”
And with that, Chicago has famously wrecked much great architecture—and even leveled entire neighborhoods. On the surface, it (unfortunately) makes sense: Who’d want to be stuck with an aging building that’s expensive to maintain—regardless of its architectural import—when a new and efficient structure can be built in its place?
But a recent book, Obsolescence: An Architectural History, by Daniel M. Abramson, currently director of architectural studies at Tufts University, challenges those ideas. It explains that building obsolescence is an invented notion, created by Chicago real estate experts in the 1890s as a way to justify a near-ruthless push for profitable new construction. And once these ideas took root, they’d go global in the 20th century, a wild reshaping of cities that put older buildings and neighborhoods in constant peril of demolition.
Obsolescence shows how the real estate men, led by the Chicago-based National Organization of Building Owners and Managers (now the Building Owners and Managers Association), were largely guessing when they acted like actuaries and determined building life spans. Their actions helped cost the city treasures like Holabird & Roche’s 14-story Tacoma Building, an early steel-framed skyscraper that was demolished in 1929 after 40 years. “Soon afterward it was replaced by a forty-eight-story tower, which could more lucratively exploit the site in its proprietor’s interests,” Abramson writes.
The impact of all this rippled far beyond Chicago. In the 1920s the National Organization of Building Owners and Managers reached out to newspapers, bankers, and public officials across America in order to spread the notion of building obsolescence. During this time, Detroit wrecked a 15-year-old downtown hotel using obsolescence calculations perfected in Chicago. Federal tax laws were changed to take building depreciation into account. Nationally, real estate leaders in the 20s openly claimed new homes had only 50-year life spans. Notions of building obsolescence expanded after World War II, with the methodology tricked out a bit to show how entire neighborhoods could be deemed outmoded and thereafter demolished.
Abramson has some good news, though: the sustainability movement, along with architectural preservation, is pushing obsolescence-based building demolition out of favor. Globally, architects, the public, and elected officials are advocating reuse over demolition, he argues. But he wisely cautions that sustainability’s dependence on numbers and data could be as restrictive and problematic as those that supported obsolescence.
The wrecking ball still swings a bit freely in Chicago, with building obsolescence given as the reason. But Abramson’s book offers an important rebuttal. v