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It's Your Funeral

Lord & Taylor's closing should be the epitaph for bad redevelopment policy

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Architecture is often associated with regret, and I don't just mean the sort that arises over, say, the nauseating blue color of the Cultural Trust's new garage. Even in prehistoric times, grave markers and burial mounds demonstrated that building to express sadness over loss is nearly as fundamental a need as shelter itself. Much more elaborate cultural forms grew out of this basic action. Even today, among America's most revered architectural monuments are structures like the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which mourn drastic changes in the national psyche along with lost lives.
In Pittsburgh, fortunately, we have no such tragic death toll to mourn. But architecture and regret still reverberate in the built environment, as some recent events make clear.

Just look at Lord & Taylor.

When the department store came to town three years ago, its corporate parent, the May Company, famously despoiled the landmark interior of the former Mellon Bank on Smithfield Street over the protests of preservation activists and everyday people. The structure had been built in 1924 to be, as Mellon Bank then claimed, "the finest building used solely for banking purposes in the United States." To the delight of generations of Pittsburghers, 20 marble columns, each 62 feet high, lined the interior banking hall. Mellon could have built a profitable modern high-rise on the site (as it later did next door), but instead, the company chose to use the 2,500-year-old language of classical architecture to convey lasting value.

Ironically, the current generation of Mellon Bank bean-counters, to say nothing of the Murphy administration, couldn't recognize lasting value in architecture -- or in much else, for that matter. So they sacrificed the building for short-term gain, in the form of a heavily subsidized department store. Lord & Taylor bought the building and reconfigured its irreplaceable interior as several cramped floors of gypsum board and plastic laminate. The appropriately nicknamed "Cathedral of Earning" became an ongoing generic trunk sale for next season's fashions.

Of course, even the promised gains failed to materialize. Lord & Taylor recently announced, to no one's surprise, that the store is under-performing. They are packing up and leaving town. And there will be no Everything-I-Ever-Needed-to-Know-I-Learned-in-Kindergarten-style putting things back they way they found them. The banking hall is gone for good, or, more accurately, for incompetence. No one builds like that anymore. No one has the skill or the money.

But to admit that the banking hall is a terrible loss is to open the door to other regrets. Caring about landmark architecture, which invariably shames all but the very best recent construction, means acknowledging the decay in Pittsburgh's industrial, financial and political leadership. Indeed, nothing says "civilization in decline" quite like sacrificing something lasting in favor of something ephemeral. But rather than face the unglamorous realities of what we hope is a temporary downturn, many of us are in a protracted state of denial. Our current fixation with department stores is more like substance-abuse problem than a serious redevelopment strategy. We just hawked a family heirloom for a quick fix. Even though the buzz disappeared surprisingly quickly, we're still looking for the next one. But isn't the point to face up to your regrets rather than try to escape them?

When English travelers visited Rome in the 18th century, they viewed the decaying ruins with a sense of wonder at their size, but also a sense of astonishing loss that such a grand civilization had disappeared. They called that sense the sublime, but it contains a strong element of regret. They didn't give in to embarrassment, denial or expediency and rip the ruins down. Rather, many of them returned home and constructed new miniature artificial ruins in their country gardens, seeking to evoke the same feeling and open new chapters in the history of architectural and landscape design.

This is certainly not to suggest that building a bunch of new fake Mellon Banks will solve our problems -- any more than building a new fake Forbes Field has done thus far. It does suggest, though, that our architectural legacy, whether immediately practical or not, should be a source of pride rather than shame. We're long overdue to reconsider our widespread practice of flattening every historic building that gets in the way of a few quick bucks.

Tearing down our landmark architecture is a cause of our regrets, not a solution to them.

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