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December 04, 2009


Maintenance and other operating costs are always a major consideration for any new building. Yes, that marble was expensive, but not so much back in the day. And it hasn’t needed an ounce of maintenance since it was hung lo those many years painting, no repairing holes punched in it by the incautious or uncaring. And we’re undoubtedly talking major square footage there. One more thing: It will still be there doing its job long after YOU’RE planted in the ground, too, when somebody else will be wondering if it was worth it. They once built well to last and not just to show wretched extravagance; not so much now.


RAM is right. It's the same reason why shopping malls have marble floors, not porcelain or other tiles. The maintenance costs are extremely low and the lifespan is huge, even with heavy traffic.

I understand the argument for marble floors. And I understand the argument for putting marble (or other durable covers) on walls. An inch+ thick plate of marble covering a wall, however, strikes me as excessive. But whaddaya I know?

(BTW, I think you underestimate the costs of keeping marble on walls. Unlike marble floors, gravity is not your friend. There are a whole host of repairs and maintenance that need to be done to adhesives, supports, etc. And you have to do all that proactively because you don't want one of these slabs falling one someone.)

The stuff lining the walls in probably an inch thick for the strength. No modern high-tensile steel framework, remember?

If the building is ever torn down, I wonder if the marble could be reclaimed and sold for countertops and such, though marble, unlike granite, doesn't react well with some spills in the kitchen.

Back in the day, a committee of busybodies suggested NOT wasting all of that marble, but architect Howard Roarke threatened to blow up the building rather than compromise his vision.

I went to high school in Joliet, Illinois fifty years ago. The school that I attended was over fifty years old then. It is now over 100 years old and still in use and still looks great! The original hallways and stair treads are marble and the exterior facade is limestone. Despite over a century of heavy, teenager useage, it has held up well. I defy any structure built of plastic and concrete to hold up as long. The taxpayers received high value for their investment.

Von, you probably are aware that the function of the marble in your Old Building [i]is[/i] as "lining": i.e., that it is a facade over what are probably brick (or possibly, depending on the era) concrete walls?

An inch-thick covering slab may seem excessive today, but you have to remember that a century ago, that was about as thin as one was likely to get via the industrial processes in use in commercial quarrying.

I once owned an old dress, handstitched, circa 1860's. It was an immensley complicated outfit, with lots of tiny buttons in unexpected places to hold it together and hold it on a person. ( I couldn't wear it because it was made for a woman of five one or so). It included layers and layers of fabric, lace, ribbons, and god knows what all.

That was back when factories were jut beginning to get into the clothing buisnness. The lace, ribbons, and fabric were probably factoriy made but every stich in the dress was by hand.

I used to marvel ant at culture that relied on handmade clothes would have such elaborate women's fashions. 've seen enough photos from the Civil War era to know that my dress was not a rich lady's outfit. It was made for special ocassions, but not for a specially privleged person.

I su[pose part of the reason for marble halls and fancy handstitched dresses is that labor costs were so low. ANother factor is that buildings and clothes were investments. How likley is it that any of my better dresses will be around in one hundred years? No one would be interested in keeping them.

The marble may have structural play, or it may be easier to keep in place when it's wider, since it'd be slightly more stable. It also might just be that if the building really was one of the first skyscrapers to go up, they were THE buildings to build at that point, so they may have spared no expense. And building methods were different back then, look at the row houses in places like Brooklyn, as opposed to modern townhouses. 18" brick walls, hand-laid, that kind of thing. That's what makes them such valuable buildings for restoration and modification. We really don't build them like that these days.

There's also a chance that the marble played a role in fireproofing, depending on the code when the stairs were built. The marble also plays a structural role. Older buildings were massively over-engineered by today's standards. Engineers basically had to guess as far as load-bearing members, and as a result built in enormous tolerances. More recent buildings are built to tighter specifications and use less material, and in many cases are weaker for it.

if i were charged with the task of quarrying marble, sawing it into veneers a few millimeters thick, shipping those veneers a few hundred miles by rail and truck and mulecart, and installing them on walls, i think i might well say, "i foresee a lotta lotta breakage in transit. let's just go with a thicker panel. the material costs will be only trivially higher, since the cost is in the cutting and polishing. and thicker panels will actually survive the trip and the handling."

I'm guessing Jay C's explanation about quarrying techniques is the answer.

A common mistake - very hard to avoid even if you know about it - is to assume that everything built in the past was overbuilt and exceptionally solid. But it's a form of survivor's bias - most of the low-quality buildings from the past have collapsed or been demolished. Out in California a huge number of houses were basically shacks, single-walled wood buildings with only rudimentary facilities. Of course most of them were demolished in favor of more modern houses and buildings. The houses that survive are the ones built by the middle-class and the rich, which had much more solid construction.

I live in a (rented) 1915 brown shingle Craftsman built almost entirely from redwood - speaking of solidly built. Actually, redwood is a pretty poor interior trim wood because it's so soft, but it sounds good. It's not just the visible wood, though, but all the framing too. Compare that to the cheapest-possible-wood framing and, ahem, toxic Chinese drywall of modern construction and I think I can guess which one will still be around in 100 years.

The marble doesn't play a structural role - it covers only the bottom 6 feet of the stairwell. The rest is exposed (painted) plaster. I take Jay's point, however, regarding minimum thickennesses and Thullen's point that I should threaten to blow up the building. ..... wait, maybe I got that bit from Thullen wrong. ...

I've been in an electrical substation built in the 30s in Philadelphia that had marble staircases, meaning marble steps and walls. I don't know exactly how thick the marble was, but it was probably an inch, at least. Mind you, this a substation, not a public space. The only people going in there are engineers and electricians, and they're not going there to have tea, but to do utilitarian things in a utilitarian place containing big switches and circuit breakers and transformers and such. I think a number of commenters have made different points, all of which are true and do well to explain why things were built the way they were back in the day. Oh, and the handrails were made of brass. It's really cool, especially as substations go.

It reminds me of something I was thinking about regarding my house, which is six and half years old, as compaired to some of the older houses (100+ years old) very close by. I had good friends who grew up in some of those older houses and I've spent a lot of time in them.

It's hard for me to imagine my house being around in 100 years, and I considered the resistance to a swinging wrecking ball that my house offer versus that from one of those older homes. I imaging the wrecking ball barely slowing as it plowed through the walls of my house, which would fly apart like paper and popsicle sticks, flinging debris into the air. I image the same wrecking ball hitting the walls of an older house and stopping about 3/4 of the diameter of the ball into the house, creating a large dent with a penetration in the middle and significant cracking around it, but not going through the first time. Ironically, the older house would probably suffer more structural damage further from the impact because members wouldn't give so easily, remaining in tact to transfer more force through the structure.

But still, absent purposeful demolition or major disaster, I see those 100(+)-year-old houses still being there in another 100 years.

Mine probably WILL get knocked down before then, because it won't be worth keeping, though that would depend on how things are going economically in the future. And maybe I underestimate the durability of my house under normal wear and tear. (I'm very confident of my estimation of the wrecking-ball response, though.)

my house (6 years old) has a hard time just standing here - wall cracks, ceiling cracks and floor warping remind me every winter that i live in something that the Big Bad Wolf would've blown down without a second thought.

Disposable buildings are only natural in a society where the lack of constant building and consuming means recession. Wasn't this a theme of Brave New World?

I lived for several years in Salem MA. A good portion of the town burned down in 1914, and where I lived was all triple-deckers built just after the fire.

For non-New Englanders, a "triple decker" is basically three identical one-floor, two or three bedroom apartments stacked three stories high. It's more or less the standard unit of rental housing in lots of older NE cities.

All of the triples I lived in were solid frame or brick. Thick plaster walls over lath, with a base coat of rough plaster and embedded horsehair topped with a finish skim coat. Hardwood or hard yellow pine floors with nice inlay in the dining and living rooms. Laquered or painted pine wainscoating in the kitchen and hallways. Built-in china cabinets and shelving. Pocket doors between the dining and living rooms. Lots of tricky finish detail in the bay windows in the living rooms.

You couldn't knock these places over with a tank.

These were all built as rental housing, mostly for factory and mill workers.

It was a different world.

Check out the Flood Building in San Francisco:

I worked there not so long ago. The marble lining the halls comes in matching pairs, so adjacent panels form a Rorschach like effect. Beautiful entrance areas, etc. Survived the big quake. And yes, historical.

I agree with the posters who note that older buildings were built to *last* whereas modern era buildings... are built to be demolished and replaced within 50 years.

I also agree that's due to the sea change in economic structure to one requiring ever-increasing consumption of ever-more-expensive items.

One thing I'd like to add, though, is the difference in how we regarded buildings, psychologically and emotionally, betwixt then and now. Houses used to be homes: people expected to live in them their whole lives, or even unto the next generation or two. They expected their homes to last long enough to do that. This was as true for the middle class (who couldn't afford to relocate, and so relied on durable construction to keep them dry, warm and safe) as it was for the upper classes (for whom homes were family assets and showcases for their wealth).

(NOTE: None of this was true for the poor, whose homes were tenements, lean-tos and hovels. I don't think there's any question that housing for the poor is better now - in quality of construction, if not in amenities within the construction - than it used to be.)

I'm not actually sure which came first: today's "everything is disposable" culture, or the trend to greater mobility, in terms of location and class. Maybe it's a fair trade, greater freedom of movement between regions and socio-economic strata in return for shoddier construction of houses we leave and replace every decade. If it was, though, we need to rethink it, as the age of upward mobility has ended and, possibly with it, the age of easy relocation. We need to regain the mentality of hanging onto things for a while.

Russell's comment is making me nostalgic. Those places, like the house I grew up in (in Ohio), were houses. They are my archetypal notion of what “home” looks like, the way (for me) a robin is the archetypal bird and a maple is the archetypal tree.

I live in a beautiful, 13 year old apartment on the 2nd floor of the back wing of a "rebuilt" old farmhouse. My place was built more or less to my specs (though I had no practice at specifying, so there are major things I'd do differently if I ever had a chance to do it again).

I call my place "the back house," in contrast to the main house, which is a large, beautiful new home built around the post and beam frame of an old farmhouse. The old farmhouse, on a foundation of massive boulders, with a dirt floor basement, had two massive hearths running from the basement through the first and second floors. When we bought the place in 1987 it was roughly 200 years old. There were 4 fireplaces (most of them closed up, because it had been a long time since the chimneys were maintained) on the 1st floor, 2 or 3 left on the 2nd.

There was enough brick in the old hearths -- as big as rooms in the basement -- to build a whole new house, and in fact the rebuilder (my ex) used a lot of that brick on the lower walls of the finished basement "apartment" in the new house. There was also junkier brick inside the walls of the old farmhouse, I suppose perhaps originally for insulation (I'm not sure). This brick made the place very sound-proof. Moving from the old farmhouse into my (very sturdy) new place was a shock because of the increased street and (in season) snowmobile noise that comes through the walls of the new building.

I could go on about these buildings for hours, but this is not the place or the time. But I will try to get to my point...

I live in a beautiful, virtually new building. If the old farmhouse had already stood for 200 years, the new house was built to last another 200. It is not typical flimsy modern construction; to build it differently was a deliberate decision by someone (not me) who had the money to carry it out, and did. (The old farmhouse was a mess in various ways, which is why the decision was made to replace it. Long story.)

My place has soft, wide-board, locally-milled pine floors (yes, a nuisance, but my deliberate and informed choice). My big room has a cathedral ceiling (with skylights) paneled with tongue-in-groove ash (cut in central Maine) in a design I made myself (I also cut the boards to length, though in the modern age (unlike the old days of 1977 when I first made such a ceiling) I didn't have to do the jointing, planing, or tongue-in-grooving; the lumber yard did that to order). I have ash trim around the windows; for some of the rooms, the trim is also my own design, which the lumberyard did for an extra $25 for making the mold. I have lots of windows (and good insulation and radiant heat) and floods of light coming in from both east and west, with views of the lake in one direction and lots of old pastureland and Maine white pines in another. (Not to mention the barn.)

The place is gorgeous. No one has ever lived in it but me (and my kids, part-time). When I think of leaving (I do still live in “the back house” on my ex’s property, after all), my heart breaks.

But even after 13 years, it doesn't feel like a true “house” -- in the way those buildings Russell described would feel to me. I don’t think it ever will, as along as I live. I’m rational enough to know that if I moved into a similarly-sized apartment in a 3-decker, I wouldn’t be glad about the tradeoffs (especially the amount of light). But it would still feel more like a “real” house than this place does.

[Took a long time to write this, what with laundry, phone calls, and work emails intervening. CaseyL's thoughts came through in the meantime and certainly hit home (so to speak).]

I'd like to riff on the idea that disposable houses and big-box stores in (non-)communities requiring cars to get anywhere parallel and perhaps intertwine with the quarterly-report mentality of our economic power centers. It's as though too few people think long-term enough to commit to the permanence of walkable town centers with permanent houses.

I think back to an earlier debate about bus versus rail as transit alternatives. One of the points someone brought up was that bus routes are more flexible and can be changed easily to suit changing conditions. The counter was that rail is fixed and signals a commitment to the areas it serves, providing incentives for more long-term investment in those areas.

I'm not sure, but I would guess that more liberal people would support rail over busses and would be more into new urbanism and walkable communities than conservatives. I'm not completely sure, because libertarians would likely rail (no pun) against some of the zoning laws that created the large-block segmentation of newer development that places homes necessarily at driving distances from places of work and commerce (but maybe they oppose zoning for different reasons having nothing to do with walkable communities). Other conservatives, the more purely corporatist ones, would, I think, tend to back the Walmarts of the world and favor the disposable-house, big-box-store, drive-everywhere scheme.

At any rate, what I'm getting at is that new urbanism is really a revival of the old way of building communities. It's traditional, really, which to me makes it, in some sense, conservative. I'm probably getting too caught up in semantics here, but I find it interesting.

Six feet tall and an inch thick? if the panels are 4' wide, they weigh about 350 lbs each. And you thought those 70-lb sheets of drywall were unwieldy!

"I supose part of the reason for marble halls and fancy handstitched dresses is that labor costs were so low. ANother factor is that buildings and clothes were investments. How likley is it that any of my better dresses will be around in one hundred years? No one would be interested in keeping them."

Mentioned upthread, but quite a bit of this is simple survivor bias. We see the durable things from the past because the non-durable things by definition aren't here. Also in many parts of the nation, we see the old homes of the rich in cities, and interpret them as reachable by the middle class at the time, so we are comparing the quality obtainable by the rich to the quality obtainable by the middle class as if they were the same. (For example, any time you see a 3 or 4 bedroom Victorian in San Francisco, that was owned by a rich person when it was made. Middle class people rarely had more than a two bedroom in a city, and often only one bedroom). As for 'Sunday' clothing, a middle class person might have one really nice suit or dress of high quality which they expected to wear every single Sunday and to every nice function for maybe a decade or two. Now we would think it somewhat odd if we saw someone in exactly the same suit or dress every single time we saw them.

The fold up card table used as a kitchen table in millions of middle and lower class homes up until the 1940s (or maybe 1950s?) doesn't even register as real furniture to most people now.

Sebastion, lots of SF Victorians were subdivided by floors at various times in their lives. The SF Flat style is well known by most who live in SF. Nowadays, many of those are being un-subdivided into single family dwellings.

Your can't really get around survivor bias, but I partly discount the notion that only homes originally owned by the rich are the only ones that survived. Case in point, russell's triple-decker.

I think it depends partly on what era the building is from and what sort of community it was built in. There were lots and lots of definitively middle-class homes built around 60 years ago that, while smaller than homes built today, were built much sturdier and with better finishing materials.

My previous home was built in the mid-fifties, and I have no problem seeing that house being around in 100 years. And only the kitchen and the basement were without hardwood floors. It was a split-level with 3 small bedrooms and 1-1/2 baths. It was not built for the rich. Another neigborhood nearby where several of my friends live or have lived is full even smaller houses built in the forties. They're not going anywhere and have really nice parkay wood floors.

The difference in labor versus manufacturing costs wasn't what it is now, so I think that goes a long way to explain why more labor-intensive and nicer finishing was more widely used.

Houses today definitely have the edge thermally, though. I wouldn't say more generically that the insulation is better, because I can hear the water running through the pipes in my six-year-old house. Not so in the older house.

I came in to make the point about overengineering that KSR made before me. Thanks :-)

Permanence can be overrated though. There's something nice about this kind of structure, even if it would take some time getting used to living here. I love old houses too, but building more and more permanent stuff means permanently having less green space. Or it could mean ghost towns. Besides, moving around can be enlightening.

I work in an old building and I, too, like to take the stairs. I've always taken a little pleasure from the fact that the wear marks on the marble stair tread for the first three floors are significantly deeper than the top four. While virtually everyone uses the elevators these days regardless of which floor they're traveling to, it appears that folks used to at least walk the first three floors...

Marble facades. Feh. Building for the ages. Harumph. I was born in the country where the Parthenon still stands (more or less) and spent my childhood in the shadow of a 600-year-old Venetian fortress (one of its dungeons was the hottest nightclub in town last time I was back there) so I look at these things from a different frame of reference.

And since I've started on a curmudgeonly tone, I may as well keep going and talk about toilets. Those nearly-modern buildings constructed 150 years ago might have had intricate moldings, but my practically-modern hovel of a house built 60 years ago to a cookie-cutter pattern had indoor plumbing. For sheer animal comfort, I will take a hot shower over the warm glow of polished wood any day.

I am not a complete philistine. I would happily take both the indoor plumbing and the lovely marble if I could afford them. But I must confess that I choose even internet access over marble counters, in my finite budget. Internet access is an ephemeral thing compared to marble, but ephemeral pleasures count for something too, in a finite life.

Obsidian Wings is worth more than marble countertops to me, is all I'm saying.


Anyone here with expertise in the range of flooring materials that were available in, say, 1905? Stone and tile were seem to be too heavy for most house construction. Hardwood. Linoleum, but that would require some sort of subflooring. Plywood for structural use was just getting started. Particleboard was still in the future. How much choice was there beyond sawn lumber?

Obsidian Wings is worth more than marble countertops to me, is all I'm saying.

I think I'm going to cry.

I have to agree that many of the things we take for granted in modern buildings are beyond anything that was available in older buildings.

Still, we have gone through cycles of cheap construction. The University of Wisconsin has been going through some repairs, replacements and upgrades. It's not the century-old buildings that are being torn down for complete replacement, but the half-century ones that were built at a time of 'modern' techniques that had to deal with a huge increase in students with a less huge increase in capital budgets.

The state's buildings are much the same, the Capitol and Old State Office Building were completely worth rehabbing. Newer ones, not so much, though one of the buildings that was actually built with quality materials is still being considered for demolition because the building itself is not particularly flexible and the quality is in materials, not in design or utility.

We've always built commercial and residential buildings at differing standards. Sure, some buildings like the three-flat apartment were pretty well built, but they were built for middle-class or aspiring middle-class tenants, not for the poor. The big change in commercial and public buildings came in the '50s and '60s when the perceived value of the edifice to the company was disappearing. If you are building in the city next to other great edifices, you have little choice but to look good, but if you move to Armonk, you can cut corners, because your building is in a beautiful sea of asphalt.

I also have to give a vote to Jay C's hypothesis that 1" was about as thin as you could reasonably cut marble if it was to travel.

In the absence of computers to model load requirements, older structures were, I've read, engineered with margins of safety on load limits that vastly exceeded any that the structure being designed could reasonably expect to carry. Because folks just didn't know what the practical limits were.

Michael Cain -

Stone would have been rare in any but the highest-quality homes, but tile would have been common in entries, bathrooms, and, to a lesser extent, kitchens. The sub-flooring in almost all homes would have been wood boards, generally pine, often laid at 45-degrees. The best home construction would have tongue and groove for the sub-flooring. Bedrooms and back rooms generally did not have hardwood flooring, so the tongue and groove pine would make do as the floor.

One thing that has been not yet been mentioned for flooring for commercial and public buildings was terrazzo, the cheap way to have the beauty and life of marble at probably a bit less than the cost of a good hardwood floor.

Linoleum, but that would require some sort of subflooring.

Back in the day, folks would lay linoleum right on top of hardwood, cause it was easier to take care of, or you could get it in colorful patterns, or it was just the latest thing.

some buildings like the three-flat apartment were pretty well built, but they were built for middle-class or aspiring middle-class tenants, not for the poor.

New England triple deckers were virtually all built as rental housing, most often for blue collar factory workers.

I guess that's "aspiring middle class" but those folks did not have a lot of money.

The folks that live in them now, likewise, more often than not.

One I lived in for five years was adjacent to a factory parking lot, and had factories / industrial buildings for nearest neighbors in two directions.

I put the difference in build quality down to a difference in pride of craft between then and now, more than anything else. Prefabricated materials were less common or non-existent, they were hand-built to a degree far less common now, and the folks building them were skilled tradesmen who plain old didn't want to build crap.

They enjoyed and took pride in what they did, and so they did a good job.

In the town I live in now, a lot of stuff was built by ship carpenters. You wouldn't believe the joinery in houses that were originally built for fishermen and cordwainers.

It was a different world.

It happens that I just read Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology , by David B. Williams, about this very topic. Recommended.

Yes, 1 inch would have been about as thin as they could make marble slabs in those days and not have them break during transport. The tensile strength of most stone -- except slate -- is quite low, so you can't really make a thin sheet of it.

As to why they put the marble there, a lot of it was that marble has the associations of stability, money, long-term safety, money, durability, money, and other things that banks want to embody. Marble both is and is a metaphor for solid, reliable, old, and unchanging.

I actually kind of like terrazzo floors, but I live in hot country.

It's not unusual, here, when refinishing older homes, to rip up carpeting and find some perfectly serviceable (as well as much cooler) terrazzo underneath.

Carpeting over any of these floors is a travesty that must be taxed and taxed some more, until people stop doing it. Don't people know about area rugs?

Since so many people like older buildings with lots of detail and great materials, maybe it's time for a two tier labor structure in the USA so we can bring in folks from the third-world to work cheap. Many are fine craftsman and very happy to work for $2-3/hour. Put them up in really nice dorms etc etc and after 5-6 years of working send them home with a grant so that they can start a business in their own country.

We'll get the cheap labor we need to build "like they did in the old days" -- hey! think they had cheap non-union labor back then? -- and lots of third world people will get to live in the USA for a while and make far more money than they could at home.

Hmmm....didn't think you'd like it. Sounds exploitive, eh? Yes of course the unions would freak. But so would an awful lot of people who detest "soulless" modern buildings.

So maybe it's good to remember that the fine craftsmanship and expensive materials of 19th and early 20th century structures might have had something to do with cheap immigrant labor.

You want more such buildings? Allow cheap immigrant labor.

City Comforts:

You mean you don't think buildings are made with cheap, illegal immigrant labor right now? They sure are on every building site I've seen for the last couple decades, especially home-building.

For you nostalgic types, an adventure in bookbinding.

These days, I'm living in a building that is more than 100 years old. There are some facets of Jugendstil in it.

No marble staircase, but there are some brass rails and every other floor features a stand where you could have rested the sack of coal while lugging it up.

You want more such buildings? Allow cheap immigrant labor.

There's something to what you're saying, but I think cheap immigrant labor in the period we're talking about was more likely to be directed to big infrastructure projects -- railroads, bridges, tunnels -- or to less-skilled labor industries like mining, and less to skilled, hands-on building trades.

There were also lots of skilled immigrant tradesmen but I'm not sure they were subject to quite the same level of exploitation. I could be wrong.

And as Doctor Science points out, there is no lack of cheap immigrant labor building the crap McMansions of today.


Second your thoughts on terrazzo - I also think it is a much under-appreciated material - but again, a (negative) example of the changing costs and standards of workmanship over the years.

I have worked out of apartment in a renovated building in NYC for over 25 years, and about 1990, they decided to replace the lobby carpet - and discovered, underneath it, a marvelous red-and-green terrazzo floor from 1929 (the structure had originally been built as a hospital). However - it had cracked over the years, and, as the building discovered, the cost of restoring it back to its original condition was, even by the standards of free-spending NY condos, prohibitive; terrazzo specialists being rare, over-booked, and hugely expensive. So they settled for some patching work instead. Not very satisfactory, IMO - and even less so, when, in 2007, my vote as Condo Board member was unable to save the terrazzo from an ambitious total-redo renovation plan which buried it yet again. Ah well...

I think a lot of 20th century buildings (esp. post WW2) are not just not as long lasting because costs were cut etc. but also because the ways and materials changed. Building in wood/stone/brick is extremly old and therefore there is experience in what works/lasts and what doesn't*. 'Modern' materials (including concrete, although precursors were known in antiquity) and building methods needed to develop that experience first. I work inside a new experiment for yet another change in building, the>new office building of the German Environmental Agency. It's beautiful, environmentally friendly and has numerous small flaws typical for a first of its kind. I guess that the planned extension will lack several of those (but have some of its own).

*the way to the huge and lasting Gothic cathedrals is plastered with ruins of failed attempts to go beyond experience too

Mentioned upthread, but quite a bit of this is simple survivor bias. We see the durable things from the past because the non-durable things by definition aren't here. Also in many parts of the nation, we see the old homes of the rich in cities, and interpret them as reachable by the middle class at the time, so we are comparing the quality obtainable by the rich to the quality obtainable by the middle class as if they were the same.

I don't think survivor bias in the general case is a bad point to make when looking at the durability of old things, but in the specific case of housing I don't think the point applies in a broad manner.

In the older industrial cities of the US, it is not just the homes of the rich that survived. Many of the old brick buildings that still cover vast neighborhoods in these cities and that are now one and two bedroom apartments were once rooming houses for working men.

The two bedroom apartment that one would rent now would have been 4 or 5 rooms rented separately. I have lived in an apartment like that, the building was built around 1900. The three main rooms each had their own entrance and the kitchen and bathroom were at the back of the apartment and were obviously added on at a later date.

You couldn't build anything like that today - one room apartments that would rent for $100 or $150. Zoning and health laws wouldn't allow it. So people go homeless instead. Another feature of modern urban design.

You couldn't build anything like that today - one room apartments that would rent for $100 or $150. Zoning and health laws wouldn't allow it. So people go homeless instead. Another feature of modern urban design.

The implication -- that there was little homelessness back in the late 19th C, when those tenements were being built -- is bogus. Like today, the Gilded Age saw rampant homelessness. It's not caused by zoning/health laws, it's a function of income inequality.

Actually for the most part our current mode of homelessness is linked to the 1970s change in rules on keeping people in psychiatric hospitals (making it very difficult to do so) without a compensating revolution in dealing with outpatient care.

[This isn't a blanket criticism of the involuntary commitment rules, which in my opinion were scary and wrong as implemented before the changes, but merely noting where the change occurred.]

Isn't it wonderful how you -- or perhaps just I -- can stare at a piece of writing over and over again, but only see an obvious error the next day, after a good night's sleep?

It isn't just you. It's why it's always good to have a separate person proofreading other than the author -- you KNOW what you MEANT to write, and that's how you're going to read it, whether or not it's what you ACTUALLY wrote.

For what it's worth, I thought about Farbering you on that when you originally made the mistake, but decided against it. :)

Missing Gary....

Missing Gary....



No. That policy change affected a small but visible number of peoples. The surge in homelessness during the 80s was more a consequence of general economic policy.


When I bought my own home, the entire house, save the kitchen, was covered in a yellow shag carpeting.

We found hardwood stairs, living room, and bedrooms. The bathrooms and entry had some beautiful small tile work destroyed by the carpeting strips, while the kitchen just had 3 layers of vinyl over subfloor.

At least the hardwood was fairly well preserved for the past 30 years.

Isn't it wonderful how you -- or perhaps just I -- can stare at a piece of writing over and over again, but only see an obvious error the next day, after a good night's sleep?

It isn't just you. It's why it's always good to have a separate person proofreading other than the author -- you KNOW what you MEANT to write, and that's how you're going to read it, whether or not it's what you ACTUALLY wrote.

Even proof-reading by others is no guarantee, otherwise there would not be a misspelling in the title of my PhD thesis!!!

Doctor Science, maybe somewhere other than your link has the data to back up its relatively bald assertions, but nothing in the link itself does. It appears to be from a book, but the slide doesn't provide the footnotes. It blames it on a lack of affordable federal housing which ignores that the rise in homelessness began before Reagan. Also it fails to note that housing subsidies were one of the few liberal programs which were never cut by Reagan, but which at worst had their growth slowed.

Very rarely is *chronic* or repeated homelessness a mere housing problem or a mere poverty problem--we have many programs which deal with those problems (not ideally of course, but fairly well). It is when you add on top of those problems mental illness and/or chronic substance abuse that we get to the chronic homelessness. The public programs to deal with those are much sketchier AND having such problems will often get you shut out of many of the assistance programs in the home/poverty arena. (You often can't stay at a homeless shelter if drunk or high for instance. You often can't keep public assisted housing if it becomes apparent that you are a drug addict.)

All of which are good policies for other reasons. But our methods of dealing with the mental or addiction issues aren't very good. These are the problems which lead to the chronic homelessness that you see in the newspapers. Maybe you were talking about the much more temporary dislocational homelessness? If so, we actually have relatively good government programs for that. It is the chronic homelessness that we suck at, and that is largely a function of mental institutionalization changes not being joined with upgrades in outpatient care for such problems.

See for example Jencks on homelessness.

There's a lot of cool amateur architecture stuff here:

He used to write more about the old buildings of Detroit, so a trip back in the archives will find all sort of great stuff.

It's sad for anyone who loves old buildings or cities to see.

"My other rule is that every brief gets cite- and exhibit-checked by someone other than the principle drafter."

or "principal" drafter, unless, of course, you meant "principle" drafter, which is entirely possible

Re the common language of "survivor bias," Trachtenberg and Hyman's History of Architecture states in the first chapter that the earliest civilisations mostly built with stone.

Sadly it does not carry on in the same mode, to say that they built nothing but temples and palaces, and that they had a great fondness for big chunks of masonry lying around all over the ground. I really do wonder where T&H imagine everyone lived. Perhaps in Pompeii.

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