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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a threat to our cities and I won't stand for it anymore!

I know, I know.


Who could resist the show? What kind of scowling, bitter scumbag of a human being would protest a show that, in tearjerking fashion, delivers domiciles to the deserving?

"Move that bus!"

You know the show I'm talking about.

S0-and-so is a nurse who is also a single mother. She works 16 hours days and her 13 year old daughter watches the three younger brothers and two younger sisters when not at school herself. Or some other iteration.

Then, Extreme Makeover's "Ty" drops in, sends them on their way to a vacation, while the show's crews pull down their old, outmoded home and replaces it with a much more glamorous (and much larger!) new one.

Actually, I speak in facetious-snide tone, but there is something truly insidious to this show. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has been tearing down historic homes all over the country. Rarely are the houses they demolish even in considerably poor shape. Sometimes, they're simple local vernacular style homes. Other times we're talking beautiful farmhouses over century old.

And yes, they tend to build something that, if not matching the scale of the neighborhood, at least passably references its surrounding context. And yes, it appears high quality (who can tell, though?).

But it's simply unconsciable what they do with some of these historic homes. I'll get to why in a bit, but first, take a look at some of the before and afters.

Wilmington, DE



First gut reaction: it fits in very nicely with the neighborhood overall. Sure, they ignored the gentle curvature of the neighboring building's windows in favor of the noticeably blocky kind. And they certainly didn't find room to add the bay windows so characteristic of the old house. But, nice job, right? Well, in this particular show, the mother had to take care of a special needs child who was unable to walk. Therefore, she had to carry him up the stairs. In her new home, there's an elevator. I understand that the old home was not really working for her. But is it impossible to build a new house on a vacant lot nearby, or rehab the structure to include the elevator (on the show, they said no, it was not possible)?

Here's another, this time from Geneva, New York (already blogged):



Again, it's all right. But why not "makeover" the historic home--in the above case, a 150 year old house!

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition has come and gone in St. Louis. The show actually selected two properties locally, one home and one business. Luckily, both were outside City Limits (the home in Shrewsbury, the business on Manchester out in West County). Why luckily? Again, a small, quaint, older home was sacrificed for a neotraditional new house.

Extreme Makeover is threatening because it sells, quite successfully, that time-tested concept that old = bad and new = good that has threatened cities and historic preservation for decades. Worse, it does so in such a way that makes it hard to challenge. When it's a husband whose wife has recently succumbed to cancer on the receiving end, how can a preservation-minded citizen stand in the way of a bungalow bash-'n'-build? Worse still is the way in which the buildings are torn down. The show's host, Ty Pennigton, is known for his zaniness (usually to awkward excess). And so, he never fails to find some "creative" and bombastic way to demolish the home. In one show, the homeowner loved cars. So he enlisted several old cars to literally lasso the house and pull it down. In another show, a group of rough-and-tumble bikers took the house down by a couple dozen sledgehammers.

The demolition becomes a spectacle when it should be a lesson. In our now more ecologically aware culture, why tear down a perfectly good building? It's wasteful, saying nothing of the value of the history lost in some of these buildings.

It speaks to that damaging "bigger is better" mentality that keeps a lot of buyers away from smaller lots in central cities. But it goes beyond that, since the show doesn't always tackle urban lots anyway. It's about how old houses are characterized and how the show's need to entertain the A.D.D.-afflicted viewership needlessly erases salvageable and often attractive houses from the landscape. The show depicts old house dwellers as needful of the charity of a brand spanking new house when they might simply need an addition in the rear of the structure and a coat of new paint on the exterior.

Rehabs are slow and boring. The end result isn't as dramatic as a new Craftsman-influenced mansion in place of a blase but sound little bungalow. But rehabilitations are better for the environment and allow future generations a connection the past that is lost with each "teardown" that this show encourages.

I will not stand for it anymore.


Brian said...

The Wilmington one could be worse, but the Geneva house is pretty bad.

With this show, there's also the issue of overbuilding for the neighborhood these houses are in - could you sell a huge home in a modest neighborhood? - and increases in real estate taxes that might be difficult for the owners to handle.

Winegoddesstx said...

I can't believe preservation groups have not been vocal about the distruction of all these old homes. Almost every time I happen to watch the show, I think "that's a wonderul old house that needs a renovation." Just once, I'd like to see them rehab a house instead of tear it down.

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