What Is Lost With Demolition

by Michael R. Allen

Demolition robs a city of its cultural heritage. Through demolition, neighborhoods lose countless landmarks — some beautiful, some not. Cities lose great works of architectural art, and irreplaceable parts of their past. Sometimes, demolition is an unfortunate last resort when a building is too far gone to rebuild using limited urban financing mechanisms. (Clearly, my standard of “last resort” is tough.) Other times, and these are almost nonexistent, demolition might place an even more impressive and important building in the place of another. (Like, say, what stood on the site of the Wainwright Building being torn down for the Wainwright.)

However, one big loss caused by demolition frequently is overlooked: loss of usable building materials.

The typical historic buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wrecked in St. Louis are loaded with useful brick, wood, stone and glass. Obviously, decorative elements are frequently salvaged. That’s because they are worth a lot of money. Go to any demolition site in town and look through the dumpsters. You’ll find structural timbers, copper, tongue-and-groove flooring, wooden window sashes (often with smashed panes), rubble stone, doors, door hardware and other items that rehabbers like myself are constantly pulling out of dumpsters for free to replace missing parts of our homes. The wood from old St. Louis buildings is long-leaf yellow pine, fir, cypress and other wood culled from virgin-growth forests. This wood is nothing like the soft pine on today’s lumber market — why does it hold up even in abandoned buildings with no roofs? It’s solid, hard stuff. The stone is native limestone, very useful even in uncarved pieces. The windows are largely of stock sizes sought by people restoring other old buildings, and the glass can be used to re-glaze other old windows or re-cut for other uses. (New glass doesn’t have the same character at all.)

Very rarely does a wrecker try to save every reusable part of a building. Most of the time, it’s cheaper to dump those materials than to flip them to people who want the materials. Nowadays, the reuse market is weak, and sale of items saved from a building might take time. Time requires storage, thus increasing the costs.

Perhaps something city leaders could look at in the future are incentives to help reuse the valuable store of unique building materials the city is bleeding daily. There is no way to recover the embedded energy of a building’s construction — another cost of demolition never itemized on any bid — but the materials could help other old buildings and new buildings avoid the fate of demolition later. The city could also consider requiring salvage of some percent of buildings based on inspection by a certified architectural historian and an engineer. I suspect that the only incentive big enough to lead to action is a change in laws. Perhaps the law could simply require setting aside certain materials on the site for several days before dumping them.

In general, though, the best way to see the materials reused is to enact stronger limits on demolition itself.