In the past decade or so I’ve spent hundreds of hours documenting slightly over 4 million total square feet of mostly vacant - and mostly historic - spaces. Buildings, burned out lots, back parts of parcels and alleys have one thing in common for me: they’re still to the point of being nearly silent. I don’t find buildings that have been abandoned for decades to be creepy, scary, haunted or sad. Despite the many risks to my health over the years, I like them. As-built drawings are one of my favorite parts of my job. I like what old buildings offer and the stories they tell. I like the challenge of getting measurements to line up and work out (it’s not as easy as it sounds, even with a laser), and I like seeing three dimensions (four if you count how badly some of them smell) of the expression of someone’s unique idea.
I like the long-vacant and abandoned spaces the best, because they offer a stillness that approaches something sacred. Without life and activity they are still and silent. It isn’t suspenseful for me, it’s deeply enjoyable. It comes close to being prayerful and meditative. I work to document a built thing that is usually damaged by time, the elements and the occasional vandal. Ceilings are caving in, floors sag under my boots and layers of peeling and faded wallpaper start to give up their secrets as I flash a laser around and snap a tape measure.
The building served a purpose. It accomplished something. By the time I’m involved, it is not accomplishing that thing anymore. It’s original purpose is in the past, and either time or circumstances (often technology and our modern definitions of comfort and safety) have changed. When I show up, the building is usually about to have a new lease on life or be returned to dust and salvage. And no matter how magnificent or inspiring or sacred the space is, dust and salvage is a perfectly acceptable option. Because like most of my boyfriends, some old buildings need to go.
It’s a mistake to think that we need to keep everything that is old. We change, our lives change, society changes, and buildings change. The “preserved” and “restored” places? They change too, and they change the most. The places we keep are actually the places that change the most, because they can accommodate us and our constant changes. The places that don’t change are the ones that fall aside, remain vacant and deteriorate. I’m always amazed when a building has been vacant for years and someone is finally ready to let it go to make room for something that works better for them, and someone pops out of the woodwork to decry the demolition. THOU MUST SAVE ALL OLD BUILDINGS. But the buildings that don’t change with us and are left behind are sometimes left behind for good reason: they don’t change well. They resist change. And that’s why they are let go.
I get it. I stand in vacant buildings and sense how sacred they are, remember? I like them too. I count it an honor when I’m invited to document an old, vacant space. I treasure that experience, and my Instagram would be way cooler if I shared what I keep in confidence on behalf of my clients. But nostalgia isn’t the right tool to use when evaluating the viability of a vacant or abandoned building. Can a lot of them change with us? Yes. Can a lot of them change quickly to catch up when they’ve been left behind? Yes. Can they all change and do they all need to catch up? No. And that’s ok. Honor the places that have served us, and take with you the places that can change with you. Then let go of the places that can’t.
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