The Optimism of Destruction: Demolition and the Future of the Historic City
In June, 1969 Edward Zebrowski held a massive party at Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel. The lavish Claypool opened in 1903, distinguished by its gargantuan lobby and opulent meeting rooms and the novel luxury of a private bath in each of the 450 guest rooms. Numerous conventions met at the Claypool, and in its strategic location blocks from the State Capitol the Claypool was home to both the Republican and Democratic parties and hosted a stream of politicians over three-quarters of the 20th century. On June 23, 1967, though, 300 Claypool guests including the visiting Tacoma baseball team were forced out to the street by a fire, and by the time Edward Zebrowski had his party in 1969 the hotel faced the wrecking ball.
That wrecking ball was swung by Ed Zebrowski himself, who ushered his guests outside at midnight to watch the floodlit building meet its end. Such theatrical demolition was Zebrowski’s hallmark: in 1967 Zebrowski erected bleachers and had an organ player serenade the lunchtime crowd watching the dismantling of the 12-story Pythian building. His firm dismantled much of the city’s aging architectural fabric over more than a decade of fascinating destructive spectacles, tearing down the Marion County Courthouse in 1962 (built in 1876), the Maennerchor Hall (1907) in 1974, and the Central State Hospital Department for Women (opened in 1888) in 1975. When Zebrowski was finished, he left a large sign in many of the empty lots proclaiming “Zebrowski was here.”
While Europe was busy rebuilding in the wake of World War II, America simultaneously embraced the notion that modernity required a radically new urban fabric relieved of antiquated, unsightly, and impractical buildings. For many Americans, urban centers demanded radical material and social intervention that took aim on the eroding historical fabric and displaced select urbanites. Much of the analysis of urban renewal rhetoric has revolved around the transparent ideological dimensions of displacement and slum ruination, which were clearly fueled by racism, classism, and xenophobia. Less attention has examined the celebratory and even optimistic dimensions of urban renewal and the hopefulness that was triggered by demolition and freshly emptied space. The ideologically driven disenfranchisement of “slum clearance” and urban revival are not at all antithetical to the optimism of a newly vacant cityscape, and in fact they often existed alongside each other in an oddly productive symbiosis.
Perhaps postwar ideologues realized that some of their ambitions for the city were absurd fantasies—for instance, the 1958 Indianapolis central business district plan aspired to build a heliport downtown so arrivals at the bus and train station could “be flown quickly to any part of town.” In 1953 architect Edward Pierre was commissioned by the L. Strauss and Company Department Store to envision Indianapolis in 25 years, and he made a fascinating model of his future Indianapolis that actually preserved much of the central city’s historic architecture (alongside the heliport). Pierre and his partner George Caleb Wright produced much of central Indiana’s most celebrated modernist architecture (e.g., Pierre’s 1954 Indianapolis Home show model now sits on East 56th Street in Brendonwood). Pierre’s grand dreams were not simply to create a city of steel and glass: in 1936, for instance, he had proposed the construction of “Lockerbie Fair,” a James Whitcomb Riley memorial that would place a historically themed playground around Riley’s eastside home, but that plan never materialized (see Libby Cierzniak’s 2012 piece on Lockerbie Fair and the 1958 plan). The future cities architects and urban planners proposed may not have been realistic, but their vision was enormously compelling: postwar imagination was captivated by the potential of a sleek future city unstained by historical patina and devoid of visible failures like impoverishment. A vast range of American and European communities alike joined Indianapolis’ optimistic razing of unpleasantly aging and war-ravaged cities.
Many of the most celebrated urban plans painted alluring aesthetics of the future city, but some pragmatists dismissed the focus on style. In 1958, for instance, New Haven, Connecticut’s urban renewal director, Edward J. Logue, blasted the master plans that aspired to remake American cities, arguing that “for a time we thought that to save our cities we needed to dream what the good city ought to be—and make a plan of that dream. Yet I know of no city where a significant master plan has been carried out. … Too many theoretical planners preferred the applause of elegant critics to the earthier appreciation of politicians who had to try to carry out the plans and get re-elected, too.” Logue wrote that urban renewal’s purpose “is the renewal of the city of today, not its replacement by some fanciful city of tomorrow,” and he counseled that such projects “cannot be left to ivory-tower planners and volunteer do-gooders.”
In July 1948 Indianapolis Mayor Al Feeney posed at 856 West 11th Street swinging a pick into the wall of a home that was part of the city’s postwar slum clearances. Like many more postwar communities, Indianapolis founded a Redevelopment Commission in 1945 that was charged primarily with slum clearance, and eventually the city’s transformation reached well beyond impoverished margins alone. Very little of this razing of the urban core’s historic fabric was greeted with much resistance or a lamentation about the loss of built heritage; if anything, it was greeted quite optimistically. Demolitions rid the city of various unappealing realities and promised the enchanting blank canvas of newly open lots. However, in many communities the legacy of postwar architecture is of spaces and buildings that fell into disfavor and lapsed from usefulness and were reduced to various forms of architectural failure.
Optimistic demolition events remain a part of the contemporary cityscape despite the emergence of a preservation movement. In 1995, for instance, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith stepped aboard a bulldozer and tore down two “crack houses” at 2602 and 2606 Central Avenue, part of a citywide campaign that seized emergency powers to raze 15 properties identified as “public menaces.” However, a year later the city was taken to court by the owners of one of the homes, arguing that they were rehabilitating the building, which was actually up to code; at least two more property owners from Goldsmith’s celebrated summer demolition campaign likewise took the city to court.
Ed Zebrowski’s demolition theater was perhaps an impressive material and engineering feat, and demolition experts routinely create comparable events in which massive structures are leveled in one fell swoop. However, the destruction of historic buildings gradually has become its own unpleasant spectacle carried out furtively. Preservationists may secure some genuine satisfaction in the recognition that demolitions do not simply pass without municipal review and ideally some grassroots community input. Nevertheless, vast tracts of industrial buildings, commercial architecture, and suburban homes are among the structures that enjoy relatively uneven appreciation and instead are routinely razed or left to rot without much discussion. Ruins now loom as confirmation of social and material failure that we tend to avoid, and demolitions may elicit more unspoken relief and acknowledgement of postwar planning’s failures than unrestrained optimism.
1996 A hard hat and a heavy hand not always best way to govern. Indianapolis Star 13 October: B.1.
Barbara Byers Howard
1964 Policy Development in Urban Renewal: Selected Indiana Cases. Phd Dissertation, Indiana University.
Edward J. Logue
1958 Urban Ruin—or Urban Renewal? New York Times 9 November:SM17.
Metropolitan Planning Department
1958 Central Business District Indianapolis Indiana Report. Metropolitan Planning Department, Marion County Indiana.
2004 Recovering Essence through Demolition: The “Organic” City in Postwar West Berlin. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 63(3):354-369. (subscription access)
1958 Indianapolis Central Business District Plan from iny.gov
Claypool Hotel 1904 image from Indiana University Frank M. Hohenberger Collection
Hyde Park image from Eric Fischer
Pierre Architectural Model image from Ball State University Pierre and Wright Architectural Records Collection