Lost Detroit is a heartbreaking account of the loss of architectural beauty that infects this nation

Author Dan Austin and photographer Sean Doerr capture Detroit’s abandoned architectural gems in Lost Detroit: Stories Behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins. Detroit was once a thriving metropolis, driven by the booming auto industry. As a result, it was rich in culture, architecture, and the arts. However, with Americans no longer buying American made cars, Detroit’s automotive industry has been on death’s doorstep and, as a result, the city and its once beautiful structures have fallen into ruin and decay.

Reading this book just makes me sick. Our society has no appreciation for architectural beauty. We build ugly, throw-away structures today that aren’t expected to last more than a few decades and can be torn down without any sense of loss, but even just a century ago, Americans built with pride and a sense of design and architectural achievement. Schools were built to be as beautiful as the young minds they educated. Theaters were decked out with marble columns, domed ceilings with gorgeous frescos, and chandeliers that sparkled like diamonds. They were as much a work of art as the movies that flickered across their screens. But with our lack of appreciation for beauty and history and with an economy that continually struggles, these buildings are being abandoned, left to rot until they are finally demolished.

I think what I am most shocked by is that even putting a building on the National Register of Historic Places cannot save it. I guess where there is no money, there is no hope, and a plaque noting a structure’s historical significance holds no weight with vandals and thieves set on destroying beauty and taking what is not theirs for their own gain. I will never understand the vandal mentality of pointless waste and intentional destruction.

Since this book was published in 2010, the Eastown Theater, with its gorgeous plasterwork and paint scheme, has been torn down. At the time of its demise, its stunning domed, fresco-adorned ceiling still looked as new as the day it was painted. The detail, design, and artistic integrity that went into the creation of The Eastown will never be recreated or replicated. We have lost something that we will never have again. Tearing down structures like this one is the same as pouring bleach on the Mona Lisa or spray painting The Sistine Chapel. The demolition of this theater is so much more than the loss of a building. It’s evidence of total disregard for our history, our creativity, and our community.

“If Detroit loses the Metropolitan Building, we will lose not only a very unique building, but we are saying we don’t care about Detroit’s heritage and we don’t care about America’s heritage.” – Architect Lucas McGrail.

Sadly, McGrail’s quote could be about any abandoned historic building in any American city.

If you take one thing away from reading this book, I guess it would be this: Look around you. Take in the old, forgotten structures of a once grand past. Look at Corinthian columns, wrought iron fencing, stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers, art deco flooring, marble stairways, ceilings with rosettes and frescos, and ornate plasterwork. Look at them, study them, commit them to memory because once they are gone, and most of them will be in the not-so-distant future, we will never see their like again. In a disposable world, the architectural beauty of the past is unappreciated and will not be replicated in future construction.

A follow-up to the review…

And now that I’ve had some time to cool my anger over the loss and neglect of these places, I realize that I never really said what a fantastic job Austin and Doerr do in preserving the memories and beauty of these structures. Austin gives a wonderful history of each location and informs readers of what may lie in store for those that still survive. Doerr’s beautiful photographs capture the surviving details amid the decay. In a collapsing ruin, he showcases the artistry, talent, and love that went into building them and that still manage to shine despite years of neglect. If you enjoy the images from the book, you can see more of his fantastic work here: http://snweb.org/category/portfolios/


A Pictorial History of Historic Hampton House and Grounds

Hampton House in the late 1800s.

Hampton House in the late 1800s.

Ann Milkovich McKee has put together this  wonderful collection of photos, creating a pictorial history of historic Hampton House and its surrounding farm buildings. Hampton is one of the oldest surviving residential buildings in Maryland and serves as both a splendid example of 18th century architecture and a wonderful lesson in history. From the house and farm to the extensive gardens to the Ridgeleys themselves, the photos depict life on a plantation both before and after the Civil War. It shows how the family managed to keep the farm operating even after the ironworks and other sources of income were no longer operational. Sadly, time, taxes, and the encroachment of suburbia put an end to the once flourishing farm. However, those events are the same things that lead to the property being turned over to the National Park Service and opened to the public.

The photos in the book begin in the mid-1800s, continue throughout the decades of Ridgeley ownership and follow the transfer to the National Park Service up until the early 2000s. Having toured the mansion earlier this month, I really enjoyed seeing photos of the home when the family lived in it as well as pictures of buildings that have since been lost to fire or destruction.

I did think some of the photo captions became very redundant after a while. I would have enjoyed more photos of the interior of the mansion as well as the barns, but I understand that McKee and Arcadia Publishing had to work with what they had. I guess people in the late 1800s didn’t take photographs of the insides of their mule barns, dairies, and corn cribs.

Not to turn this book blog into a travel blog, but if you happen to be in the Baltimore area and want to spend a day immersed in history, Hampton is a lovely place to learn and explore. Whether you like history, agriculture, architecture, antiquities, or gardening, Hampton House has a little something for everyone.

The mule barn as it stands today.

The mule barn as it stands today.

Robert W. Tebbs, Photographer to Architects: Louisiana Plantations in 1926

tebbsIn 1926, Robert W. Tebbs and his wife packed their camera gear into their car and headed to Louisiana on a mission to create a photographic catalog of the architectural diversity evident in the old plantation and farm homes that were still standing throughout the state. Despite many being destroyed during the Civil War or others being lost to neglect, Tebbs managed to capture 52 homes on film, and those photos were published in Robert W. Tebbs, Photographer to Architects: Louisiana Plantations in 1926 and finally made available to the public outside of the walls of the Louisiana State Museum, which owns the original prints.

This book is both beautiful and tragic. Beautiful because it captures the splendor of architectural grandeur that has long been abandoned in this country. Tragic because so many of these architectural achievements have been lost to neglect, fire, or the mighty Mississippi. I have often said that America waits until it is too late to preserve its history and the loss of these homes is further proof of that.

As to the quality of Tebbs’s photos, they leave much to be desired. Some are gorgeous and capture either the sad ruin or proud upkeep of these historic homes. Other images look tilted, as if he didn’t steady the camera before he took the picture. If the goal of Tebbs’s expedition was to create an architectural digest of Louisiana’s historic homes, he rather failed in that he took too few pictures at each location. Some locations feature the house, up-close photos of the support columns and their careful details, and views of inside staircases or fireplaces. These really gave the reader an idea of the artistic elements that made these homes grand. However, Tebbs seems to have lost the focus of his endeavor somewhere along the way. At several homes, he took only photos of the outbuildings and none of the homes themselves, many of which have since been demolished. Many pictures are taken from too far a distance to capture architectural details. I found myself wondering why, at homes were he clearly had indoor access, did Tebbs not take more photos of the particulars that made the homes worthy of being documented in the first place. Perhaps some of the negatives could not be developed. Maybe some photos were lost or missing when his wife left the collection to the Louisiana State Museum after his death.

I guess we’ll never know, but I do appreciate the photos that we do have as well as the histories of the homes and their inhabitants that accompany each photo. This book is a unique collection of images that won’t be found elsewhere. If it wasn’t for Tebbs, we would have nothing to show of those places that are now gone. If you love history, architecture, old homes, photography, or all of the above, this will be enjoyable read for you.