Last week, we reported on the demolition of a small house at 8610 Evergreen Place. The small building, built in the 1880s as a barn for a Germantown Avenue home, had been razed to make way for a three-story apartment building.
There was nothing special about the property. While it was on a list of historically significant properties in the neighborhood, it had not been protected by the city’s Historic Commission, which can prevent development on any building it adds to its historic register. It was just a red brick, two story structure. You wouldn’t have noticed it in passing. You might not have even missed the fact that it was no longer there if not for the construction equipment on the dirt lot where the structure once stood.
But after news of the building’s demolition was published, Christine Washington, who owned the building with her late husband Grover Washington Jr., felt compelled to respond to the news with regret. She understandably had to sell the building, but never expected the building to be razed.
“So many memories of our professional careers and personal lives are/were connected to that building. She wrote (see her full remarks in Letters). “I will miss that building and all the memories I, my husband, my children, employees and the many musicians and other music professionals and friends have shared there. Time marches on …”
It struck me how so many buildings unremarkable to the vast majority of us, can hold such significance for others. It reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates’ remarkable 1995 New Yorker essay “They All Just Went Away,” in which she considers, among many topics, the significance of houses – how they can be transformed from loving homes to abandoned shells.
“A house: a structural arrangement of space, geometrically laid out to provide what are called rooms, these divided from one another by verticals and horizontals called walls, ceilings, floors. The house contains the home but is not identical with it,” Oates wrote. “The house anticipates the home and will very likely survive it, reverting again simply to house when home (that is, life) departs. For only where there is life can there be home.”
Buildings, worth not much more than their materials, are often given so much more significance. They’re not just bricks, wood and a roof, but the setting for significant life events. They are the places where we settle with partners, raise families, do significant work, make art. Most of us can recall returning to a childhood home, a school or any other building from the past and rekindling memories we may have otherwise left behind.
We expect these places to last forever. When they don’t, it’s a blow to those memories. It’s as if a piece of the past has been taken away. As Christine Washington ends her remarks, “Time marches on …” There’s often little we can do about it.