Last week, America came frighteningly close to losing one more piece of history. A wrecking ball was set to swing on a beautiful historic in my town. All so a brand-new mansion could take its place.
It should be a crime, but it isn’t.
Meh, history, shmistory.
I learned about the plan to take down the 128-year-old historic home a week ago while talking with the former owner at a graduation party. (Our children are in the same graduating class.)
Because the news was causing a brain aneurysm to form under my skull, and because I thought it would be bad taste to call paramedics to the party, I asked if we could pick up the conversation later.
Two days after the party, when my blood had cooled, I invited Clardy Malugen over for dinner at the 130-year-old home I have the privilege of living in. (As a professional home stager, meaning I stage the homes I live in to help them sell in exchange for a reduced rent, I am blessed to walk through halls I’m told Ulysses S. Grant once passed through. And dine in a room whose walls have heard more stories than the local watering hole.)
If I stroked out here, at least I wouldn’t cause a scene. (Yes, Mom, I still care about appearances.)
She told me more about the Capen House. Built in 1885 on the shores of Lake Osceola in Winter Park, Fla., a few miles from my place, the house belonged to James Capen, one of the city’s settlers, and owner of the local railroad. (I’m betting the original owner of my place and Capen knew each other.)
“When I first pulled into the driveway, I knew it was the house I’d been looking for,” said Malugen, who bought the home in 2006 for $2.6 million. “I could feel the history, the happy families, the lives that had been lived there,” she said. She couldn’t wait to move her family in.
Over the next six years, Malugen ploughed $700,000 into the place updating the electrical and plumbing, and adding air conditioning. “My rule was whatever we do, it has to look original.”
In 2011 she had the City Commission designate the property as an historic home to preserve it going forward. They voted unanimously in favor of the designation.
You would think that would have sealed it.
But it didn’t. Meh, who cares?
Last year, Malugen fell into financial trouble, and the house fell into foreclosure. SunTrust bank took it back and figured the fastest way to recoup the $2.1 million still owed on property was to have the historic designation removed to and market the 5400-square-foot home as a potential tear down.
Last September, the bank persuaded the mayor and City Commission to see it that way, too. The commission then voted unanimously to rescind the historic designation. What’s wrong with people?
Last March a couple bought the property for $2 million. Shortly afterward, the couple took out a demolition permit so they could build something more contemporary.
This would be tragic in any town. But get this: five years ago National Geographic ranked the 100 top historic places in the world, based on their authentic and well-preserved architecture. Winter Park ranked No. 38.
Please pause for a minute to think how many cities in Europe alone this little town trumped.
When Nicole Curtis, host of HGTV’s Rehab Addict, heard the furor, she called the couple who bought the home and offered to help them renovate to give them the features they wanted.
“They wanted nothing to do with me,” said Curtis, a designer, real estate agent and saver of old homes.
The only old homes that can’t be salvaged are those that have burned down. Everything else – old plumbing, old electrical, old mechanics, old siding – is fixable.
Meh. So what? I want my mansion my way.
“It’s a national crisis,” said Curtis. “Historic homes are on demolition lists all over America. We have so few perfect examples of old architecture left in this country that are intact and well taken care of. We need to preserve them,” she said. “This makes me sick.”
Her advice to buyers like these: “If you don’t like old houses, don’t buy one. Find some vacant land and build there.”
Meanwhile, Malugen has been fighting city hall. “I’m not in this for me,” she told me over dinner. “I am not getting the house back. But this is a remarkable, exquisite piece of history that cannot be replaced.”
Fortunately, after our dinner and following a loud outcry from the community, the new owners agreed to postpone the demolition of the home by 30 days to give preservationists a chance to move it somewhere else. The wrecking ball has been stilled, for the moment.
Here, according to Curtis, are six reasons why more Americans should care about saving old homes:
1. Because tearing them down is wrecking our history. Countries rich in culture value history and buildings. “In Italy and France, you see 300-year-old buildings housing subways,” she said. “They make them work, they don’t tear them down.”
2. Because it’s bad for our earth. Most of the wreckage will not be salvaged. All that glass and plaster goes into landfills.
3. Because you can never replicate these houses once they’re gone. The woodwork alone came from 200-year-old trees. These homes were built before electricity, and were made by hand with handmade nails.
4. Because we don’t need new homes. “We have enough vacant homes to put everyone in America in a house,” said Curtis. “We need to take care of what we have.”
5. Because we’re losing our uniqueness. “There is something beautiful about traveling through America and seeing its distinct neighborhoods. Houses that get torn down and rebuilt erase that character.”
6. Because of their quality. “When you have a 100-year-old home made of timbers not particle board, it is solid. These homes have withstood decades of human life and natural disasters. But not city commissions and other self interests.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.