The Irony of McMansions and Urban Renewal

The same era that brought us Urban Renewal has ironically become the latest victim of our most recent phase of suburban renewal.  That post WWII construction explosion introduced the suburban life to America’s landscape and culture.  VA loans created the answer to the largest scale housing crisis America had ever seen.  With the massively increasing ownership of automobiles, developers had a new option for where to build, and it wasn’t a hard sale.  The concept of living outside of the city in a country-like setting only a short driving distance from employment was not only acceptable to Americans at the time, it became a craze and a symbol of status.

Welcome to the world of track homes and cul-de-sacs, Saturday morning lawn mowing, Sunday afternoon BBQs.  Herds of bike-riding boys tearing along perfectly landscaped rose-adorned streets and avenues.  These were the homes of the middle class, and even that was a new concept in and of itself.

Welcome to the ‘50s.

A new crisis emerged: a growing economy demanded more cars, more roads and more stores to spend that bit of extra money on whatever the new little black-and-white television in the living room highlighted.

We go back to the city for the next scene.  Almost no city was immune; the largest to the smallest became swift demolition sites, razing the country’s oldest homes to replace them with large blocky institutional buildings, shopping centers and parking lots.  Mostly, parking lots.

Courtesy of The Jackson County Historical Society

Courtesy of The Jackson County Historical Society

Slack Mansion, Once stood on Deleware Rd. in Independence MO- defines irony as; an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.

As this story continues, I have to wonder, maybe this isn’t irony.   As the famous George Santayana quote states, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

America 2008.  The Great Recession, the biggest blue light special on homes since the 1930s.  For the most part those homes were purchased by investors that either rented them after a quick rehab, or flipped  them in hopes of a fast profit.  There was another interesting use for these homes however, though very situational, a little trend began and today it is growing exponentially.  Imagine a highly populated area, great schools, excellent commute to the city, and practically no land to build on.  I saw this myself several years ago during a visit to my old stomping ground outside of Chicago.  My best friend from high school lives in one of those post-war track subdivisions.  Rows and rows of cute moderate ranches, splits and tri-levels.  We were getting in the van to take her son to a football game and she says, “We need to take a little detour through the neighborhood, you won’t believe what I’m about to show you.”

The van glided along wrapping left, then right, then left again, before it stopped.  I couldn’t believe it!!!  There it was, a two story brick McMansion proclaiming its immense displacement amid the short happy little homes on each side.  It towered, it seemingly yelled at me.  All I could say was, “What the crap?”

Courtesy of Charmaine Cunningham, Schaumburg, Illinois

Courtesy of Charmaine Cunningham, Schaumburg, Illinois

2015. Calling this a seller’s market is an understatement. Demand for homes is intensly high, it’s a buyer’s apocalypse, with inventory so low the bulldozers are back in full force to build in response.

The custom-built McMansion is increasing in demand with the wealthier middle-aged and older homebuyer.

Whereas buying a home right now is a fantastic investment, I’m going to throw a thumbs down on this one.  Who will be the buyers of these homes in five to ten years?  The millennials?  Think again.  This age group is taking a complete idealistic 180° turn compared to the last several generations.  They experienced the downturn much differently than their parents.  While mom and dad were worrying about how to pay the mortgage on their impressive new California Split, they were worrying about how to pay back the tuition on a master’s degree while working a kiosk in the mall.  They’re conscious consumers, environmentally aware, and life, to them, is more about experiences than status.  If and when they start a family, they will still care about schools and commute; however 4,000 square feet of wasted natural resources won’t even make the list of housing wants for most of this next group of home-buyers.

This practice of replacing mid-century homes in established neighborhoods with McMansions has begun here in the Kansas City metro, and the residents aren’t happy about it.  Prairie Village, Kansas was recently highlighted after creating a petition to have design guidelines changed to protect the conformity of their neighborhoods, though unfortunately the petition does nothing to protect even more from being demolished.  Already they have lost 42 homes in the last five years to this fad.

2065. Another era of renewal? What resources will they have left to build with? Or, even more terrifying, will the earth even be capable of growing trees to build with?  Surely the carbon footprint of all that construction over the last 100+ years had no effect on Earth’s future, right?

Our buildings are physical examples of our history.  Our buildings also represent something taken from the earth that can’t be put back.

“It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation

with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”

-William Murtagh, first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

Audrey L Elder

Past to Present Research LLC

Liana Twente

Director of Archives and Editing – Past to Present Research LLC

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Posted by on May 7, 2015 in Uncategorized


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When You Can’t Save Everything

Where is the highest current shadow inventory? The largest concentration of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or soon to be foreclosed properties? Not likely in a suburban cul-de-sac. We’re talking about the economically heaviest hit parts of America…in and around the urban core. No one city knows how bad it can get than Detroit, Michigan, because no one city experienced the wrath of the Great Recession with as much devastation. Now, today…no one city has pulled itself out of the ashes with as much progress, creativity, and potential. The rest of the country should be learning. It’s like a gift of prevention. It is also one that comes with making some tough and often difficult and unpopular decisions.

It’s big picture time. And unfortunately we can’t save everything. Which starts getting really hard to decide what to save and what not to save when pretty much every building in your core is of historic age. Options?

  1. Restore (within recommendations from the National Trust for Historic Preservation). This method ensures the visual representation of the building will continue to tell its historically significant story for generations to come.
  2. Rehab- Make it livable by creating investor opportunities, which often comes with the loss of some of a property’s historic attributes.
  3. Reuse- Imagine an old gas station transformed into an ice cream shop. An old Queen Anne Victorian painted in pink and purple stripes on the outside and gutted on the inside to become a dance studio for kids.
  4. Demolition

Number four is what everyone should want to avoid.  When you look at the big picture…versus demolition, the pink and purple house doesn’t sound so bad.


So how can anyone determine which gems in the giant jewelry box need to be fully protected? Here’s where we can really learn something from our friends in Detroit. I was fortunate to have the opportunity last month to go to a presentation by Emilie Evans, Detroit’s Preservation Specialist at Michigan Historic Preservation Network. Evans taught us through her own experiences, that creating an informative inventory is everything. Using trained volunteers and smart phone data collection, their network was able to determine the homes most in need of historic preservation, the rest marked for rehabilitation or reuse. Here is her article entitled “Rightsizing Conversation.”

By using proven programs such as the one Evans created, adding a dash of community support and a pinch of creativity, our country can continue on its progression towards recovery without hastily (or greedily) destroying some of the most significant examples of history and historic architecture that stands within and around our urban cores.

The Federal “Hardest Hit Fund” was created in 2010 for the purpose of using $7.6 billion in federal funds to help people in the 18 hardest hit states in the nation stay in their homes. Since that didn’t work out so well the funds are now being used to pay for demolishing homes in blighted areas.

So why are so many organizations and city leaders heralding the use of Hardest Hit Fund monies for demolition? The answer is in the potential for more money. Many areas are literally out of room to develop. In some cities these fund are being used to go beyond the removal of vacant or dangerous blight to all out eminent domain. Here’s just one story out of Charlestown, Indiana.

An emptied lot is grounds for new construction and profit. Back in the 1950s demolition, new construction, and large scale development was believed to indicate progress. This is also the same era that touted that DDT was so safe you could eat it. We’re smarter now, right?

The last and final argument in avoiding demolition – natural resources. If a building is feasibly salvageable, why destroy the natural resources already put in place then turn around and consume more natural resources to build something new? We take the time to recycle a wad of tinfoil but still don’t get it when it comes to recycling buildings.

When all options have been exhausted, sometimes a dangerous building is going to have to come down. That lot can be used for recreation, a community garden, or something else of benefit to the community. At that point – when we are taking care of the infrastructure already put in place – then, we can build more.

Past to Present Research LLC

Audrey L Elder

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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Historic Preservation


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Rural Urbanism?

In the last several years, my travels have taken me to Denver Colorado, Washington D.C., Dallas Texas, Chicago Illinois, Detroit Michigan, and Phoenix Arizona. Not to mention the dozens and dozens of towns I have visited with my husband in a quest to have seen every town in the state of Missouri.

There is an excitement that used to exist in the thrill of experiencing something new. To visually see the culture of someplace I had never seen before. From the airport to the city destination, a ride through the suburbs typically introduces the landscape of the region. City after city, town after town, highway after by-way….they all look the same.

CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Home Depot, McDonalds, Bed Bath and Beyond. You get the point. The same buildings, the same businesses, the same colors. The only differences are Oak trees vs. Palm Trees. Mountains vs. Plains. There is nothing unique about anywhere in America until you find its old downtown core, if it is still standing. Adventure St. Charles

It might only be one block long, or four blocks squared, however it is artwork in a world where every canvas has the same painting. This, my fellow Americans, is where the future wants to be, and if your suburb or your rural historic downtown has even a thread of salvage-ability to it, it is time to start investing.

This is about generations, and the cultures that go with them. These are the places that get visited, lived in, and most of all where wallets open up. Almost every town has an historic downtown. Provide the benefits people are looking for (especially the Millenials) and like a perfect garden…watch it grow. Not only do unique retail and dining establishments thrive in these areas, they are wanted! These are the type of establishments that can naturally survive the big box chains. Even more with the growing trend of conscious consumerism, these are the places those purchases are likely to be found. If you need any more convincing, designated commercial buildings can use Federal Historic Tax Credits for restoration (which is the greenest –Extreme Green Campaign– choice available).
Here in Missouri, we still have State Historic Tax Credits, and quite honestly these tax credits are often the only way some downtown’s can be revived, increasing commerce, homeownership, and decreasing crime.

In regards to this topic, 2013 Target Market Visitors to the State of Missouri participated in the following:
48% Shopping
39% Dining at Unique Local Restaurants
18% Visiting a Historic Site
17% Visiting Quaint Attractions/Small Towns
8% Wineries
6% Breweries
Data provided by SMARI Ad/PR Effectiveness Study-CY13

If you already have a growing downtown keep it going! And by the way…keep it open. 70% of all purchases in downtown areas happen after 6pm Roger Brooks International.

Here’s to Happy Historic Sustainability!

Audrey L. Elder
Past to Present Research LLC
Research, Consulting and Education

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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


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The Land of Plenty

Organic Rice Field With Dew DropsBeginning with the Old World shipment of daring Europeans into this virgin land of plenty, the abundance of America’s unending potential has kept us in business for nearly 400 years. To contemplate a single country capable of providing every fruit, vegetable, tree, and plant…not to mention filled with the largest variety of fur-bearing creatures in the world…how unsurprising our first creditor put such effort in keeping claim to this stake.

Vastly varying climates and soil quickly gave way to a mass transfer of native land to the big business of farming. Whether it be cash crops of tobacco and hemp, or sprawling fields filled with cattle or sheep, or even the Rust Belt filled with rich deposits of iron and copper, the United States staked its claim as one of the world’s leaders in providing rich natural resources.

Even President Jefferson commissioned a massive Roman-inspired garden upon the grounds of Monticello, continuing to work the soil and daily journal each and every plant and seed beyond his presidency.

American agriculture was big business. Any family capable of owning even just a few acres could sustain themselves, and any family capable of owning many more could achieve the American Dream of becoming a successful business. Neither came without consequence, neither came without sacrifice, and neither came without those moments in history we all wish we could forget. Regardless, this land became quickly dubbed, “The Land of Plenty,” for plenty was and continues to this day to be its yield.

Here are a few Historic Timeline Highlights:

  • 1600s- Tobacco becomes first important export
  • 1793- Eli Whitney invents the Cotton Gin
  • 1862- Department of Agriculture and Homestead Act introduced/enacted under President Lincoln
  • 1873- Barbed Wire invented
  • 1890- Agriculture becomes increasingly mechanized and commercialized
  • 1893- Depression causes tens of thousands of farms to fail
  • 1931- Grasshopper Plague devastates crops across the nation
  • 1933- President Roosevelt creates the Emergency Farm Act
  • 1940- One farmer supplies enough food for nearly 11 people
  • 1960- One farmer supplies enough food for nearly 26 people

 So as we continue to still be one of the most geographically diverse countries on the planet, let us remember as we move forward and make choices concerning this great place…

 “Respect the land and take care of it and, in turn, it will take care of you.” – American Native wisdom 


Audrey L. Elder

Past to Present Research LLC

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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in Uncategorized


Preservation in Nature

Preservation in NatureWhen you see the words “historic preservation” you instantly picture…buildings. Residential homes, grand mansions, maybe a cobblestoned brick lined downtown or an iconic train depot sitting just above the tracks. Maybe our previous blogs focusing on the not-so-obvious means of historic structure reuse bring to mind a 1950s gas station, a school, or a barn.

As we busy ourselves this spring season in anticipation of dusting off those garden tools in the garage, soon to reap the benefits of April showers and fill the yards with May flowers…even the soil, the very soil upon which everything stands is worthy of preservation.

Preservation in NatureFor over 83 years the NPS (National Parks Service) has been protecting and conserving American places for the preservation of our culture and history, our summer vacation enjoyment, and for our future generations. Of course we would prefer to see every structure in America reused and restored. Today, we have plenty of existing homes and buildings to house our citizens and businesses…however, we’re a growing population. We aren’t going to stop development altogether, and thanks to the NPS these places will continue to be kept to their original natural setting for generations to come. If you haven’t seen Ken Burns’ documentary on the history of the NPS – “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” – I suggest adding this to your Netflix queue and setting some TV time aside for this awe inspiring film series.

Here in Missouri, our own Department of Conservation has been hard at work protecting wildlife and our natural resources for over 77 years. Their education efforts and landowner involvement has paid off to make the department a model for other conservation departments across the country. You can hear about their inspiring story with their 75th Anniversary Video.

Throughout the month of April, we will be highlighting the history of spring’s grandest gift….the great American growing season! From historical landscaping to Victory Gardens, and yes, even the American Farm.


Audrey L. Elder
Past to Present Research, LLC

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Posted by on April 9, 2014 in Uncategorized


Places Matter: Bridges

Katy Bridge, Boonville, MO

Katy Bridge, Boonville, MO

Each year the Missouri Preservation Conference picks a fantastic historical setting for three full days of classes, presentations, and events. The 2013 Conference brought preservationists, historians, and architects from all over the state of Missouri to the grand little town of Boonville. Not surprisingly, we had the pleasure of sitting in on several presentations about the preservation of…bridges. It may seem like an odd, niche topic, but the host city’s recent dealings with saving their treasured Katy Bridge provided the ideal opportunity to start up the conversation. And to say that their story is inspiring is an understatement.

The Katy Bridge – so named after the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, MKT for short – was constructed around 1931-32 as a replacement for another bridge used by the railroads since 1873. The vertical-lift span bridge was the longest of its kind at the time of its construction. More about the history of the bridge and its preservation project can be found here. Although it hasn’t operated since the mid-1980s, the bridge has found use as part of the Katy Trail that caters to pedestrian and bicycling traffic that drives much of Boonville’s tourism. In 2005, though, the Union Pacific Railroad proposed the demolition of this bridge, in turn inspiring locals to rise up together and form the Katy Bridge Coalition aimed at saving and preserving it instead. After 8 years of a campaign to raise funds and building a brand image centered on their beloved landmark, the organization celebrated a major victory when the City of Boonville finally took ownership of the Katy Bridge.

Why did they fight so hard to save this old, rusty bridge? Why does this place matter to them, and why should it matter to us? In fact, why should any bridge be worthy of this kind of attention?

Well, let me tell ya.

  • Tourism potential. Looking at Boonville’s example, it’s easy to see that bridges could become part of outdoor attractions for nature-lovers, bicyclists, Sunday drivers, picnickers, photographers, etc. They may not directly generate revenue, but it has the potential to bring consumers to the surrounding communities.
  • They can be aesthetically pleasing. Take, for instance, this beauty in Washington County, MO, built in 1856. What a treasure! I’m not saying that all bridges are this beautiful, but many historic bridges (particularly those that were built before the mid-twentieth century) are both feats of engineering and works of art.
  • They offer an unadulterated glimpse into our history. Most bridges are left unaltered after their initial construction, save for a few repairs here and there. As a result, they are a blast into the past, showing details not utilized in modern design and engineering.

In the state of Missouri there are 24 historic bridges listed on the National Register of Historic Places – including the Eads Bridge in St. Louis – and another 150 are considered eligible for designation. For a comprehensive list of historic bridges across the nation, and to find one near you, visit

Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC


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Places Matter: Schools

Picture in your mind the one-room rural school house, with immobile desks, chalkboards lining the walls, a single pot-bellied stove to heat the schoolroom. Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. No nonsense, rigid in its formality. Don’t forget, too, that these pupils had to walk 10 miles, uphill both ways, in the snow, barefoot, etc. — we all know that story.

Teaching philosophies have changed drastically over time – for example, the environment for learning and what was taught as “core curriculum.” Just as these beliefs and values have changed, so have the way we construct schools to accommodate students in an academic environment. These changes are often reflected in our school building’s style and construction.

Flash forward to the first half of the 20th century, and we find that larger, more urban schools were being formed. Larger facilities were necessary to accommodate a growing student population among the communities, as advancements in transportation and better connecting roads allowed smaller rural schools to consolidate and join the larger school districts. As for the buildings themselves, more attention was given to building materials — floor tiles, ceilings, plaster walls, etc. — that would limit noises permeating through the halls allowing students to focus on their studies. Windows were made larger to permit an abundance of natural light to pour into classrooms, and were also made to open in order for fresh air to circulate — both of these features added to the learning environment. In another quite opposite learning theory, windows were intentionally left out of the blueprints, in the belief that the visual distractions from the outside world kept students from focusing. Interior layouts also expanded from the basic classroom spaces to include specialized classrooms, such as gymnasiums, kitchens, workshops, etc. Even the addition of theatres or auditoriums further served as a space where students could express themselves through the arts, but also invited the community to gather and utilize the space for civic meetings and gatherings.

Schools have consistently been integral parts of our communities. Whether your roots are small town or urban core, families’ lives more-or-less revolved around the school. It’s also the place where many of our memories from our younger years developed, and helped shape who we are. It seems natural that these storehouses of memories should be preserved and remain as pillars in our communities. So what kind of efforts are being made?

A group in Southern Missouri have banded together to survey, preserve, and even find reuses for one-room school houses that are prevalent in the countryside. Check out this news clip to hear about one of their projects:

The Kansas City Missouri Public School District witnessed the passionate responses from members of the communities surrounding schools upon their announcement of their intention to close a number of schools around the metro. While this gained some negative attention across the nation, they bounced back by opening up conversations about how to reuse those properties and maintain relevance in their respective neighborhoods by basing the reuse possibilities on community input.

There are plenty of preservation groups out there dedicated to school buildings of all shapes and sizes. Check out these links for more information on how to get involved and show how these places matter.


Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC

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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Uncategorized


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