Adopt a Building

Jay Johnson -- With New Year's Day 2008, many people are starting to make their resolutions. Some will want to lose weight. Others want a better job, improved grades in school, or a revved-up love life. We know many homeowners who want to tackle that DIY job that's been hanging around the house for years.

IA_0030.jpgI would like to adopt a building. The building on this old postcard, to be precise.

I'm not sure if that's possible, or even remotely feasible, but it's a goal and I'm sticking with it for now.

In the 500 video shorts contained in my Design2Share Video Library on YouTube, you will see examples where I have taken my video camera -- a sturdy palm-sized Radio Shack $99 camtastic Sanyo special -- and shot many an interesting building, from both the outside and inside.

But I went back to the town where I graduated from high school (Clinton, IA) the weekend before Thanksgiving, and I saw old, familiar buildings through new eyes.


The old main post office building on Fifth Avenue, for one, caught my eye. I was given an update on this building, a childhood favorite, from Barbara, my friend and fellow Clinton High School River King grad (Class of '70). Click on this link to view Fifth Avenue Is Our Memory Lane, a video of part of our downtown. Ignore the lame jokes, please, as well as my obsession with trying to find the water spout on a new fountain. But note the post office!

I also drove alone through the Lyons neighborhood of Clinton and took another video. Click on this link to view Abandoned Buildings Dilemma, and you'll see that I'm starting to get into a groove of despair about some of the buildings that really were important to the town where I grew up.

As much as I would like to save the post office on Clinton's Fifth Avenue, there are many other buildings that need attention, like the ones I shot in Lyons. Think about it:

  • Old buildings deteriorate. It's costly to fix them up, and you know how steep the price tag can get just by using the upkeep costs of your own home as an example.
  • Towns and cities flow and ebb. Proud emigrants at one time built a beautiful church in their new town, and generations of families grew up worshipping. The local enclave died out and/or moved away, and suddenly a once-magnificent building was abandoned, closed, and endangered.
  • Laws, statutes, codes, and ordinances change. A wonderful old building may have to close if it can't be upgraded to meet changes in handicap accessibility or other improvements. It's sometimes easier and cheaper to build something new than make costly fixes to landmarked structures.

IA_0031.jpgSo back to the old main post office. The postcard above shows the original structure. It's a Beaux Arts beauty, now considered to be one of the most endangered historic buildings in the state of Iowa.

Here's another postcard showing the updated structure from around the 1930s, with a new addition in back.

Buildings like this one went hand in hand with Clinton's designation in the 1880s and 1890s as having more millionaires per capita than any other community in the United States. This was during the Midwestern lumber boom. 

And then there was Lillian Russell, the first great lady of the American stage -- and she was born in little Clinton, Iowa (see photo).

180px-LillianRussell.jpgI grew up in the town not thinking of millionaires or famous Clintonians at all. Little details about things like this post office captured my imagination. I remember there was a black sidewalk with glittery sparkles around the front and side of the post office. It was hard to slip and fall on its gritty surface, and if I'm not mistaken, it was heated to melt the snow as it fell. I wonder if it still works -- and more basic than that, is my heated sidewalk memory legitimate or an overactive kid's imagination at work?

This building is something I would like to lease or buy, love, fix up, and restore to its former glory. It probably wouldn't be a very good post office any more. I'm sure there's a new facility that does a better, faster, more automated job. So it would be fun to turn it into something else, something that would serve the town well.

When I returned to New York after my Midwest weekend, I loaded my Clinton videos into the YouTube Design2Share site. Then I realized that there was another video I had taken a month or two earlier about an abandoned barn near our Bucks County weekend home. Click on this link to view Landmark Canal Barn, and you'll see yet another historic building in disrepair.

It all got me thinking:

1. You can never go back home again. This old chestnut is true. It's not the same place you remembered growing up. Things shrink. They age. They weather.

2. Small towns need some TLC. That's Tender Loving Care, as opposed to The Learning Channel. Small towns need aggressive civic restoration projects to preserve the past, landmark key buildings, and find new uses for old structures.

pic_area1.jpg3. We should all fall in love with the past. Being "new" doesn't necessarily make a house or a public building beautiful or more desirable. I've done several past entries on the importance of loving old buildings and settling down in something with history and character. One example: In New Hope, PA, Marsha Brown is an amazing restaurant built inside a former church.

So I would like to adopt the old main post office building in Clinton, Iowa in 2008. The small glitch is that I don't have the money to take any action -- yet!

Michael Moore adopted an old movie theater in Traverse City, MI and turned it into a chic film festival experience. It helped revitalize their downtown. Maybe Michael will give me a call and help me fix up the old building of my dreams. Maybe we can set up a Design2Share office in there . . . and show art films and classic movies at night!

Happy New Year to you and yours -- and here's to achieving all your 2008 resolutions.


Photo Credits: The 2 Buds, Clintonia, Lambertville House,

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