They say the past is prologue, but how can that be true if the past is cast into the dust bin of history? Maybe the better question is – should history even have a dust bin? Is today the tomorrow we forget about yesterday.

Holding history hostage

Prompting these questions is the up-in-the-air fate of the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in the historic district of Tampa Heights, Florida, a 111-year-old three-story red brick Colonial-style structure, crowned with a copper cupola, recently ravaged by a three-alarm fire. (Never mind the name of the school. It came some four decades after opening and isn’t relevant here).

Salvaging a ruin

The fire took out the guts of the building – its dark wood floors and hallways trimmed with wainscoting, but the outer walls still stand. Lobbing a wrecking ball at them, reducing the school to rubble, would also wreck a history. Lee Elementary is listed on the U.S. Register of Historic Places. Does history matter? Questioning that is like asking if memories matter, even when they’re not momentous.

All in the name of progress

The built environment gets changed a lot in the U.S. where newness comes with the territory. Novelty is the American way, as in New World and New Frontiers. Speed is also part of the American brand. When Lee Elementary opened in 1906, the speed limit was 10 miles an hour. Today, the limit is up to 75 mph.

A stand-alone security blanket

For the speed of change alone in the U.S. - old buildings are practically a necessity for Americans – something to hold on to – not unlike a security blanket. Lee Elementary is like that, a fixed place in the sea of constant change, a long-lived part of a neighborhood, a community, a city.

No delusions of grandeur

OK, Lee Elementary isn’t the stuff of, say, George Washinton’s Mount Vernon in Richmond, VA, but there’s something reassuring about an old building that new structures don’t provide, especially those look-at-me buildings designed by the likes of Frank Gehry who ignore surroundings. The quixotic designs get media attention. Heritage rates little.

Venus de Milo with windows

Gehry’s designs, like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in California, shows zero concern for context, which puts the building in the category of a free-standing sculpture - a Venus De Milo with windows.

And when it comes to a functioning building, architects like Santiago Calatrava take the proverbial cake. He once designed an opera house with an obstructed view of 150 patrons.

Warm welcome

The beauty of Lee Elementary, besides its usefulness for generations of children, has been its welcoming air, the down-home warmth of Colonial architecture. Reportedly the cost of restoration is near $5,000. This is cheap at twice the price for warmth in the cold world of modernism.

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