Preserving UnUgly America

Hillsborough's Colonial Inn: Its end is at hand. Unless...
Hillsborough’s Colonial Inn: Its end is at hand. Unless…

Many won’t remember the term “ugly American”–a term first used as a 50s-era photo-caption of a rum-swilling tourist in Cuba. This was a pejorative at once picked up by the rest of the world to describe mostly traveling American’s tastelessness, and lack of humility, respect and sobriety abroad. It also still refers to our ham-fisted NGO and governmental overbearing in aid and relief  matters better addressed at street level. But that is not my point.

The phrase came to me this morning as I reflected on a photograph I took during a walk break during a short trip to the NC coast last week. You might have seen the conversation about it that came up on Facebook last week.

The short of it is that this fine old Revolutionary War era inn that we walked past on a side street of Hillsborough NC was slated for “demolition by neglect”. We were appalled. There may still be hope for the old place. Peeking in the front glass you can see woodwork and details it would be sad to send to the landfill.

You can read more about the Colonial Inn here, and a short local TV news story about it here.

The potential, if not yet inevitable, loss of this old historical structure is a symptom of a cultural impoverishment that is happening daily in this country–that has been happening since I was born, but at an increasing rate as the old structures decay and the economy continues its race to the bottom.

Ours is not a universal attitude to things that are old. Not every nation routinely tears down the structures that hold their collective identity and replace it in two weeks with a styrofoam and stucco PaunchBurger.

So I’m wondering why Americans place so little value in the non-ugly. Why are we so cavalier about the loss of our community memory and story?

It seems to be otherwise in much of Europe–I say having seen little of it myself. Edinburgh would be my poster-child. Click the larger image of the castle area. (There are windmills in the far distance.) How are the decisions made and the resources collected to sustain that which is precious (or should be) in an English or German community?

Maybe some of the ugly in America comes from our lack of regard for history, our tolerance if not preference for facade (pop culture personal and architectural skin-deep tinsel) and our indifference to place and a pervasive rootlessness that goes with our Westward Ho zeitgeist and impatience with the familiar.

So sadly, in the end, there is less and less HERE here.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Excellent piece, Fred! I AM surprised that a Revolutionary-war era building would be treated with such disregard. Money is likely at the bottom of it.
    I have been sad to also see so many post-World War II homes torn down and replaced by McMansions. The ranchers, split-levels, etc. are also part of our history and these neighborhoods are disappearing. Luckily, there is a new appreciation for Mid Century modern architecture, so some of them are finally being saved…but NOT because they’re considered historic (even though they are 50-60 years old).

  2. It’s not Revolutionary war era – it was built in 1838. And it’s not slated for “demolition by neglect” – the article says it’s in violation of an order to *prevent* demolition by neglect. And the owner doesn’t want to tear it down – he just wants to tear off a recent (1960’s) addition. He says he wants to restore the building. But he could tear it down and build a replica for half the price, and it would have things like insulation, plumbing, and electricity. That’s a big reason it’s done….

  3. I guess the build date must be in question. This site from Raleigh-Durham says built in 1759. It is said to have sheltered Cornwallis, who died in 1805. Local legend or fact? dunno.

    And regarding the owners intention (beyond adding the patio) I guess nobody really knows but the owner. Granted it’s an expensive proposition to refurb the old place. My question was how do we crowd-source this kind of effort if government does not step in.

    Given the owner’s apparent lack of recent action (so far as I’ve found in an inexhaustive search) would approach neglect at some point.

    I have been encouraged to learn this building’s fate is of wide concern. I knew none of this when I snapped the picture, only that it was a significantly-interesting place.

  4. Seek out local preservation-minded organizations and add your energy to their efforts! In Floyd, see the quietly successful Floyd County Historical Preservation Trust, Inc..
    ( ) But the most productive way to save buildings is to alter attitudes with due respect to older architecture—through state or federal historic designations, local honorific programs, and tax credit policies for rehabilitation.

  5. Thank you so much, Fred, for continuing to bring this issue to folks’ attention. Some background about preservation and legal battles to save properties:

    “Demolition by neglect” is a term used by code enforcement officials and historic preservationists that means an owner’s often willful destruction of a building by refusing to implement even the most critical or simple stabilizing measures such as the removal of trash, protection from vandalism and vagrants, and repair of major components such as roofs, doors, windows, frames, and/or support structures. It would not be used after the phrase “slated for” unless we’re talking about the owner himself (who may well have planned to do this all along – unfortunately not uncommon). Localities do not schedule “demolition by neglect,” they merely accuse owners of it in attempts to get them to act to save their own property.
    On the other hand, fire marshalls and building officials often start the condemnation process not in an attempt to actually get the legal authority to tear down a building, but in order to get owners to act to save their property to prevent losing it completely. In America, our love affair with the concept of property rights, however misguided and misappropriated, creates difficulties when it comes up against an owner’s willful neglect of an historic structure. The condemnation process is actually one of the best bargaining chips we as preservation-minded folks have – because if a locality is forced to begin the process of public notice, hearings, and following the legal timeline (which includes mounting fines for breaking local property/building codes and the cost of enforcement actions) that is required in order to actually tear down a building that has become a public safety hazard due to neglect, and the property owner refuses to pay the fines and/or comply with the codes & enforcements, then the locality can and does put the cost of doing so as a lien upon the property, which can amount to thousands of dollars. As these costs add up over ensuing months and years, eventually the locality can and often does actually assume title to the property because of the collection action resulting from the accumulated liens exceeding the tax value of the property, and hopefully before the structure actually falls down or is torn down.
    During this time, local preservation-minded people tend to form volunteer collectives and non-profit fundraising organizations, in order to gather the funds necessary to restore the building. They campaign under the banner of “Saving Historic Detroit,” or “Save the Huffman House,” etc. Money goes into a fund that will be used to stabilize, repair, restore or even move the structure once it is out of uncooperative private hands.
    Then, when the property is in public ownership, the fun of restoration can begin!
    This is not a takings process – it is a fully legal process that is available to localities with the foresight and testicular fortitude to actually use it. As public investment in the form of legal costs and fines accumulates against the property, this equals actual public dollars spent trying to save the structure. It’s a form of purchase. Just because no actual dollars change hands between the public and the recalcitrant property owner other than the forgiveness of the accumulated liens doesn’t mean it’s a taking.
    If anything, the purchase of a local historic structure and the refusal to preserve it could be seen as a private taking of valuable public resources.
    /end land use law lesson 🙂

  6. I ventured in where angels and all but lawyers fear to tread on this one, granted, and understand “slated for” should be “at ultimate risk of” demolition by neglect. I appreciate the role that transition into public ownership plays here, and this seems like a reasonable course for an owner unwilling or unable to make property safe, sanitary and sound, while offering some assurance the valued property does not become practice for the local fire department.

  7. I think you nailed it in your analysis of American indifference to our history when you wrote: “our indifference to place and a pervasive rootlessness that goes with our Westward Ho zeitgeist and impatience with the familiar.” As one who left the East behind for California when I became an adult, I have that common American state of mind. Your connection to place is quite alien to my experience.

  8. Fred, you may not be addressing a critical component of this process here.
    While I’m 100% certain it is not specific to this local, Orange County NC and Hillsborough are very much products of the Progressive South. This ideology permeates everything here and results in powerful political and social structures wherein the collective dominates the rights of the individual.

    If there is any doubt of this, one only need to take a quick survey of Orange county’s Code book and the adjoining counties. Not that a comparison of code is in order….simply a volume of code will suffice. Orange County has 700 pages of Codes, Our neighbor to the west has 70. If that does not suffice look at the taxation ranking of the county and several municipalities within.

    Getting anything done in Orange County is near an exercise in futility unless your pockets are very deep and you spread your influence in just the right places. But even the later fails if you are black listed.
    Add to this a municipal historic board and sanctity of that charge and the resulting reins for forward motion in any preservation are really no longer in the hands of the property owner.

    Anyone seeking to restore historic property anywhere had better realize their control over such is limited by what a governing board think you should be able to afford, especially in those localities where the ideology leans toward the collective.

  9. I am not surprised, the handwriting was on the wall–under the peeling paint. The don’t make’em like that anymore. On the up side, there will be few tears when they tear down the particle-board and fake rock of today’s not-meant-to-be-here-long places of business.