America’s Creeping Confucianism

By now you’ve probably heard about the New Jersey antiques collector facing 10 years in prison for possessing an unloaded 1765 flintlock pistol. Earlier that day, the man and his friend had bought the gun from an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania:

On the way home, the pair were pulled over by a local sheriff. According to Van Gilder, the detaining officer told him that he wanted to search the car, and threatened him with dogs if he refused. “I didn’t mind,” he tells me, but he wanted to make sure that the officer knew that there was a flintlock pistol in the glove compartment, and that he had just purchased it. “Oh, man,” Gilder says. “Immediately, he wanted to arrest me. But when he called the undersheriff, he was told, ‘No, it’s a 250-year-old pistol; let him go.'”

The officer did as he was told, and gave the pistol back. The next morning, however, he came back — “with three cars and three or four sheriffs.” Van Gilder says, “He told me, ‘I should have arrested you last night.'” So he did. “They led me away in handcuffs” and, at the station, “chained me by my hands and feet to a cold stainless-steel bench.”

The man, Gordon Van Gilder, is a retired English teacher who lives in Millville, NJ, which incidentally is quite close to where I grew up. The geography is an added level of absurdity in this case: Millville is extremely rural and piney. By no stretch of the imagination could the pistol be considered a danger in a densely populated urbanscape; Van Gilder could probably walk out his front door and go full Aaron Burr without hitting anything besides a white cedar or a snapping turtle.

The I-told-you-so attitude of the officer highlights the growing Confucianism in American law enforcement. To Confucius, all crimes could be categorized. Context of the crime was to be eliminated and was even seen as undermining society; circumstances were to be stripped away from hypotheticals like, “Would you steal medicine to save your dying child?” leaving only the theft before the judge. What punishment to deliver was merely a matter of establishing what crime had been committed. Confucianism is characterized by its “respect for authority, hierarchy and social order,” in the words of one apologist. It is the ethics of despotism, which is why it’s been popular in China for millennia.

The fact that the officer threatened to unleash the hounds on a couple of old coots driving down a country road is reminiscent of a story Bill Lee, the cover artist for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer, told me about him and some of his WWII buddies being boarded and searched by the Coast Guard in Bridgeport Harbor — apparently our brave USCG thought a boatload of Normandy Nazi killers was “suspicious.” The context of Van Gilder’s situation — harmless history buffs returning from an antiques dealer with an antique — is superfluous. The Confucian officer is sure a crime has been committed and it only remains to determine which one. This is precisely why police departments discriminate against hiring officers with high IQs: they want somebody with a binary mind who won’t consider bigger questions. Just like an insect’s brain is simply a series of on/off switches — is this food? is this an enemy? — the New Jersey sheriffs only care if the flintlock is contraband or not. Today a legislature could outlaw bread and tomorrow cops would arrest everyone with a loaf or baguette on their pantry shelf, never considering the sense or wisdom behind the law. Beetles and ants are not philosophers.

The icing on the cake is that the pistol will probably be destroyed — or more likely find itself on the mantel of some petty Cumberland County potentate. If only New Jersey could be more like Connecticut and put those sheriffs out of work by eliminating county governments.

Everything Old Is New

1899

O Jackson, where art thou? you may ask yourself while stopping by this blog only to see it hasn’t been updated, like, again.

My absence from this blog, from writing, from even my own life has been due to my greatest historical project ever. In June, Mrs. Kuhl was out for a walk when she saw a For Sale By Owner sign. Next thing I knew, we were buying and restoring a dilapidated 1899 Dutch colonial revival. It was a horror movie from the beginning — most banks didn’t want to touch it. So we spent the summer assembling the financing while simultaneously evicting the then-current residents, a tenacious family of raccoons. Only after three months of hair-pulling and tooth-grinding did the real renovation begin. Applications for historical appropriateness. Demolition. Tree removal. Wallpaper removal. New kitchens and baths and windows and doors. Repair of rot and gaping holes in walls. Conversion to natural gas from oil, which had replaced the original natural gas. Painting and trim work. Landscaping and clean-up. And we still have about three months to go.

There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything needing doing. But at least when I jump out of bed running, I land in a nice house.

Old Terminal, New Purpose

The Port Authority wants to transform the sleek TWA terminal at JFK International Airport into a small hotel with a complex of stores and eateries:

After a bankrupt TWA was bought by American Airlines in 2001, the terminal closed. Jet-Blue Airways eventually built a new facility around the Saarinen-designed building. Since then, it has sat empty. Attempts to find a tenant fell short. So in 2008, the Port Authority decided to spend $20 million to remove asbestos and restore the interior to better appeal to developers.

Most of the story is behind WSJ’s pay wall but you can click over to the slideshow.

I hope they do something with it; the spy-jazz curves of the terminal scream for a restaurant and bar, and with most airport saloons nowadays kept past security, it’s often tough to find a place to meet when picking up or dropping off. It would definitely tilt my preference toward Jet Blue when booking if I could begin or end my journey with some Dr. No ambiance not unlike that of the Encounter at LAX.

But what’s notable here is that the Port Authority is actually investing in a historic property. By bringing it up to modern standards, they’ve reduced the risk for potential first-time tenants, who would otherwise have to do that work on their own or at least negotiate renovations with the PA, both of which would cost money the tenant may not recoup. And, even if the tenant should fail or leave, the terminal will still be usable by future tenants, keeping the PA on track to eventually see a return on that $20 million. This stands in contrast to the litigious breed of preservationist, who refuses to spend for anything beyond lawyers’ fees but then acts confused when no one wants to purchase a leaky, asbestos-filled ruin.

Historic preservation doesn’t require lawsuits or special designations of status. It’s very easy. If you want to save an old building, all you have to do is buy it and take care of it.

Blaming the Good Guys

Randall Beach, columnist for the New Haven Register, writes about the unbearable loneliness of the Pirelli Building, and before reaching the end of the second paragraph, I can already guess who the villains are: those evil Swedish furniture makers.

Thousands upon thousands of us drive by the vacant Pirelli Building every day; its forlorn billboardy presence prompts wistfulness, curiosity and concern.

When will Marcel Breuer’s historic yet modernist creation be used for something more than to provide free advertising for its current owner, Ikea, to hawk its products?

Robert Grzywacz, the [New Haven Preservation Trust]’s second vice president, said Ikea officials “have no incentive to fix it up, which is unfortunate.”

This raises the troubling question of whether Ikea’s strategy might be “demolition by neglect” — allowing a building to be unused for so long that the owner finally says it can’t be saved.

That would be a convincing argument if it had any correlation to reality. When I interviewed the sales manager of IKEA New Haven and the public affairs rep for IKEA US in late 2008 for a piece about the Pirelli Building, both made it clear to me that it’s a white elephant they would love to sell. The historic status prevents demolition and IKEA has no interest in managing a rental property. They only bought it because no other parcel of land that large existed within New Haven for them to build upon.

The reasons why no one has purchased the Pirelli Building from IKEA aren’t conspiratorial. It’s a large structure, meaning a small company isn’t going to buy it, especially when office space is otherwise readily available. It has flaws, including asbestos, and seeing as it’s been empty since 1997, very likely lacks the internal infrastructure necessary for a modern business. A large company is better off building from scratch. Even in the mid-90s (when I lived in New Haven) the building was only partially occupied, suggesting the deterioration of the upper levels was well underway before it was completely abandoned. If the Pirelli Building is so attractive, why wasn’t it more fully occupied — or occupied at all — before IKEA purchased it in 2002? Why doesn’t Beach blame its decline on the previous owners?

Oh, right. Because the multinational corporation is the Snidely Whiplash in Beach’s preconceived story template.

The only possible futures I foresee for the Pirelli Building are either the city buying it to appease preservationists; or IKEA selling it at a loss to a developer just to get it off their hands. Until then, it’s preposterous to point fingers at the same people who are sustaining the building in the absence of any civic or commercial interest.

How to Not Preserve a Historic Building

A compromise has been reached between the owners of the Norwalk Inn and the Norwalk Preservation Trust to do something — anything — with the severely damaged house at 93 East Avenue in Norwalk:

That agreement will allow the Inn — which owns the dilapidated G-SJ House at 93 East Ave. — to renovate the building that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986 as part of the Norwalk Green Historic District, provided the proposed improvements make it through the city’s zoning process.

Zoning approvals will allow the Inn to restore the house to its Revolutionary War-era grandeur and convert it into seven or eight extended-stay, suite-type rooms, give permission for the Inn to expand to a third floor and add up to 40 more rooms, and provide visual buffering around the Inn from neighbors on surrounding streets.

Some background: the Inn bought the house at 93 East Avenue, which is adjacent to the Inn’s parking lot, to demolish as part of an expansion (the house is often referred to as “The Grumman-St. John House,” but there are no records of it ever having been called that prior to the legal battle; the name originates with the Norwalk Preservation Trust and its personification of the building). Zoning laws prevented the Inn from expanding upwards with a third floor, so they sought to expand outwards. The house had been most recently owned by two elderly sisters who ran it as a boarding house, but their age apparently prevented them from keeping the facility in good order. When the Inn bought it, 93 East Avenue was in serious disrepair.

When the Inn applied for demolition permits, however, the Norwalk Preservation Trust filed suit to prevent the work, claiming the house was listed on the Register of Historic Places. This is somewhat misleading. The house is not specifically identified on the Register; rather, a broad swath of downtown Norwalk is listed (as the “Norwalk Green Historic District”), which includes 93 East Avenue and dozens of other structures as well. Regardless, the state of Connecticut agreed with the Trust, and litigation ended with a judge ordering an injunction against the demolition of the house.

This led to the house crumbling further, an eyesore to anyone traveling down busy East Avenue. In November 2008, I interviewed Chris Handrinos, a manager at the Inn and co-principal of the LLC formed to purchase and demolish 93 East Avenue, for a magazine article. He interpreted the injunction as preventing any kind of repairs since refurbishment would necessarily require some removal of rotten materials and thereby constitute “demolition.” Meanwhile, the Preservation Trust, which was so hot to litigate, has never offered so much as a penny toward either buying the house or restoring it (I would share their perspective with you, but back in 2008, when I was writing that article, they never returned any of my e-mails or phone calls). And there the matter stood, with the house falling apart, until yesterday’s agreement.

All sides can claim this as a win, although it should be stressed that this agreement can only happen through the town making an exemption for the Inn from its own zoning laws. None of this would have happened if the Inn had been allowed to expand with a third floor from the beginning.

But the impasse could have also lasted indefinitely, with the house eventually collapsing or catching fire. The Norwalk Preservation Trust exemplifies how not to preserve old structures. Rather than assuming responsibility for the house themselves, they chose to litigate instead, creating a stalemate where the incentive was to do nothing to the house rather than preserving it.

Let me contrast this with an anecdote about an unrelated property. Once upon a time, I was doing research at my local historical society when a man came in to complain. A developer in town sought to disturb an area the man believed to be historic and he wanted the society to do something about it. The archivist on duty politely told him that while they would be happy to assist the man in researching the area as foundation for his argument, legal or otherwise, against the development, the society did not directly involve themselves in these kinds of issues. Faced with the prospect of having to do, you know, some actual work, the man left. He wanted somebody else to spend their time and money to fulfill his wishes.

This is why I admire my historical society and why we’re members: they are circumspect in their mission. They maintain their library and museum, as well as two historic buildings in town, but they know very well that preserving a building requires labor and funds — something they wouldn’t have if they dove into every dispute over every colonial tool shed or sea captain’s homestead in town. They pick their battles and put their money where their mouths are. That’s how you do preservation.