In the course of looking at these buildings — and the internet makes such explorations easy these days — I came across a number of cities that demolished their old city halls and replaced them with utterly undistinguished modernist structures. In many cases, I even had to rely on Google Earth to get a shot of the current city hall, since the city government officials didn’t think it worthwhile to post an image of their city hall on the official web site.
In stark contrast to the fate of those six American buildings: at the end of World War II, all of the great city halls of Germany had suffered damage — much of it so severe that, had the rebuilding plans been left to American city governments, they would all have undoubtedly been torn down and replaced with cheaper, but technologically up-to-date modernist glass boxes. But the citizens of the German cities loved their civic buildings, and so went to great effort and expense to restore them. Typical of such heroic rebuilding efforts is the Cologne city hall:
But, with the exception of the Eureka structure, none of the vanished city halls on my “Demolished City Halls” page suffered such damage. They were simply condemned as antiquated relics that had outlived their usefulness, and deserved no better than demolition and replacement by newer structures. In some cases, preservationists made efforts to halt the destruction of their cities’ civic symbol. But in the six city halls on this site, the efforts were to no avail, and the no-longer venerable buildings were destroyed. In fact, city officials even resorted to underhanded tactics to encourage the destruction:
“It’s an old trick,” said Dennis Morrow, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul parish and the Grand Rapids Diocese archivist. “They weren’t doing anything to fix City Hall. If the toilet broke, they put up an ‘out-of-order’ sign and let it stay there for weeks. When people complained, they’d say ‘Yeah, we need a new building.’ "
One striking commonality of all the demolished city halls pictured on this site: every one of them was torn down in the 1950s and 1960s. Many writers have pointed out the anti-establishment motif in some of the most salient features of that era: anti-war protests, Black Power, the pill, psychedelic drugs and music, etc. But we can see another theme emerging from “The Establishment” itself in its architectural programs: the destruction of old buildings and their replacement by modernist boxes, as seen most clearly in the new city halls, and even more so in the infamous “Projects.”
One other possible reason as to why the Americans tore down their “outdated” city halls, whereas the Germans rebuilt them: the cherishing sentiment engendered by long acquaintance, and the native architectural languages of the locale. Gothic, Italian Renaissance, Baroque — these are styles native to Europe, developed over centuries, and as an expression of the personality of each region. Except for some colonial variations on European themes, America had no such native traditions. Architectural styles were imported, like the music, art, and literature, from old Europe. As long as Americans felt a reverence for the forms and spirit of the old country, they could build their city halls as expressions of the cultural values they inherited from Europe. But by the 1960s, the generation that had built the old city halls of Detroit, San Jose, and Eugene and others had passed from the scene of local influence. The new politicians felt themselves as progressive moderns, dedicated to new social and political principles. Old Europe might still be reverenced as the homeland of high culture, but not as a source of inspiration for civic policies. Two world wars, the rise of Communism, and a host of other European events could not inspire the same reverence that had led the earlier civic leaders in America to construct city halls that expressed reverence for European institutions.