Thursday, December 01, 2005

Double Cross

Architectural Blight 

       The over-privileged of PortsmouthOhio, most of whom are white males, have blighted the city not only economically but also architecturally, giving residents of the city a double cross to bear. Not only must residents live with poverty but also with ugliness, for the relatively few public buildings with historic value and architectural distinction are torn down to make way for parking lots, jails, and shopping centers while millions of dollars of public monies are used to save unattractive virtually worthless commercial structures and convert them at great public expense into public-use buildings, as is the case with the former Kenrick’s store, which is now the architecturally soulless Scioto County Welcome Center. That will probably eventually also be the case with the 100-year-old Marting’s department store, which may become Portsmouth's city hall, and the Adelphia Cable building, which will become the police station. The reason why empty relatively worthless commercial structures in downtown Portsmouth are saved is not because they have any commercial, historic and certainly not any architectural value but mainly because they are owned by the over-privileged, who are accustomed to having the politicians whom they help elect to office bail them out by taking their worthless properties off their hands with monies derived from pork barrel subsidies and increased taxes.

When the Cross Came Crashing Down

Since the cross is the most sacred symbol of Christianity, I expected at some point prior to the demolition of the tower that it would be carefully if not reverentially removed. Certainly the time and small additional expense that removing the cross entailed should have been no impediment to removing and safely storing it. There is a protocol for the treatment and disposal of American flags. Isn’t there also for the treatment and disposal of crosses? My curiosity about the cross increased after I heard a news report about the bombing of two Shiite mosques in Iraq. When Shiite rescuers rushed in, they reportedly looked immediately for two things: worshippers who might have survived the blast and copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. I wondered if the Methodists, or Neal Hatcher, would show anything like that regard for the cross. They did not, for the cross was still on the top of the tower when it came tumbling down, and after it was dragged off the pile of rubble (pictured above), it lay, battered on the ground (pictured below), for over a month afterwards.

Cross Rusting in Two Pieces Months Later

     On Saturday, November 19, 2005, another of the city’s architectural treasures, the old Methodist church at the northwest corner of Gallia and Offnere Streets was torn down to make way for a parking lot. As it scrambled to survive, the Methodist church changed names several times. To distinguish it from the new Methodist church on the northeast corner of Offnere and Gallia, I will refer to the old one on the northwest corner by one of its previous names, the Wesley United Methodist Church.

Shall We Gather at the Wrecking of the Church?

      Though it was a mild afternoon, only a handful of curious onlookers had gathered on Gallia Street to watch Neal Hatcher’s J.N. H. Company complete the demolition of the Wesley Church. Yes, this would be another Hatcher job. (I am told Boone Coleman, the Portsmouth demolisher of choice who has had his problems with OSHA, was tied up with the work on Route 23.) Only the tall tower of the Wesley United remained, for in the preceding weeks the rest of the church had been gutted and demolished.
      Possibly the crowd would have been larger if Ohio State had not been playing Michigan that afternoon, which may have been why some of the spectators remained in their cars – to listen to the Buckeyes, for whom there is a kind of religious devotion and even fanaticism throughout Ohio. If there were state religions, as there are state flowers, birds, and songs, Ohio’s would be the Ohio State football team, the dearly beloved Buckeyes. Nothing is more important to the fanatical Buckeye followers than the defeat of the hated Michigan Wolverines, so this Saturday of all Saturdays was not a good time for demolition watching.
      Most of the people sitting in their cars and standing around in small groups appeared to be curiosity seekers who were willing to wait hours to see the four-second spectacle of a tower crashing to the ground, just as pedestrians might gather silently on a street of New York City to watch someone on a ledge jump to his death, or just as a crowd might have gathered to see a public hanging or a burning at the stake in Europe in the Age of Faith. “Portsmouth is a boring town. There’s not much here to do,” someone said to me recently. I saw no sign of reverence for the building or regret that one of Portsmouth’s architectural landmarks was about to come crashing down. I had thought that at least a small delegation from the church’s now relocated congregation would be present to witness the final hour of their historic church, as children might gather at the bedside of a dying parent, but there was no sign of mourners. A few older members of the old church, some of whom left the congregation in silent protest, subsequently told me the demolition was too painful to witness. We live now in a throw-away economy, and apparently old churches, like disposable contact lenses and razors, can be tossed out unceremoniously.
      The Methodists had sold the old church and the site to the neighboring Holy Redeemer [Catholic] Church, which wanted the land for a parking lot. According to a Catholic friend of mine, the Holy Redeemer Church did not want to have the onus of tearing down a historic Protestant landmark to make way for a parking lot for Catholics. Perhaps they did not want to appear to be violating the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s church for a parking lot.” As Pilate washed his hands of any responsibility for the execution of Christ, the Catholics wanted to wash their hands of responsibility for the destruction of a Protestant landmark. They wanted somebody else to do the dirty work, which fell to Hatcher. But to judge by the apparent indifference of most Methodists to the demolition of their church and the treatment of the holiest symbol of their faith, the cross, the Catholics’ concern about Protestant sensibilities appear to have been unwarranted.
      I had followed the demolition for several weeks and especially wanted to see what would happen to the large white cross in the tower of the old church. I had learned that a cross had first been added to the church tower in 1930. Because it was illuminated by screw-in light bulbs, like an old marquee, and because it also revolved, the cross was something to behold on Portsmouth’s skyline in the 1930s, and of course a cardinal rule of our commercialized world is "It pays to advertise." An older member of the church who had changed burned-out bulbs in the old cross way-back-when told me of the heart-stopping challenge the wind and a rickety ladder presented.
     The revolving cross was later replaced by the seven-foot white hollow sheet metal cross that remained on the top of the tower until the demolition of November 19, 2005. Another older member of the church told me she was present at a dedication ceremony for the new cross, suggesting that the putting up, if not the taking down, of a cross was a still an occasion for solemn commemoration. The contrast between the Muslims’ reverence for copies of the Koran and the Methodists’ casual attitude toward the cross may reveal something important about differences between Islam and Christianity, and particularly the tactical advantages the followers of Mohammed have over the followers of Christ. Muslims and Christians both believe in their faith, but, judging by actions, not words, the Muslims believe more fervently in their faith than Christians do in theirs. The Muslims are more willing to kill and sacrifice their own lives for their faith than Christians are, which gives them an enormous tactical advantage in the religious war in which the U.S. and Islamic fundamentalists are now engaged. Muslim places of worship are places of worship, not glorified daycare centers, which is what I heard someone call the new Cornerstone United Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Gallia and Offnere.
     As I understand it, there is a place for worship in the new Cornerstone Church, but the space is not so sacred that it cannot be used, thanks to folding chairs, for some other purpose. And the sacramental space must not be so large as to displace the gymnasium. The old church had a gymnasium, too, but it was behind the church, where it was too accessible to rowdy elements, I was told. The new gymnasium is in a virtual gated community, which to a degree is what the whole new church is. The sacred and the inspiring have been replaced by the mundane and the useful: that is how I would summarize the criticisms I have heard of the new church. I am not criticizing the unorthodox architecture of the new church. Having closely studied the history of one New England church over its 200- year history, I know how the disposition of space in a church can change drastically to accommodate to the needs of successive congregations.
     There are rumors that other beautiful and historic Portsmouth church buildings will bite the dust, in some cases in order to provide more parking space. I said rumor, but remember that in Portsmouth a rumor is often a truth that readers of the Portsmouth Daily Times are the last to learn about. Not a believer myself, I appreciate the uplifting architecture of churches, and while the cross is not a sacred symbol to me, I can see in the slighting of it evidence that another symbol has replaced it in Portsmouth, namely the dollar sign. That would be bad enough, but in Portsmouth the dollar the sign stands for is often not earned, in the old- fashioned way, through initiative, rugged individualism, and competition but through cronyism and political corruption, which lead to pork and higher taxes.

Through transfusions of pork and higher taxes, the Marting Foundation is attempting to preserve the Marting department store as a shrine to the commercial spirit of Portsmouth. Older even than the Wesley United Methodist Church, and uglier than hell, the Marting department store is commercialism’s shrine in Portsmouth, whose putative prosperous downtown past is the Paradise lost which the Foundation is seeking to lead us back to. The appropriate symbol to put on top of the Marting building, if it becomes the Portsmouth city hall, is the dollar sign, for the double-crossers in the city hall will be as devoted to selling their souls as the sales people in Marting’s were to selling shoes. The dollar sign is held in greater awe in Portsmouth than the cross, and has followers who are even more devoted and passionate than Buckeye fans. Tear down all the churches in the city, and let the crosses fall where they may, as long as the public dollars continue to cross the palms of Portsmouth's over-privileged.