Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Main Street-Our Look Will Sell

Italianate next to Greek Revival
In the last few months I've spoken to more than one individual who doesn't like Norristown's architectural look. Thing is, every one of these people only came to Norristown within the last few years. And all of them are in some sort of taxpayer-funded position where they can make decisions that could change our look.

Last week I heard one of these folks say that it's better to demolish the old buildings in our downtown and put up new construction. It's too hard to heat and cool old buildings, he said. It's too hard to put old buildings to new uses.

Corson House-one of our oldest buildings
None of these people seem to have a clue that Norristown's downtown architecture, where we've allowed it to stand, is one of our best economic assets. For instance, the first 2 blocks of West Main, from Swede to Barbadoes, is a mix of Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian, early 20th Century, Art Deco, Modern, etc. It's absolutely unique, having taken 2 centuries to come together. Do some of the buildings need sprucing up? Of course, they do, but a little cosmetic work is a heck of a lot cheaper than building from scratch. And you don't end up with blocks of cheap-looking new construction that will look dated in a decade, if it lasts that long.

I live in a house that's nearly 90 years old. Adding energy efficient windows saved me 21% in fuel usage, adding attic insulation saved me another 15% in heating and 25% of my electricity for cooling. If I caulk everything, insulate all my pipes and put in a more efficient heating/cooling system, I'd do even better. None of the costs of these things added together would equal a fraction of the costs of demolishing my house and starting over. And I doubt new construction would stand up to 4 hurricanes, one superstorm, 2 earthquakes and a straight line wind event the way my house has. The technology and materials are available to make any old building energy-efficient. As for new uses, if you can't be creative, maybe you don't belong in a town that's suppose to be an arts community. Creativity ought to be our selling point.

Modern next to Victorian mansard roof
Who would come to Norristown to see and shop in new construction when they could go lots of other places with more stores, better parking, and the exact same new look? Because all new downtown shopping areas nowadays look alike. For instance, Providence Town Center, just southwest of Collegeville, and that new monstrosity they're building in Malvern.

So why not capitalize on our vintage look and great architecture? Why can't that be a draw? What's keeping people out of Norristown isn't old buildings--it's our overabundance of pawn shops, check cashing places and such. Get in more business like Almaz Cafe and Banh Mi Bistro, who support the town and look good. Create incentives to make the other buildings in our downtown look classy again--like the renovators did with the old PNC Bank at 1 West Main. Start advertising us as "Historic Downtown Norristown." Visitors will come just to stroll our streets, like they do in Phoenixville and Doylestown.

Chicago school style next to early and mid-19th century
These newcomers who want to mow down our architecture--I keep asking myself, what brought these people here in the first place? Certainly they could have found employment elsewhere, probably better-paying. It's like Norristown, to them, is a giant ball of Silly Putty that they feel they can reshape however they want, without asking the rest of us, especially longtime residents like myself. It's like they feel they have to mark their territory. Sorry, you have to earn the right to call it your territory by respecting what's here.

If you don't like the look, leave, or at least, don't work for our borough or county governments. If you're going to stay, get to know Norristown instead of ruining it. 

1 comment:

  1. I grew up in Doylestown and lived in Norristown for the first few years after I got married. I agree, the architecture in Norristown is just as captivating as the older buildings in Doylestown, and simple cosmetic improvements would really make a great impact.