'Tis the season to rebuild, and reconsider

This could be called B&B season in the suburbs, a time when bulldozers and backhoes dot the greening landscape.

Drive past a vacant lot and you may see a yellow behemoth scooping up soil and digging a foundation, the first sign that a house will soon rise on the site. Or you might return home at the end of a workday to discover that a 1950s ranch down the street has been reduced to a pile of rubble with now-you-see-it-now-you-don't speed.

Goodbye, cozy house and cheerful garden. Hello, big dwelling and new owners to come.

Changes like these signal the beginning of a new generation of houses, a chance for more families to put down roots in a new home. So common has the teardown phenomenon become that some planners say, only partly in jest, that the midcentury ranch is turning into an endangered species. Progress, they add ruefully, often gets defined as out with the old, in with the new.

Unless, that is, the old is really old - say several centuries old. In that case, don't even think about calling in the bulldozers. The watchword is: renovate and preserve, whatever the cost.

Four blocks from the latest teardown on our street, a handsome colonial built in 1848 became the subject of contentious debate last year. The private boys' school that used it as the headmaster's residence wanted to raze it and rebuild rather than restore it at great expense. No, no, said the town planners, reminding everyone that the house was listed on the historical register. Only when the full extent of damage from termites and moisture became apparent did the town relent and allow the structure to be torn down.

In this case there is a satisfying ending: In place of the historic house, a majestic colonial is nearing completion. It preserves the beauty of 19th-century lines while serving the needs of a 21st-century family.

The question "What is worth saving?" in architecture goes beyond housing. Discussions swirling through the spring air in our suburb of Boston these days involve the high school, built in 1930 and deemed out of date and inadequate. Should we renovate it for an estimated $38 million or tear it down and build a new school for $70 million? A neighboring suburb is also considering the possibility of tearing down a high school built in the mid-1950s and building a new one.

A town election this week will also determine the future of our local public library, part of which dates back to 1915. Residents will vote on tax hikes to pay for construction of a new library.

What is old? Definitions differ from place to place. To a New Englander, a 75-year-old house is common. A Californian or Floridian, accustomed to new subdivisions, might regard it as a curiosity. Similarly, Europeans, with their centuries-old culture, enjoy an everyday familiarity with 500-year-old churches that leave American visitors awestruck. Even older are some mosques in Iraq, mercifully spared from the bombing missions in Baghdad in recent weeks.

Still, much of that ancient city's architecture dates back only about a decade. Pictures show modern buildings that rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the first Gulf War. They reflect the sad reality that beyond the human toll of any war, there is often another toll in the form of architectural losses.

For Iraqis who have lost cherished homes and essential public buildings during bombings in the current war, the rubble could be called involuntary teardowns. As they face the enormous task of rebuilding structures that, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together again, the American idea of deliberately bulldozing a still-functional house or school must seem nearly unfathomable. "Old" is a relative word indeed, especially to those who have lost the comforting familiarity of long-established streets, neighborhoods, and skylines.

For Americans going about their pleasant springtime routines - gardening, cleaning, sprucing up the house - images of the ruins in Baghdad and Basra produce a fervent wish for Iraq: Bring on the bulldozers, backhoes, and construction workers. Rebuild and restore as quickly as possible, and help a beleaguered people gain some sense of safety and home.

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