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July 19, 2010 / Robert Ross


Every Wednesday during the school year, I pick my older son up from a school built in the mid 1920’s. It is a wonderful old multistory  brick building, complete with lots of cast stone trim, tall multi-paned windows,  tiled-wall halls, and a great plastered proscenium arch and balcony in the auditorium. Every time I pick him up I also walk past the cornerstone.

Historically, the cornerstone was the first stone set in a building’s masonry foundation. It became the touchstone and reference point for the rest of the building. If the cornerstone was true, then so was the rest of the building.  Over time, the significance of this concept was transferred to a more visible and ceremonial representation, usually in stone,  set in a prominent location on the exterior of the building recording the dates of construction, architect, builder and others responsible for it’s construction. It is intended to be a permanent monument to those responsible for the building. As such, its installation is frequently accompanied by a ceremony celebrating the new structure.

The cornerstone I walk by publicly records for posterity the names of the architect, builder, and board of education members in office at the time of the buildings construction.  After about 2 years of walking past this, it hit me that cornerstones are not often  found in new construction.  There are sometimes bronze plaques included in the entry vestibules of public buildings. But these are more of an afterthought and temporary. Not an integral part of the fabric of the structure.  Certainly not a mark of civic pride.

It is perhaps a sad comment on our society that the idea of building for the ages in the public realm has been replaced with the feeble conceptual duo of life cycle cost and planned obsolescence. SO much of our built environment is transitory and built that way on purpose. No where is this trend more prevalent that in the suburban development ringing most modern American cities. Sprawl has created a seemingly never-ending charm bracelet of unconnected and unrelated subdivisions tied together by a connector road.



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