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The Fountainhead, part 4, chapter 6

The novel’s villains have gathered to proclaim their views on why freedom and individuality are bad. After Ellsworth Toohey speaks, we hear from Mitchell Layton, the ultra-rich communist:

He sat in a tapestry armchair of his drawing room, half lying, legs and stomach forward, like an obnoxious child flaunting his bad posture. Everything about the person of Mitchell Layton was almost and not quite, just short of succeeding: his body had started out to be tall, but changed its mind, leaving him with a long torso above short, stocky legs; his face had delicate bones, but the flesh had played a joke on them, puffing out, not enough to achieve obesity, just enough to suggest permanent mumps. Mitchell Layton pouted. It was not a temporary expression nor a matter of facial arrangement. It was a chronic attribute, pervading his entire person. He pouted with his whole body.

Rand tells us that “Mitchell Layton had inherited a quarter of a billion dollars and had spent the thirty-three years of his life trying to make amends for it”. He’s upset that people only care about him because of his money and haven’t hailed him as the genius he believes he is. To get revenge on the world, he’s joined Ellsworth Toohey’s circle and is using his riches at Toohey’s behest to destroy everything that’s creative and unique in the world.

Between this section and Lois Cook, plus the fact that Howard Roark and Gail Wynand both worked their way up from abject poverty, are we to understand that Ayn Rand is claiming inheritance is bad? Would she have supported an estate tax so that these nonentities would have remained in the gutter where they deserved to be?

Of course, lest anyone get the wrong idea, she fixed this in Atlas Shrugged by having most of her protagonists inherit vast wealth and privilege just so they could prove they deserved it.

“That’s right,” said Mitchell Layton belligerently, as if he expected everyone to disagree and was insulting them in advance. “People make too damn much fuss about freedom. What I mean is it’s a vague, overabused word. I’m not even sure it’s such a God-damn blessing. I think people would be much happier in a regulated society that had a definite pattern and a unified form — like a folk dance. You know how beautiful a folk dance is. And rhythmic too. That’s because it took generations to work it out and they don’t let just any chance fool come along to change it. That’s what we need. Pattern, I mean, and rhythm. Also beauty.”

When Rand’s villains rant about “a regulated society” that preserves culture which “took generations” to develop, one thing that comes to mind are laws, like New York’s Landmarks Law, which mandate the preservation of historic buildings or artifacts discovered during construction.

This happens a lot in Europe, where there are centuries of past civilizations buried underneath modern cities. Two recent examples are Italy’s finding a treasure trove of Roman artifacts while digging a new subway tunnel, or the financial firm Bloomberg unearthing and reconstructing a third-century temple to the savior god Mithras on the site of its London headquarters.

Sadly, not all historically significant sites have been so fortunate. I’ve mentioned the destruction of New York’s original Penn Station. There’s also the Poe House, where Edgar Allan Poe worked on “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Raven”. It was swallowed up by an NYU expansion, with only some elements of its original facade preserved on a different site than where it originally stood.

Whether successful or unsuccessful, advocates of preservation want to see these buildings and others like them saved not because they hate freedom, but rather because historic buildings, like Boston’s Faneuil Hall, call to mind the freedoms and other values upon which our society was built. They’re tangible links in the chain from past to present, a reminder to future generations to keep those principles alive.

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell, in an essay on historic preservation, adds that historic buildings are important because they “give people the sense that they are not merely looking at history but are instead enveloped in it”:

Buildings are worth saving for several reasons. Sometimes, a building has an interesting cultural history – perhaps an important person was born there, or it was the site of a burgeoning subculture, or an important historical event. Sometimes a building is worth preserving because it is a particularly good example of its architectural style, or because it’s the only example of its particular style in the surrounding area.

Sometimes a building is worth preserving simply because it is beautiful, old, or built by a famous architect. Sometimes, like in the case of Johnson’s AT&T building, the building should be preserved because it had an important role to play in architectural history, theory, or criticism.

Wagner says that historic buildings are a glimpse into techniques, materials and ways of life that no longer exist and can’t be recreated:

Even if you wanted to build a full-scale replica of a demolished building from, say, the 18th century, it’s likely that the materials needed to rebuild it are no longer around. Most of the marble and stone quarries that brought us styles like Richardsonian Romanesque or Gothic Revival, were completely depleted. In addition, the construction methodologies required for pre-industrial building practices are either not likely to get approval because they aren’t up to modern building codes or because some of those trade skills are simply lost. Regardless, the cost of replacement materials, as well as the labor needed to build these historic buildings, are both economically unviable.

On a more surface level, old buildings are snapshots of how people once lived, and saving them is an important part of charting the history of human development, historically and technologically.

As this article adds, historic preservation can be a positive asset. Done well, it gives character and a sense of place to cities, making them more valuable and desirable places to live and boosting the neighborhood through tourism. (I can testify that this worked in the Belgian city of Bruges, which is a major tourist draw and European cultural capital because it’s been preserved so well from its medieval days.)

In New York’s Lower East Side, for example, millions of people visit annually to experience a remarkably intact 19th century tenement neighborhood. In Chicago, the annual Historic Pullman Community house tour is among the most popular residential house tours in Illinois, providing a glimpse into the lives of workers in George Pullman’s planned community. These places and thousands of others — from the Milwaukee Avenue Historic District in Minneapolis, to the Harvard-Belmont Historic District in Seattle — provide more than just housing for current residents. They also serve as living history lessons, and tangible reminders of a city’s past. They connect us across time to those who came before us.

This idea – that the value of historic places is more than monetary, that they confer understanding and connection with the past – is something that Ayn Rand scorns. In her view, the past was inhabited by pre-capitalist subhumans and contains nothing worth remembering or learning about (with Aristotle being the single, arguable exception). Howard Roark’s cube-shaped glass-and-steel houses are the future, and he should be allowed to bulldoze and dynamite anything that stands in the way of making more of them.

Despite what their chosen moniker implies, it’s often “conservatives” who take Rand’s side on this. Republican lawmakers have tried to weaken historic-preservation laws, and an essay on the libertarian blog Marginal Revolution advocates their complete abolition:

The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking – and that leads to high transaction costs and delay.

It’s true that there’s a tension between preservation and rebuilding older areas to have adequate density for future growth. It’s worth remembering our history, but not to the extent of it stifling the present. However, there are solutions to this other than bulldozing historic buildings to put up strip malls.

Two good suggestions are to repeal regulations that mandate a minimum number of parking spaces for new construction (cities should be built for people, not for cars!), or to pass land-value taxes that deter speculators from holding onto empty lots. With intelligent planning measures like these, it should be entirely possible to design a city that’s both dense and livable, a place where the past and the future can comfortably dwell side by side.

Image: The historic old town of Bruges, Belgium. Via Wolfgang Staudt, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...