Monday, November 24, 2014

The Nostalgia Whore Strikes Again



Other pictures here.

Years ago I built a house in the woods in central Minnesota. Well, I undertook a range of tasks to that end, though a lot of key pieces of the process—framing, concrete work, siding, roofing—were done by others. Anyway, that’s a long time ago; the house by now has belonged to others for much longer than I owned it.

But one of the things I learned from that time came from the many weekends my then-wife and I spent clearing the lot before the proper house building began. The building site was a wooded 1.3 acre lot on a small lake, a typical Northern Minnesota plot of ground. And this is one of the things I learned: the forest contains much more dead stuff than you think from a casual look. We needed to clean up the lot and clear some trees for the house and driveway. In the end I estimated that fully 1/3 of the stuff on our lot (and on the surrounding lots) was dead and in some stage of decay; another 1/3 was past its prime and in the process of dying; and the final third was alive and growing and thriving. This was not at all what I felt intuitively, even though I had grown up in exactly this environment and had spent a fair amount of time in the woods (admittedly, riding dirt bikes or bicycles and not, as my brother had done, studying the forest or its animals).

This isn’t really what’s on my mind, but I’m reminded of this time almost 30 years ago by my current situation.

After giving up our crash pad apartment in Louisville last year, I now have no place to stay when I'm on reserve. With increasing seniority, I can generally avoid reserve nowadays--as a group we found ourselves on reserve so rarely that after a dozen years we let the crash pad go as an unnecessary expense. But I can't always avoid it, so where to stay? One solution is to look for a cheap hotel. $70 is a pretty good nightly rate for a nearly-new Holiday Inn near the airport, but I had to spend a full two weeks on reserve in June and I felt I should look for something even cheaper. The solution: the FORMER Holiday Inn, which is now in private hands. Cost: $55. Cool. (My hope is that I'd be assigned flying for most of this time, and would not spend two weeks sitting in a hotel at my own expense. As it happened, of course, I was called only once during this period to fly, and then just a mid-day out-and-back. So I had to pony up for the whole two weeks.)

A cheap hotel is nice for the wallet, but the savings have to come from something. And after a few days here I’m reminded of my time clearing deadfall on my wooded Minnesota lot. While the new Holiday Inn is a single building of, say, 200 rooms, the old place is considerably larger. The unavoidable sense is that Holiday Inn abandoned the old place when its upkeep became problematic, and evidence of the maintenance free-fall is everywhere.

I have a particular soft spot for the decayed and abandoned, and infrastructure stuff in particular exercises a perverse hold on me. I love old buildings waiting for the wrecking ball, unused railroad tracks, abandoned stretches of roadway, the things that correspond to the 1/3 of the forest that’s dead and decaying. And everybody is aware of (and many of us are infatuated with) the new and growing, new construction and development with its attendant anticipation and promise.

But what of that middle third, that segment that is past its prime and headed rapidly downhill? Well, that’s this hotel. If I have an unaccountable love for the decaying, then this should be my kind of place.

I’m guessing the place has 600 rooms [460, I learned later]. It’s billed as a “conference center,” though I can’t imagine too many conferences wanting anything to do with it. The hotel is split into two large buildings separated by a roadway. There is an enclosed, elevated footbridge that connects the two buildings. Evidently one building existed first, and the second was added in a burst of deluded grandeur (or was built as a rival hotel and then incorporated). Both buildings are now quite tired. I’ve only stayed in one of the buildings, the newer one as it turns out. The original building dates from the 50s or 60s, and the newer one from a decade or so later. The main office and a couple of mostly-closed restaurants and the pool are located in the other building; my building has a number of public rooms as well, but they're rarely used. My building especially seems quite isolated (tonight mine is the only car in the parking lot on this side).

I’ve stayed here now on three or four occasions. One of the things that first struck me is the large meeting room in this building that is covered by a glass dome. Nothing special there, except that the entire dome is now covered by a huge tarpaulin. I’m guessing this room used to be the building’s swimming pool, but first it was filled in and made a convention hall, and then the roof, when it began to leak, was just covered over. A couple weeks ago there was a big gathering in there and it seemed a little… spooky. What is supposed to bring a flood of natural light instead brings a kind of black hole effect.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and other little signs of decay are everywhere. I went to walk across the elevated footbridge yesterday, and I found it’s been sealed off--though ventilation windows along its plexiglass-domed length are tilted open. It's a concrete walkway covered by an arched plexiglass top like a long covered wagon. Doors have been haphazardly installed on both ends, held shut on my end with a couple of long wood screws pushed through the door into the jamb. Both sides' walkway entrances are via staircases that lead to nothing else, and one walks up the steps--the hallways and carpets now unused and filthy--to find blocked passages. No signs indicate that the walkway is there, or that it's closed. Elsewhere the carpets—there’s a lot of carpeting—are stained and puckered and threadbare in places. All the doors have numerous coats of paint on them, walls have holes from missing fixtures, wallpaper seams have begun to separate, the elevators are slow and show signs of years of hard use. Everything smells a little damp. My building is mostly empty—looking at it at night, one sees just a couple lights burning among its eight stories. Most guests are in the other building, though even that is sparsely-populated. Hard to see a workable business model in all this.

It's not that the place is ready for the wrecking ball: that would augment the tragedy, as it's certainly still a legitimately functional facility. But the vector is undeniable. The parking lots are heaved and veined with cracks sprouting all manner of weeds, and there's clearly losing battle being waged against entropy to keep the outsides looking fresh. Maintenance crews dance either side of a line between things needing paint and things looking like they've been painted too often. And the facility isn't generating anything like the money needed to fix any of it.

I can’t help wondering what it is to stand watch over a decaying relic like this. There is an occasional maintenance person in the halls or roaming the grounds in a golf cart; yesterday there was someone working on one of the two elevators in this building. There is a "Sales and Catering" office in my building, the only managerial presence on this side. The office is mostly empty, though lights are on during business hours. I've talked to a manager on occasion (usually about ensuring a special “pilot rate” they offer) and I have to wonder: what is it like to spend one’s working years managing a thing on the downslope, a thing which is not long for the world? I can’t help thinking that a bad storm that goes thru and breaks a bunch of windows, or a flooding of the nearby creek would be all it would take to seal the fate of the place. (Interestingly, the original building is built on a drainage creek, and there's a flood wall not around the building, but separating it from the rest of the world. A flood would take the building but save everything else. One must drive one's car in and out of huge, swinging steel flood gates, silently waiting for the next apocalyptic spring thaw.)

On my drive to and from KY, I pass an abandoned hotel off the freeway in Lafayette, IN. I've been passing the same hotel now for 13 years, and it's been abandoned the whole time. It's amazing how quickly the rot takes over. Over that time the pool house has developed several large holes in its roof, holes that get worse and worse each year. Most of the windows are broken, and the parking lot is sprouting trees through cracks in the pavement. What once looked perhaps temporarily closed is now unquestionably beyond redemption.

I can't help thinking my current abode will soon sing a similar tune.

2 comments:

dbackdad said...

A typically thoughtful and interesting post by you. I can't help but think of these over-the-hill buildings as metaphors for many things in our country ... an aging workforce, a political system that is not working any more, our electrical grid, our oil-reliance, etc.

William Stachour said...

This seems especially true with infrastructure stuff; we feel like we're in the downslope.