Bricks and Stones — or Vinyl


According to the front-page article in the local newspaper, the rulers of Columbia, Illinois, were affronted by the "sea of vinyl" of St. Charles County, Missouri, despite the fact that the two communities are separated by over thirty miles, and the Mississippi River. They referred to the cladding of new houses built in the growing St. Charles area. They didn’t like all that vinyl.

In fact, they decided they wouldn’t allow it in Columbia. Last year they passed an ordinance requiring 30% of new homes to have at least a brick front, and 50% to have at least three brick sides. (Question: wouldn’t you think that homes with three brick sides would have the front as one of those sides?) And an adjacent Illinois town, Millstadt, is considering a similar law.

There’s nothing new about these ordinances, although they’re new to me. Literally a stone’s throw from where I sit typing these words, another suburban town has had an ordinance requiring masonry on home exteriors for many years.

Contractors claim that the brick requirement could add from 10,000 to 30,000 to the cost of a new home, but the advocates of the brick ordinances believe that brick adds sufficient value — perhaps largely aesthetic — to the home.

Now the scene shifts to Texas, where a suburb of Austin, Kyle, is being sued by the National Association of Home Builders, the Home Builders Association of Greater Austin, and the NAACP (??!!), who claim that the brick ordinance prices homes out of the reach of minorities. (Another question: haven’t there always been things out of the reach of many people, minorities or not?) If the magic word "discrimination" can be worked into the litigation, I suppose that will provide grounds for federal involvement. Gosh!

But, upon reflection, it’s apparent that discrimination is at the very heart of this teapot-tempest: namely, discrimination against the potential buyer. Nothing in the article would suggest that his opinion is even remotely significant.

Officious strangers, who, in the case of Columbia, Illinois, find vinyl siding offensive (Columbia has a long tradition of brick homes, although any connection between the Columbia rulers and the masonry industry would be unwarranted, of course!) have taken it upon themselves to decide that the front of your new home there, if not three of its walls, will be brick. Your preference, as the buyer of the house, doesn’t count at all.

An alderman in Columbia justifies this, saying, "I don’t want Columbia to look like south St. Louis County." Although I’ve lived in St. Louis all my life, I don’t know what he’s referring to, but I assume that he’s repelled by the variety of housing styles and construction materials in south county’s multiple municipalities. But here’s an interesting fact: all of those various homes are occupied! They evidently proved satisfactory to home buyers, and continue to fill their needs. I suppose if those south county dwellers wanted to move upscale, they could buy a home in Columbia with FOUR brick walls, and perhaps a stone roof, and marble driveway. But only, of course, if the local ruling class approved.

It’s an amazing transformation which I’ve noted before: get elected to office, no matter how insignificant (alderman of Columbia, Illinois!) and you change from being just another person, to someone whose wishes and desires become "law!" If your personal preference is for brick, rather than vinyl, cladding, then, by God, brick it will be! Suddenly, the town becomes YOUR town, and its inhabitants YOUR people!

People involved with city planning often seem obsessed with aesthetics. Downtown St. Louis, in my youth, was a bustling place. Not pretty, although I don’t think I noticed that. The Old Cathedral, whose diocese extended to California at the city’s founding, was so hemmed in by buildings that you didn’t see it until you were right in front of it. Today, the land around the Cathedral has been cleared, and the building can be appreciated for its architectural style. But the productive activity which once surrounded it will never be replaced.

Similarly, there were once many stores along Market Street, in the vicinity of Union Station, once one of the country’s largest, and busiest railroad stations. I worked, one summer, at a camera store on Market Street. It didn’t occur to me that Market Street was cluttered and unsightly. Today, with that area devoted to grassy malls and adorned with sculpture of dubious value, the vista is much more attractive, albeit dead. Union station still stands, a magnificent structure, but empty now except for boutiques and a few restaurants. The present train station is a Quonset hut, a mile or two away. Downtown, in general, is lifeless. But much prettier.

That’s because some people decided it was THEIR city, and its occupants THEIR people, and both those people and the city would benefit if productive clutter, which sprang up spontaneously in response to human needs, were replaced to satisfy the aesthetic fancies of the rulers.

They were wrong.

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.