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Whose castle?
July 15, 2004 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Steve Jobs wants to tear down his home. But there's a problem. It's a George Washington Smith-designed 1926 Spanish Colonial Revival house (mansion?) in Woodside, California, and preservationists feel it has historical significance. Jobs replies that he'll build something that will eventually become "more historically interesting" than the present property. (Given his penchant for the steel and glass of I.M. Pei, that seems questionable.) But should he not have the right to do what he wants with his property? Tear it down, paint it purple, or fill it to the roof with Jell-O; whose business is it other than the homeowner? note: first link leads to NYT, registration required
posted by emptyage (35 comments total)

 
I don't know why he'd want to tear it down instead of just selling it and buying another lot.

Tear it down, paint it purple, or fill it to the roof with Jell-O; whose business is it other than the homeowner?

Buildings in commercial districts are designated as such fairly often, meaning the owners of such buildings are required to keep them in proper condition (sometimes they also get funding to do just that). I think it's fine.
posted by The God Complex at 1:12 PM on July 15, 2004


I think it is recognized that private property rights do not trump all other considerations. If you do something with your property that potentially affects the rest of society negatively your rights are curtailed. Destroying a landmark, something of value to the community as a whole, even if you are the owner, would seem to fall in this category.
posted by sic at 1:15 PM on July 15, 2004


Just like the rest of the minions in the US, Mr Jobs will have to comply with regulations from local historical societies. That's how we protect our cultural heritage.

He can buy another lot. He can afford it.
posted by Red58 at 1:18 PM on July 15, 2004


When the past owner of the Farnsworth House wanted to sell, a bunch of people got together and bought the property in order to preserve it.

...seems like that'd work here: require Jobs to offer the house to the preservationists at fair-market value (or assessed value, maybe) before tearing it down. If the preservationists cannot afford to buy it within (say) 6mo, then Jobs can tear it down. If they CAN afford it, then they get the house, and Jobs gets some money to go elsewhere.

If he's so eager to live in a new place, he should be up for this, and if the house is so damn important, people will find a way to raise the money needed to buy it.
posted by aramaic at 1:22 PM on July 15, 2004


If you do something with your property that potentially affects the rest of society...

I don't need to tell anybody what the traditional modern-Libertarian response would be to that: That property rights are absolute. That they are the final absolute. That just about every right we truly posit as basic and irreducible, can be reduced to property rights.

So, for the sake of argument, I'll suppose that to be true, and post the question: What happens when what someone does with their property affects the value of mine?

This is in fact the basic principle behind zoning. Which is why I've always thought that the best first response to Libertarian posturing was to invoke zoning, and ask them what they would do given situation _x_ (where _x_ is neighbor [starting a bordello / opening a bar / installing a piranha pond / etc.]).

The point is that if we conceptualize this in terms of "free choice", then among the choices we acknowledge is Jobs's choice to live in that neighborhood, in that house, in the first place. And the choice he has to move out of it.

But this being that genius Steve Jobs, he'll probably get what he wants, one way or another...

ON PREVIEW: Ah, i see: so money and wealth really do make things right or wrong...
posted by lodurr at 1:25 PM on July 15, 2004


If a building is built in a "revival" style, it isn't significant architecture.

Look! I've got a wonderful 1998 house that is a great example of the 1983-McMansion Revival style!
posted by Kwantsar at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2004


require Jobs to offer the house to the preservationists at fair-market value (or assessed value, maybe) before tearing it down.

I disagree. Perhaps he really loves the lot/land where the house exists. If I could have afforded it, I would have leveled my last house and rebuilt in the same location.

Not all things are worth preserving and in no case should personal property rights be trumped by non-legal entity.

In other words, we as citizens can't do a goshdarn thing about eminent domain when the government comes and takes your land away to build roads, or a condo for their developer friends (as happened not too far from here). The right of eminent domain is a given, all property owners know that they may be subject to it, however unlikely it may be.

But, the "right of historical society" is absurd. Just as the "rights of Home Owner's Associations" are absurd. Nobody should have the right to tell another citizen what can and cannot be done with personal property.

If the property wasn't designated as a historical landmark when the purchaser buys it, with all of the inherent deed restrictions thereupon, then it is absolutely ridiculous to try and slap that label on it later when that label is being applied purely to remove rights from the owner.

Of course, I live in a constant state of war with my HOA...so I'm a little touchy about people trying to tell other people what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own property.
posted by dejah420 at 1:37 PM on July 15, 2004


That's how we protect our cultural heritage.

I normally agree with this statement. However, looking at the picture of the house in the NYTimes link, I not really clear what the "cultural heritage" value of this particular house is. It doesn't appear to be anything special to me. I've seen any number of houses just like it in many places around the country. Perhaps the article didn't do enough to explain the cultural context for me. I certainly don't see the comparison to the Farnsworth house, which is definitely significant in the history of architecture.

Perhaps cultural heritage might be better served here by a new house reflecting today's architecture, thus giving the neighborhood some variety and introducing it to the 21st century? Just a thought.
posted by dnash at 1:41 PM on July 15, 2004


Of course, dejah, it is important to determine if in fact the property does hold some kind of collective value to the community. This can be very subjective and I imagine that most billionaires get their way in these disputes. Unless of course a bunch of millionaires get together and form some kind of preservation society that is powerful enough to defeat the billionaire.

Regular assholes citizens like us don't have much to say in it though, do we?
posted by sic at 1:41 PM on July 15, 2004


lodurr: Money solves problems, yes. That's one of the things it's for. It represents transferrable value. If society values that particular building so highly, society will find a way to pay for it without resorting to legislative fiat.

Excessive zoning restrictions can end up encouraging people to destroy historic properties, either through neglect or actual arson. Without naming names, I personally know people that have resorted to questionable means of "freeing" their property from certain historical restrictions. I'm not saying they were right to do it, just that it does actually happen.

...and, oddly, the zoning board sometimes helps out by pointing out the specific circumstances under which their restrictions will disappear. In one case I'm familiar with, they actually said "if you were to do XYZ, then this situation will go away. As long as we don't know you did XYZ, nobody will ever find out."
posted by aramaic at 1:41 PM on July 15, 2004


For some reason, if you own it, you can burn the mona lisa, but felling a house with less significance to the world, that's a big deal.

Me, I'd just put a blanket on the stove, turn it on, and go on vacation if the government said no.

Problem solved.
posted by shepd at 2:02 PM on July 15, 2004


George Washington Smith is a fantastic architect, and there are literally hundreds of examples of his work all over California. For the greater good of the State of California, it makes sense to preserve some of his buildings, especially the historically significant ones such as courthouses, etc. But in this case it seems that the value is specific to Woodside, California, which I think is wrong. GW Smith has many, many fans in California and he is incredibly important for the architectural development of the state... but as previously mentioned, there are hundreds of examples of his work statewide.
posted by chaz at 2:07 PM on July 15, 2004


That property rights are absolute. That they are the final absolute.

Blech. Property is not a right. "Stuff" might be a right, but tangible living space is not. Ever heard of "imminent domain"?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:16 PM on July 15, 2004


...seems like that'd work here: require Jobs to offer the house to the preservationists at fair-market value (or assessed value, maybe) before tearing it down. If the preservationists cannot afford to buy it within (say) 6mo, then Jobs can tear it down. If they CAN afford it, then they get the house, and Jobs gets some money to go elsewhere.

Hmm, this is where actually reading the link comes in handy... Jobs has already offered this dump, utterly free, to anyone who cares enough about it to come and cart it away. Considering that a significant portion of the house isn't even by Washington himself (including the front facade of the damned thing), the fact that it's not even a well-known or respected building by him, and the fact that it's an uninspired work at best, I'd doubt anyone's going to bother... I know it's fashionable on MeFi to disparage the wealthy just because we can, but when you read the article it hardly makes Jobs seem like he's behaving badly or trying to exempt himself from the law solely due to the measure of his bank account.
posted by JollyWanker at 2:38 PM on July 15, 2004


Ever heard of "imminent domain"?

Is that when a house is just about to happen to you?
posted by thirteen at 2:42 PM on July 15, 2004


Just a note: It isn't just HOA's or other non-governmental organizations deciding historical significance. In certain jurisdictions, it's written into the code, much the same as coastal bluff protection or setbacks. Here in San Diego, if you propose remodeling the exterior of a building only 45 years old or more, you are required to bring photos of the exterior to the Building Department so that they can determine whether the structure is of historical significance.
posted by LionIndex at 2:44 PM on July 15, 2004


They could move the existing house. Expensive, but everyone's happy.
posted by DenOfSizer at 2:46 PM on July 15, 2004


He can buy another lot. He can afford it.
Did you read the article?(to all the negative comments)
He said he bought the lot for the lot not the home. He is offering the house for free if it will be moved. Also Jobs states the original home was added onto years later by the original owner. The add on changed the original layout of the home the architect had designed.

Plus as chaz has stated, this is not a one of a kind as the article stated.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:46 PM on July 15, 2004


SOMEONE IS TRYING TO DO SOMETHING! STOP THEM!
posted by thirteen at 2:50 PM on July 15, 2004


Is that when a house is just about to happen to you?

Heh. Whoops. Eminent domain
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:51 PM on July 15, 2004


The most overused privilege in local government. That's when they say, "well, we did offer you 75% of the value of your property, and you refused, so we'll just take it and hand it over to Wal-Mart. See you in court." Eminent domain is supposed to be used in extreme cases, where the greater good (NOT corporate interest) is served. Now, it's used every time some friggin' town council wants a Starbucks where the junkyard is currently operating.

The house isn't "original." And, if it's sold as a house and not as a landmark, why in the hell can't he tear it down and rebuild? It seems a bit unfair to wait for someone to buy a property, then suddenly claim "it's a landmark" and prevent them from doing anything with it. "You want to preserve it? Here's the property value - buy it. Otherwise, move aside so the bulldozer can get in my yard, as I'm on a tight schedule."

Property rights have been eroded to the point where your only reason for owning property is to pay property taxes to local, state, and federal government. Frankly, it sucks.
posted by FormlessOne at 3:20 PM on July 15, 2004


Whether you like his aesthetic or not (it leaves me unmoved), Jobs has consistently shown that he has a striking sense of style and a very strong consideration for design. At what point does someone, who almost certainly do something really interesting with the property, not have the right to express himself?

There probably are not many other lots in northern California that he could "just buy". Destroying a questionable building in poor condition seems a small price to pay for a potentially big gain.

We cannot live in museums. If our times are to have meaning, we have to be allowed to create our own art.
posted by bonehead at 3:32 PM on July 15, 2004


If society values that particular building so highly, society will find a way to pay for it...

You talk about society like it's a sentient being. It's not.

So, riddle me this: If a rich person buys an acre of property in a poor neighborhood, and decides to put up a one-acre pig lot, do the poor neighbors have any say in whether he should be allowed to do that? Or do they need to raise enough money to equal what the rich man could make from the pig lot?
posted by lodurr at 3:42 PM on July 15, 2004


Tear it down, paint it purple, or fill it to the roof with Jell-O

Or place a gigantic Jiffy-pop in the living room and hit it with an orbiting laser.
posted by scarabic at 3:45 PM on July 15, 2004


Lodurr - yes, the public has a right to approve new builds. It's called zoning, and it's a well-established phenomenon. But this is about the right to *remove* something that's privately owned in a residential zone. So obviously it's less of an issue of legality and more preservationist activism (which is not a bad thing).
posted by scarabic at 3:47 PM on July 15, 2004


Irony, he is keeping the natural beauty, the trees, which was why he bought the lot.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:53 PM on July 15, 2004


We cannot live in museums. If our times are to have meaning, we have to be allowed to create our own art.


If this were in fact the argument, which I doubt, and if the house were really so important to the community as artistic heritage, which I also doubt, then Jobs sumbit a proposal for his "new art" home for approval by the community that claims to be damaged by the removal of the original house. If his project is indeed more artistically relevant than the original home than he could collaborate with the community for the existing structure's removal to another site before building his beneficial new art home.

Of course this is all hypothetical so none of it will actually happen. Even if it weren't hypothetical it wouldn't happen. He's rich, very rich.
posted by sic at 3:54 PM on July 15, 2004


Interesting recent case in the UK. A significant modern house was torn down by its owner, despite it being 'listed' as being historically important (making demolition an illegal act). The owner, who is facing prosecution, is citing the Human Rights Act in his defence - those attempting to preserve the house (which, admittedly, needed extensive repairs) were breaching his rights (and, presumably, those of the golfers on the adjacent course, who thought it so ugly it put them off their strokes). The case rumbles on.
posted by jonathanbell at 4:21 PM on July 15, 2004


Guess those Taliban were right in nuking the Bamiyan statues...
posted by five fresh fish at 5:03 PM on July 15, 2004


Scarabic, what I'm looking for is to understand where the boundaries are. If "money is the way society [sic] solves problems", then how does it solve that problem?

Answer: It doesn't.
posted by lodurr at 5:33 PM on July 15, 2004


So, riddle me this: If a rich person buys an acre of property in a poor neighborhood, and decides to put up a one-acre pig lot, do the poor neighbors have any say in whether he should be allowed to do that?

You bettah believe it, mister. Rich or poor, do not underestimate the power of a neighborhood committe. A cabal of Kravitzes can put a halt to just about anything.
posted by spilon at 9:32 PM on July 15, 2004


<tangent> emptyage, why the gratuitous Pei slam? The article never mentions him, although it does talk about the staff architect at Apple responsible for Apple's retail stores, which entirely in keeping with Apple's predilection for design have a strong and recognizable aesthestic, and Jobs' rather well known penchant for that same asethetic in his personal life and property. So wherefore the snark at Pei? OK, now back to our MeFiFave, beating on the rich guy...</tangent>
posted by JollyWanker at 5:37 AM on July 16, 2004


If a rich person buys an acre of property in a poor neighborhood, and decides to put up a one-acre pig lot

Have you ever smelled a pig farm? They're about 10 times worse than cow feed-lots. Not to mention the enormous effect they have on the water table. You can't just throw down a pig lot wherever you feel like it.

Now, a minature horse lot -- that's another thing altogether. I'm sure the neighbors wouldn't mind that.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:56 AM on July 16, 2004


Hey Jolly, sorry, it wasn't meant as a slam against Pei. I used Pei in particular because Jobs has hired him before. Pei's a fantastic architecht; I've even gone to lengths to see some of his buildings before in disparate parts of the world. But a modern-looking Pei would hardly fit in folksy Woodside.
posted by emptyage at 9:22 AM on July 16, 2004


Apologies, emptyage. I was unaware that Pei or his firm had done work for Jobs at NeXT. Not surprisingly, now that you've pointed it out, the glass staircase at Apple's Michigan Avenue Chicago store (one of their five "flagship stores," apparently) does recall strongly the main lobby of the old NeXT offices...
posted by JollyWanker at 12:16 PM on July 16, 2004


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