I have for years watched the Home and Garden cable TV channel and shows like Flip That House and Sell This House and Restaurant Makeover. I have built a house to sell and sold it, and am in the process of updating and restoring a 1916 house, which in Fairhope is a real oldie.
I was on the Historic Preservation Committee when its mission was to stop the destruction of the quaint bungalows and genuine architectural treasures of Fairhope’s history. The committee lost its case in the public eye about six years ago, and almost all of the older homes and cottages have been replaced by really big generic houses, some of which affect a “cottage” appearance but none of which would look out of place in any location in the United States or Canada.
A huge new library is about to be occupied. A huge new Baptist Church has been built to replace the old one (which was very very large, but not what I would call huge). The old high school building in the center of town, now housing kindergarten and the first grade, will soon be torn down and sold to commercial interests, under great protest by picketing moms who think (as I once did) that they can stop the trend – and that Fairhope respects its heritage and admires the appearance or at least the presence of its older buildings.
Those television shows and all the shelter magazines celebrate what they call “the WOW factor.” Homeowners – and particularly those planning to sell a home or building – buy into this idea, that a buyer must say “Wow!” when walking into the house. He also must say “Wow!” when viewing the kitchen for the first time. He also must say “Wow!” when viewing the outsized master bedroom with its obligatory luxurious adjoining bath.
Everywhere we look we must say “Wow!” There is no room in today’s world for a quiet street peppered with charming cottages with rabbit-warren rooms. Every house must astound from the curb, and in it, every bedroom must have walk-in closets an adjoining bath. And every room must be big enough to elicit at least one “Wow!”
I think that’s why our public buildings in Fairhope got so big. Committees were formed, committees headed by people from Mobile who wanted to be sure their friends would be impressed with the state-of-the-art, “Wow!” buildings in Fairhope.
The Performing Arts Center, originally planned to be built adjacent to the new high school and to have a 2,000 seat main theatre and several smaller houses along with classrooms, had to be downsized to one 1,000-seat mainstage – but, probably to increase its “Wow!” factor the committee decided to plunk it right in the center of Fairhope. (The school board refused to ante up sufficient funding, and I suppose it was assumed that a central location might help the fund-raisers to save face.) The building is now slated to be on the Faulkner campus so as to be near the envisioned hub of activity in the downtown area. Never mind that the space they selected was set aside in perpetuity as a memorial to Charles Rabold, a beloved citizen of Fairhope of the 1920’s, and the man who brought folk dancing to the Marietta Johnson School. Mr. Rabold is all but forgotten except for a few of us old diehards, and what would be the “Wow!” factor in keeping a greenspace as a silent memorial?
Fairhope is full of structures with the wow factor now. The Wow! does not connote admiration, however, so much as astonishment that such a building or house stands where it does.
As in, “Wow! What happened to this town?”