When a building dies….4/16/2014
When a building dies, do we mourn the loss?
With all the real troubles in the world — the real suffering, the real terror, the real death — it seems absurd to mourn a building. I mean, come on, let’s be serious.
A thing, built of mortar and brick and glass and steel, is still a thing at the end of the day. Right? Nobody’s feelings are hurt. Nobody is bleeding. Nobody needs stitches. You can’t even tell someone to just shake it off. There’s nobody to shake.
Just because you ate lunch down that basement for 10 years doesn’t make it some kind of holy shrine. And even the cookies weren’t really a sacred sacrament (although I could be persuaded to reconsider this notion). Sure, you bought shirts for work and ties for weddings and suits on sale. And there was that coat. But, at the end of the day, she was a fickle mistress who left you once the good days were over. Even the updo to the infamous Tea Room was merely a come on, future hopes that weren’t realized. And there she sat, empty, on the corner of 7th and Walnut in Des Moines, Iowa, for the last decade. The Younkers Building. A faded dream.
But then why the sadness when she burned to the ground the other day?
It’s simple, this gal, who was 115 years old, entered into a covenant with us, a promise. She crossed her heart and hoped to die and said, in no uncertain terms:
“I will stand here, immutable and impervious, on this corner, in the heart of downtown Des Moines, and I will be the guardian of the only thing that is left to you at the end of the day — your memories. Even when my display windows are empty of fancy clothes, even when no pedestrians can enter my revolving doors, even when the smells from my kitchen are long gone, I promise to preserve within my brick and my steel your memories of bygone times.”
And she did. But now the building has vanished up in smoke like something out of Chinese mythology. Fire destroys stone, metal and wood, until finally subdued by water. A battle of the elements. But no matter how glorified the battle, at the end of the day, the Younkers Building was turned into hollow echo of itself. A shell. A corpse laid out for viewing.
And with her death, all the memories kept by her (which she held onto just as she promised) were released with a whoosh and a roar and a bang, causing an avalanche of reminiscences over the last weeks. From wedding registrations, to Tea Room celebrations, to baby clothes purchased, to dress suits fitted, to cooking lessons, to Santa visits, to riding those newfangled “electric stairs,” you name it, there is a memory. My friend, Holly Novelli, wrote to me of being a young girl visiting the store:
“It was thrilling to wander past The French Room to see the gorgeous evening gowns on display, twinkling and sparkling in the low light… the customers’ and associates’ footsteps muted by the plush carpeting… The walnut-lined elevators each had an operator that announced the departments on the floor as she opened the grated iron door. Imagine. No big store directory by the front door. All you had to do was tell the elevator operator what department you were looking for, and with a friendly smile, she’d deliver you to that floor. My first career aspiration was to be an elevator operator at Younkers.”
My oh my. These are real memories with real value. And you know what? That wonderful Younkers Building kept her covenant to us. But what do we do now?
We need to mourn her loss. We need to mourn a building.
When a tree is knocked down by the storms from the North Sea, potted plants appear next to the exposed roots.
When a fisherman dies in Scheveningen, an old Holland harbor town, flowers appear at the statue of the wife of a fisherman waiting for her husband to return from the sea.
And so when a building dies, we need to mourn the same way — with a few flowers.
There you go. A few flowers. May the Younkers Building rest in peace. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.