Buffalo’s churches and TGS

I recently read a history of Buffalo in the 20th century, and got interested in its architectural heritage.  Here’s a photo of a stunning Buffalo church.  And here are another 45, all in Buffalo.  And Buffalo has less than 1/1000th of the US population.  We have architectural riches beyond human comprehension.

But the US does not have 1000 times as much good architecture as Buffalo does.  Although Buffalo has about the same population as Henderson and Plano, I’d guess those other two cities would not be able to put together a similar portfolio of stunningly beautiful churches.  Why is that?

Perhaps because Buffalo was mostly built between 1870 and 1940, and the other two towns were built after 1940.  During the 1870-1940 period (the heyday of Richardson/Sullivan/Wright) the America we know and love was built.  Just as the Paris and London we know and love were mostly built in the 19th century.

And it’s not just churches; my town (Newton, MA) is full of beautiful old homes from the 1890s and 1920s.  (If you examine the date of nice homes in our affluent inner suburbs, you’ll notice that quite a few were built in 1926, halfway through the Coolidge administration.)  Post-war housing in America mostly ranges from mediocre (in the southwest), to ugly (the rest of the US.)  Or consider tall buildings.  Next time you visit Manhattan, walk through one of those neighborhoods full of glorious art deco towers, where the late afternoon sun glistens off gold leaf-encrusted spires and ziggurats.  Then walk down 6th Avenue and see the boring 1960s boxes.

Or contrast the old movie palaces with suburban shoebox theatres, where a roving projectionist sets each film on “slightly blurry,” so that it is less likely to break.

If the buildings built since 1940 were somehow destroyed, there’d be a few masterpieces by Kahn and Gehry and van der Rohe that we’d miss, but most of them could be re-built.  If the structures built before 1940 were destroyed, they could not be rebuilt.  There’s not enough money.  The church in the first link cost $513,000 in 1928, and by 1976 the replacement cost was estimated at $425,000,000.

In my view the loss of great architecture is much greater than the gain from having cell phones, laptops, and iPods.  I’d guess Morgan Warstler disagrees.  Who’s right?  We both are, as preferences are subjective.  The debate over Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation hypothesis faces essentially the same problem.  Some economists see lots of progress; for others, not so much.  Even a reactionary like me thinks that overall things are better than 40 years ago, but I also mourn what we’ve lost, and don’t think the progress is as rapid as the amazing period from 1870 to 1940, or even the next 30 years, when the comfortable lifestyle that upper middle class Americans enjoyed in 1940, spread to the working class.

What’s the “true” rate of inflation?  Take per capita nominal income growth, subtract your subjective estimate of how much better life is today as compared to the old days (i.e. real GDP growth), and you get inflation.  Is that what you want the Fed to target?

Disclaimer:  Most of my life I’ve lived in houses built during the 1920s.  Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my life working in a place built after WWII.  Oh, and I don’t own a cell phone, laptop or iPod.



24 Responses to “Buffalo’s churches and TGS”

  1. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    10. July 2011 at 12:58

    Well now, if you want to see nice churches, have you considered Rome or Florence?

    By coincidence, I have been doing PR for architects for the last three years, and have become an architect hanger-on in the process. I share many of Sumner’s sentiments, though it can be said most modern buildings consume much less energy than just 20 years ago. Green architecture is really working.

    Another oddity: The Empire State Building was built in a little more than 15 months. A modern tower takes years, three or four sometimes.

    Also worth noting: Chintzy housing from the 1910-40s has been mostly torn down, leaving the nicer stock. The culling process leaves us with a warped impression of past housing. I myself prefer Los Angeles homes built in the 1920-40s, however.

    I lived sans cell phone until 18 months ago. Now it is a necessity, and I ask people how do you measure the value of a phone compared to the old rotary dials (of which I still have one). I remember the pre-answering machine era.

    Side note: Office rents in downtown Los Angeles are about the same today as in 1979–and that’s nominally. Moreover, whereas 40 years ago it was required to have an office phone and secretary for many even small businesses, today many small outfits just have cell phones, and e-mail.

    A couple guys starting, say, a small accounting practice today actually face lower costs, nominally, that 40 years ago, in Los Angeles.

    And they can even get cheap space in one of downtown’s classic older office buildings.

  2. Gravatar of Richard W Richard W
    10. July 2011 at 13:19

    I totally agree with you about the ugliness of post-war architecture. I think architecture captures something about the prevailing national mood and says something about ambition. There was something uniquely dismal about that post-war period and the buildings reflect the mood. Yet, paradoxically at this time wealth was increasing across the mature industrial nations. I find that the modern buildings that have been built over the last twenty years much more aesthetically pleasing compared to the brutalist monstrosities of the post-war period. So the problem is not terminal.

    Yet, I could not imagine them building a modern local government building like this.






  3. Gravatar of Joe Joe
    10. July 2011 at 15:31

    Professor Sumner,

    You might find this interesting. Martin Feldstein argues that if you calculate real wages using Purchasing Price Index instead of CPI, then wages growth equals productivity growth since 1970s. He argues that the gap since the 1970s is entirely because we use two different deflators when converting nominal gdp and nominal wages into their real equivalents. He says if we use the same one then the gap disappears. I assumed that this should be a bombshell in the economic community, that everything would change afterwords, but I haven’t been able to find a whisper. If you’re interested….




    I would love to know your opinion of such things.

  4. Gravatar of Kendall Kendall
    10. July 2011 at 16:26

    “In my view the loss of great architecture is much greater than the gain from having cell phones, laptops, and iPods.”

    Do you mean just those three items or all the technological advances since 1940? I find it hard to believe you would be more content living in a nice 1940 house (which most people couldn’t afford in 1940) using a party line telephone, a 1940 car, 1940 medical care, 1940 plane service, no internet, no computers, etc.

  5. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    10. July 2011 at 17:49

    There’s a great scene in the HBO show Boardwalk Empire where in 1919, Lucky points to toaster he bought his old man and remarks he spent $9 on it.

    That’s $113 dollars today.

    But of course, today you can buy a toaster for $5…. $.35 cents back then.

    To give you a full blown productivity comparable though you must watch the TED speech,” how to make a toaster from scratch”:


    The only legitimate utility question is how many hours a man must work to have his bread toasted?


    The only legitimate policy question is HOW QUICKLY can we reduce the amount of time spent – so that getting toasted bread gets cheaper faster.

    We shall bow down the the great god productivity gains, and we shall LOVE anything that forces people to find them and make them.

    We shall loathe and despise anything that makes no such gains.

    Government makes no such gains.

    As to beauty and aesthetics, I cannot for the life of me understand why you would look at a beautiful old church and consider its “replacement cost” in some kind of voodoo magic.

    It’s replacement cost is driven stratospheric by the impossibility of one man making a toaster.

    What would be the replacement cost of making everyone start speaking Latin?

  6. Gravatar of libfree libfree
    10. July 2011 at 18:03

    How about music? Can we rant about “the kids” and their music?

  7. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    10. July 2011 at 18:04

    My dad was the pastor of one of those churches for several years.

    Seems so very odd to see my dad’s old church linked to in a Scott Sumner post.

  8. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    10. July 2011 at 19:24

    Benjamin, I am going to Italy next month–and I agree about the churches in Rome and Florence.

    I used a rotary phone until a few years ago–forced to change by all the computers that respond to beeps.

    Richard, Thanks for those wonderful pics. Our older government buildings are also better.

    Joe, The truth is that no one knows what inflation is, so each person picks the index that meets their preconceived idea of real growth. That’s why Feldstein is ignored.

    I have a moderate view on this. Living standards have risen substantially since 1973, but nowhere near as fast as before 1973. But it’s very subjective.

    Kendall, Just those three items.

    Morgan, At least this time you didn’t tell people like me to just go die.

    libfree, Music is different. In my view popular music actually improved after 1964. I don’t know enough about modern music to have an intelligent opinion, but my hunch is that it is of very high quality, but much less innovative than the 1960s-70s. I’m talking about the best stuff, of course. At any given time most popular music is drivel produced for people with the mentality of 13 year olds. I can’t stand listening to the stations my daughter likes.

    Dustin, Thanks for that comment. I try to do offbeat things once and a while–its nice to connect with someone’s memories.

  9. Gravatar of Kendall Kendall
    10. July 2011 at 20:08

    I’m not sure I understand the point of picking three particular items which you don’t use and saying you would trade them for old architecture. I could say I would gladly trade my current toilet, flat screen tv & computer for the outhouse, black & white tv (I was shocked to find out Jonny Quest was in color!) and typewriter from my growing up years and make the point in reverse. Both examples seem to be cherry picking to me.

  10. Gravatar of Shane Shane
    10. July 2011 at 21:39

    I did my graduate work in Buffalo (I lived a few blocks from the Unitarian Universalist Church at the bottom of the pictures). In the city today, they practically give away apartments, but then sell you the cost of heating them! Which suggests to me that Buffalo, and the beautiful houses, were a product of cheap energy, as well as things like proximity to the Canal and the fact that polluting was practically free in those days.

    But does this explain the loss of good architecture? Obviously huge Cathedrals are prohibitively expensive, but why do people build McMansions rather than new Queen Anne style houses like those found in Buffalo? Surely the cost differential between the latter two is more manageable. Furthermore, the decline in popular architecture has been mirrored by the decline in other popular arts like Music and Films. A show like _Twin Peaks_ would be almost unthinkable today, and yet it was hugely popular. The decline of quality free TV is certainly a form of inflation.

    Perhaps the decline in standards of taste is a symptom of the decline in standards of trust? Why build a beautiful house or a create a thoughtful television show if you can’t trust someone not to compete against you by appealing to ever baser and hence more powerful insticts–hence all TV is becoming reality shows and all houses cookie-cutter monstrosities.

    Another thing that makes Scandinavia interesting is that it is producing some of the most interesting popular art and literature in the world. Swedish bands dominate indie-genres, and detective fiction is flourishing there. Coincidence?

    Oh, my favorite thing in Buffalo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/H._H._Richardson_Complex. It looks like some crazy mad scientist’s lair, and it basically was. It was the psych hospital, so they literally lobotomized people and administered electro-shock therapy in this building.

  11. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    10. July 2011 at 23:57

    TGS claims that the reason things have stopped getting better is that all the low hanging fruit is gone, but this seems unlikely to me. Looking forward from, say, 1910, it seems that the same claims would be equally valid. “The frontier is closed, we’re all doomed to get poorer! How much more productive can agriculture possible get?” We know now, of course, that all sorts of fantastic things (e.g. penicillin, the assembly line) were right around the corner, but none of them seemed like low hanging fruit at the time. If we aren’t finding the modern equivalents today, something else must have changed. Do we not build art deco sky scrapers today because we can’t? Or because we’ve tied down the process with red tape, zoning restrictions, etc. I think the latter is far more likely, and far more worrying.

  12. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    11. July 2011 at 00:55

    The influence of modernism (the belief that the new is always better) on architecture was pretty relentlessly bad, often really bad. With Le Corbusier leading the way into the architectural abyss. Anyone who come up with a slogan of such inhuman stupidity as “a house is a machine for living” is going to leave architectural devastation in his wake. As if there had been no growth of knowledge in architecture.

    (Of course, if you stop believing that, then you make it true.)

    Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House is the short classic, but Jasper Becker’s City of Heavenly Tranquility is the most heartrending lament for the awful destructiveness of modernism I have read. That the modernist crap actually copes with the Beijing climate worse than the C15th Ming architecture it is replacing says it all.

    But you can see the same in Melbourne. The houses built c.1900 work so much better with the Australian climate than houses built c.now.

  13. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    11. July 2011 at 00:57

    Cassander: and making things depend on bureaucratic comfort zones and squeezing absolute maximum value out of land rationed by regulation is indeed a major part of the problem.

  14. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    11. July 2011 at 07:12

    Even the most cultured intellectuals and talented actors admit that TV today is in its golden age.

    The work product is vastly superior to what is being delivered in movies.


    And please Scott, would take a few minutes and try to estimate the replacement cost of making everyone use Latin to communicate?

    Napkin math is fine.

    I’m sure it is far past $1T!!!!

    It must be a tremendously valuable thing! And it such a beautiful and exacting language.

    I so mourn what we lost. I think we should all wistfully look back on Latin and the Greek ruins in Athens, and remark feel shitty about what we have now.

    OR, we could just knock down every old church in Buffalo, and then no one would ever have to feel Scott’s pang of guilt so deeply that they live without a cell phone or toilet.

    Getting rid of societies memories – especially the false one – is easy – just wipe them away.

  15. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    11. July 2011 at 07:27

    Kendall, The point was to show how different people have very different perspectives on inflation. It depends what’s important to them. I’m trying to criticize the “scientific” approach to inflation; that a precise rate of inflation actually exists, and just needs to be measured.

    Shane, It’s interesting that you mention Twin Peaks (one of my favorite shows.) I consider that to be recent, and an exception to the rule that most TV is junk.

    Near my home town of Madison, they builta nice suburb of middle class Arts and Crafts and FLR-style Prairie houses. I don’t know why modern houses are so ugly. Maybe rich people have better taste, and now average folks can afford big houses, so they indulge in their vulgar nouveau-riche tastes. In Newton there are still a few tasteful $2 million dollar homes being built.

    I like Richardson, but I can’t say that one’s my favorite. Great set for a horror movie.

    Cassander, I’m not sure I agree. By 1910 it was obvious that electic power, modern chemistry, indoor plumbing, internal combustion engine, etc, had the potential to totally transform society. The process had already began. Certainly computers and biotech have potential, but it doesn’t seem as great to me. But then perhaps we’ll be surprised.

    Lorenzo, Yes, Chinese architecture is a good example.

  16. Gravatar of Shane Shane
    11. July 2011 at 12:31

    Perhaps it’s a question of whether we use the median or the mean to determine the answer. The median quality could decrease even if the average quality was increasing slightly. Things feel worse because it takes a larger sample size including larger absolute numbers of garbage art/music/architecture to notice that they are actually better.

    Lorenzo: I think the problem is not with Le Corbusier per se but rather with the fact that when Anglo cultures import French or Francophone notions they always seem to reduce them to caricatures. So as with French philosophy, such ideas are only as good in the English speaking world as their most proximate bastardization. A little knowledge of French culture is a dangerous thing.

  17. Gravatar of Cassander Cassander
    11. July 2011 at 16:57

    Scott> Well, you could easily substitute 1890 for 1910, Frederick Jackson Turner first put forth the Frontier thesis in 1893. Certainly the potential of those technologies was a lot less obvious then. But to meet your argument head on, the fact that we are having this discussion on a blog speaks to the power of computers, to say nothing of the degree to which you have managed to influence other economists. And potential for bio-tech is practically limitless. Curing natural death is not outside the realm of possibility. I am FAR more worried about the health of our institutions and degree to which they hinder innovation than the idea that we are approaching any sort of fundamental technological limit.

    To be honest, looking at the long history of incorrect predictions of the end of scientific development and the even longer history of human institutions resisting change, I can’t quite comprehend how anyone could be more worried about fundamental rather than institutional limits. TGS might be happening, some signs say yes others say no. But if it is happening, the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the theory that the fault is ours, not the universe’s.

  18. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    11. July 2011 at 18:04

    Shane, Both good points.

    Cassander, Given your name I expected more pessimism. Seriously, I’m worried that technology could destroy life on Earth. I just takes one (big) mistake.

    I do agree the potential of biotech is huge, but progress in medicine seems slow to me. Certainly the rise in life expectancy is slowing, that’s one of the few totally objective facts that can be brought to bear on Tyler’s thesis, and it supports it.

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. July 2011 at 18:48

    Morgan, you said;

    “OR, we could just knock down every old church in Buffalo, and then no one would ever have to feel Scott’s pang of guilt so deeply that they live without a cell phone or toilet.

    Getting rid of societies memories – especially the false one – is easy – just wipe them away.”

    Kind of like the policies of Mao.

  20. Gravatar of Kendall Kendall
    11. July 2011 at 19:40

    I agree finding a rate of inflation is difficult due to new items and improvement in existing items making it difficult to compare purchasing power. But doesn’t all curve fitting of experimental data have error? It isn’t clear to me picking a few outliers is evidence that a useful curve can’t be found.

  21. Gravatar of cassander cassander
    12. July 2011 at 11:16

    Scott> Heh, it’s definitely a change of pace for me to be playing the optimist. But I read a lot of history, and while the human penchant for stupidity and self destruction seems limitless, in the long run it has always been over matched by our adaptability and will to live.

    The same cannot be said of human institutions, however, which almost inevitably march themselves off cliffs in spectacular fashion. The US has had an incredible run these last 200some years, literally the best run in all of human history. It can’t go on forever.

    As for medicine I agree that progress has been slowing, and that this is very worrisome. But is it slowing because we’re reaching the fundamental limits of biology, or because the FDA/IP regime/whatever is retarding growth? Given that we know very little about the former, and that the many problems latter are well documented, should not the default assumption be that the problem is institutional rather than biological?

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. July 2011 at 18:44

    Kendall, Sure, you can come up with crude estimates of inflation, and I accept those. I just don’t want the Fed targeting something so vague and uncertain.

    Cassander, No, I think the default option is that it isn’t the FDA. Yes, they are a problem, but there are also huge subsidies to health care research (implicitly) via our heavily subsidized health care system that spends 18% of GDP. And of course new drugs are protected by patents. So there are plenty of scientists hard at work on these problems, they’re just hard to solve.

  23. Gravatar of Kendall Kendall
    13. July 2011 at 04:49

    What is it you want them to target? I know I could find it but it is easier just to ask! Were you the person on econ talk who wanted to target nominal growth rate?

  24. Gravatar of Scott Sumner Scott Sumner
    13. July 2011 at 14:13

    Kendall, Yes.

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