Saving Grace

Why we should keep the faith in old buildings.

At the end of the year, when our attention was diverted by Christmas, the new owners of our town’s Dairy Queen bulldozed the restaurant’s storage building, which had begun life in 1852 as a house of worship for the Christian Church. It was a modest structure, the Christians not anticipating a wild burst of growth. After they vacated it in the 1870s, it served as a workshop for the town’s tinsmith, a hatmaker’s space, a candy store, a private home, and finally a plumber’s shop, before Pop Logan opened the Dairy Queen in 1953 and used it for storage.

We could have weathered the demolition of the old church if the owners of the Dairy Queen hadn’t, that same week, changed the colors of their building, erected a new sign, and moved the menu board from the east side of the building to the north. Now there is talk of a drive-up window, and the whole town is abuzz with rumor and innuendo.

The new owners were already on thin ice, having announced the month before they would remain open year-round. For 58 years the Dairy Queen had been our first robin of spring. When Leon Martin, Pop’s son-in-law, put the words “Now Hiring” on the sign in mid-March, we knew the place would be opening the next week. Now that it does business year-round, our circadian rhythms have been disrupted. I don’t fault the new owners—they’re just following edicts from company headquarters in Edina, Minnesota. And the Dairy Queen corporation is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, so it appears that Warren Buffet is to blame.

I like old buildings and believe longevity has granted them the right to stand unmolested. It seems wrong to knock one down for a drive-thru lane so someone who doesn’t need more ice cream won’t, God forbid, have to leave the car and slog 20 feet to a walk-up window. Ice cream, like all wonders of life, should require some effort from us. In the olden days, people cranked it into being, working up a sweat and a blister. Calories expended offset calories gained, a happy exchange. The least we can do is stand in line for 15 minutes until we find ourselves at the window, mounting the step to place our orders, just as the ancients ascended to greet their gods.

Old churches are taking it on the chin these days. The Quaker meeting I pastor, Fairfield Friends, will bid farewell to our 1892 meetinghouse this month and move to a new building nearby. With our penchant for simplicity, we Friends do not easily shed old for new, but issues of accessibility and space have made the move necessary, albeit bittersweet. The old meetinghouse will stand, too lovely and meaningful to remove, while we discern an honorable role for its future. It is said that an elderly Eskimo, when he sensed his usefulness was over, would drift away on an ice floe. We are not willing to cast our old meetinghouse into the cold, so we are, in Quaker parlance, waiting for “way to open.”

Our ancestors, when they sailed to this New World, took a few precious items with them, and so will we—the meetinghouse clock, the picture over the fireplace, the family Bible, the trunk of books. It is our hope that these totems will in some mystical manner imbue our new world with the spirit of the old.

We are of mixed minds about this move, excited and grateful, but anxious, too. It will take time to feel at home, and some might never, a sentiment I understand. When my wife and I walked past the remodeled Dairy Queen, I said, “It’s just not the same. I don’t think I can go there anymore.” That pledge lasted precisely 19 hours, when I returned, a moth to the light, the next day for a French Silk Pie Blizzard, a treat they didn’t sell in the idyllic days of my youth, but one I have nevertheless come to enjoy, which suggests a capacity for change I didn’t know I had.

About buildings, Winston Churchill observed that we shape them and that thereafter they shape us. The aisles of the old meetinghouse were narrow and easily clogged. When worship ended, and I would say, “Turn and greet friends,” it was as if the salmon were swimming upstream, packed in tight, waiting their turn to jump the falls. Hasty retreat was impossible, so we visited with one another until way opened, exchanging greetings and medical updates. Now we will go from two aisles to five, our means of egress multiplied to satisfy the fire marshal, and I worry we will no longer linger to share the state of our affairs.

When interstates were built, we could get from place to place in half the time, and therefore believed improvement had been made. It took awhile to realize the charm of the journey had been lost. I prefer the amble over the sprint, so I am devising roadblocks in the new meetinghouse to slow our exodus—a portly person planted at a critical chokepoint; Frank Gladden and Lee Comer in a doorway, swapping fish stories; Martha in her wheelchair in the center aisle; new parents with a baby needing inspection. Anything to create that sacred pause.

When I see the Dairy Queen today, I do not see it as it is, but as it was in 1978, when a girl I liked worked there. I developed a newfound affinity for ice cream and would stand in line at her window, thinking of what to say when it was my turn to order—a passing comment about the weather, a casual remark hinting at my availability, a knowing observation about U.S.–Soviet relations. Now that stage has passed, but I still see it, memory being that portion of life seen with the mind, not the eye.

Similarly, when we sit in our old meetinghouse we do not see the spreading cracks in the plaster, the peeling paint, the faded carpet, the worn pews, the crowded rows. We see, in our mind’s eye, our grandparents standing before the congregation in 1932, promising themselves each to the other. There are sounds, some of them old sounds, still reverberating—the Regulator clock, the ping of the woodstove before central heating, and the horse clopping past on the road.

It seems odd to think that one day, a hundred years from now, our new meetinghouse will be the old meetinghouse. Barring an act of God, that will be the case. A teacher once told me that sound waves never stop, they simply ripple out into the universe like rings on a pond. One hundred years from now those sounds might ricochet off a star and return for our descendants to hear, just as those memories return, unbidden, on Sabbaths of our choosing, when eyes are closed and heads are bowed.


Illustration by Ryan Snook.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.