Plan A Building's Funeral In Six Steps
In March 2017, over the course of one week, members of the history, preservation, and architecture communities in Providence, Rhode Island, held a funeral for the John E. Fogarty Memorial Welfare building. It was first initiated during the Hacking Heritage Unconference held by the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. The demolition of the Brutalist structure, designed by Castellucci, Galli and Planka in 1967, was announced on March 1. A new hotel will go up in its place. The community wanted to commemorate the death of the building, whose sculpted, reinforced-concrete form both attracted and repelled throughout its life.
The funeral planning proceeded in a manner typical of funerals—in haste, but with love and sincerity. Throughout that week, the group wrote an obituary for the building; rented necessary funeral equipment; settled on a location within view of the half-demolished structure; invited eulogies from a short list of “relatives” who knew the building best; shared a press release to local print, radio and television media; and conducted media interviews to promote the event.
Following the eulogies, the group held a funeral procession past the “open casket” to the sounds of “Danny Boy” playing on a portable speaker. The funeral procession ended at a local watering hole where attendees could continue to celebrate the life and mourn the death of the building over beers.
While the Fogarty Building couldn't be saved, its funeral underscores the importance of community expression, historic preservation, and architecture. With strategic planning and flexible execution, funerals for historic places can engage the public with the significant buildings and spaces of our shared cityscapes, promote historic and cultural preservation organizations, and unite communities for future causes.
Continue reading for six tips on how to plan a funeral for a place you loved.
1. Research the building.
Gathering information, historic photographs, and video or audio clips that feature the building will be the core of the narrative for the obituary and event promotion.
2. Invite participants.
Consider reaching out to a mix of people who can speak to different parts of the building’s life, such as architects, preservationists, and historians, as well as people who lived in or worked in the building, in nearby buildings, or participated in the building’s design or construction. Make sure to balance preservation or architecture “experts” with individuals who can offer a more personal perspective.
If the goal of the funeral is to foster dialogue around the design of the building and future development, invite a couple of individuals who might offer a more critical perspective (as long as they understand it is a funeral and that they should be respectful). Also consider if you’d like a spiritual leader or priest to officiate the ceremony.
It’s recommended that all eulogies be brief to accommodate short attention spans and ensure there’s enough time at the end of the ceremony to welcome members of the public to say a few words.
3. Compose and publish an obituary.
An engaging obituary is of key importance. Write it as you would for a person: When was the building born? Who were its parent/designers? What inspired the building, and how will it be remembered? Does it have key features or personality traits? How did it spend its career? Who were its friends and family? How did it die?
After composing an obituary, try to publish it in a newspaper either in the editorial or obituary section to increase exposure for the building and funeral. Be sure to end the obituary with information on where and when the funeral will be held.
4. Focus on the logistics.
Determine the exact location for the funeral, which should ideally be on-site at the building or what remains of the building. Also make plans for where all funeral attendees will gather after the funeral to continue the dialogue in a less formal atmosphere. Drinks at a local pub is a great option.
If the crowd is going to be large, find out if you will require a permit.
Arrange for music. This could range from a single musician to a choir. If you are unable to find live music, broadcasting songs off YouTube on a phone works well too; the Fogarty Building’s funeral featured a bagpipe rendition of “Danny Boy” on YouTube, which added to the emotional component.
Recommended supplies and materials include PA equipment, a funeral wreath, and a picture of the building at its prime.
5. Don’t forget about marketing.
This kind of event is made for the media, so spend time on getting the word out. Make a Facebook event, e-mail your network, and share through social media. Craft a strong press release, and make sure that there are people available the week of the event for interviews.
Think about creating a hashtag for attendees to include in their own coverage. This is a simple way to bring attention to the funeral long after it ends.
6. Make sure the funeral is documented.
Your funeral will become part of the life story of the building, so you need to ensure that the funeral itself is documented. Arrange for a photographer and videographer and ensure that you compile the obituary and press around the event in an organized fashion. Your city archives or library may be interested in keeping the information in their files.
A couple of miscellaneous tips:
Reach out to the building owner if there is one, and let them know this isn't about blame, but about celebrating the life of the building.
Gather a strong, committed and able group to lead the effort—ideally from different organizations and with different strengths—as planning a funeral for a building calls for a variety of skills and contacts.
Look up other building funerals. The Fogarty Building funeral, for example, was inspired by the Funeral for a Home project in Philadelphia, which was held in 2014 to memorialize the destruction of the last remaining rowhouse on a block in the Mantua neighborhood. It was arranged by Temple Contemporary at Temple University's Tyler School of Art to acknowledge the broader issue concerning vacant or dilapidated historic structures in Philadelphia neighborhoods and responses to solve this problem.
Special thanks to Janaya Kizzie, Caroline Stevens (Doors Open RI), Marisa Brown (John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities), Steven Lubar (John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities) and Marena Wisniewski (Providence Preservation Society) for contributing their expertise and materials to this toolkit.