We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, Richard from St. Louis asks:

Why did our ancestors spend so much on a county courthouse in 1870 while today we put so little into such things? Macoupin County IL with 32K people built a boondoggle of a courthouse for $1,342,226 or $24,372,109 in today's dollars, $744 per resident. The county had [a population of] 50,685 by the time the bonds were paid off in 1910. This story says the citizens were quite happy to pay. Meanwhile St. Louis County MO is spending about $100 per citizen on a new family courts building that is less impressive. Here citizens are grumbling because the voter-approved bond issue was for $100M and the county issued some more bonds to expand the project. 

Take a look at that old courthouse. It is gorgeous. The architecture is beautiful. This building is a landmark through and through.

Why would a poor people, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, dedicate so much of their collective wealth to such a monument? To get that answer, we need to understand the purpose of the building.

Today we look at government buildings for their utilitarian function. What role does it play? A county courthouse is a place where county business is transacted and so we would anticipate offices, meeting spaces and adequate parking. All the functional needs of a building in 2014. Architecture is an afterthought, if that, to functionality. The same people designing our county courthouses also design our Target stores, strip malls, hospitals and schools. And they use the same approach. What are the functional needs of the space and then, if we have any money left over, to what extent can we adorn the exterior? It has made architecture a fairly pathetic pursuit, actually.

Utilitarian function was not what a courthouse was to the Americans of 1870. Not even close. Yes, there would be offices and meeting spaces and they would perform their job adequately, but the building was not for the people who worked there. It was for the community.

First, a courthouse like this would be a beacon of success. A city in Illinois – a few decades earlier considered “wilderness” to most – would have struggled for decades to get to this point. They would have gone from a few shacks around a railroad stop to a bustling frontier town to a place that had more outward appearances of permanence (as I described two years ago in Why Decline is Not Normal). You should look at this historic courthouse as their outward expression of success. We reached a point in our development where our wealth can afford this bling.

As such, the building was also an advertisement. When you are setting out from Baltimore or Philadelphia or the Ohio Valley and are headed west to seek your place, a county with a magnificent county seat – like the kind they have back home – is going to communicate something to you. It is going to communicate stability and permanence. It is going to be reassuring, giving you a sense that the rule of law matters, that you can inherently trust this place even though the people there might be from a different European country than your parents were from. If you are going to invest your money and your time, this was going to be a decent place to do it.

A building like this was also designed and placed to radiate wealth to the community. Like a wood stove radiates heat, a properly designed and placed public building is going to build the wealth of everything around it. If a community was going to pool its wealth together to build such a public structure, placing it in a prominent place and using timeless architecture was a commonsense way to amplify that investment. Property values in the vicinity would go up and create the necessary economic pressure for continual maturing of the city. This is how places built wealth before the suburban experiment.

Image from Google Earth

And building wealth was critical to this investment. It isn’t clear to me why it wasn’t located in the town square where these structures were often placed (possibly some land conflict at the time), but the location was only a block off of the economic center of the community. That placement was intentional. It wasn’t because this was the cheapest land – it certainly wasn’t – or because the people were vain. It was because this location built on success. It would make the most valuable neighborhoods in the city even more valuable, an upward push of wealth that would cascade into the adjacent neighborhoods.

That cascade of wealth was made possible by the traditional pattern of development. In this approach – where the primary mode of travel on streets was by foot – there was a connection between adjacent parcels, an interdependence that built and transmitted wealth, again like metal conducts heat. The individual self-interest was best served by fitting into the established pattern, by conforming to the traditional design. The organic genius of this approach is that individuals advancing their own self-interest would thereby also advance the collective interest. This is the foundation of a natural system. The more houses, the more shops, the more landmark buildings, the wealthier everyone got so long as they conformed to the community pattern.

View from the town square, compliments of Google Earth. Note the historic courthouse peaking up over rooftops creating a landmark.

Let’s not overlook ego as a motivator, however. This kind of building would create a lot of community pride. Local politicians would have their name on a plaque inside that, as far as they were concerned, would be there hundreds – possibly thousands – of years. That’s no joke. This was a permanent landmark. People in a Greco Roman form of governance came together and built this Greco Roman building to signify their success for all time. That would seem a little presumptuous – and it probably was premature – but no more so than the things we do today.

And in the end, if they totally botched it and went broke, what were they left with? This really awesome building on a great, wealth-generating spot in the heart of their community. They could recover from that. Like I’ve said before; this approach to building is nearly fool proof.

So the question was: why don’t we do this today? Why are we so cheap and unwilling to spend our collective wealth like our ancestors were?

Oh, but if we only were. Unfortunately, we’re not cheap. In fact, we've blown through so much of our wealth that our prudent ancestors would be scandalized just to consider it. Nope, we’re willing to spend it alright. We just advertise in different ways.

We don’t spend our wealth on buildings. We spend it on highways. We spend it on stroads.

We don’t flinch at spending enormous sums of money every year to make our roadways wide, fast and smooth. And we’re proud of it. Check out the advertisements that cities use to promote themselves, especially to potential investors. You’re likely to see wide roads, interchanges and vacant land with pipes sticking out of the ground. Like it or not, that’s our signal of wealth.

We drive to, from and past our public buildings and so they don’t radiate wealth in the same way they did when we walked in their presence. The huge parking lots, blank walls, dumpsters and air conditioning units actually depress wealth. These buildings are not good neighbors and so we don’t want them around us. Put them out somewhere else – not near my neighborhood – and then do them as cheaply as possible but with a big parking lot. That’s a very logical reaction. After all, we’ve got roads to build.

The collective wealth of our ancestors was tied up in monumental buildings that would radiate wealth for generations. Our collective wealth is tied up in miles of bituminous roadway that decay and fall apart in a couple of decades, creating enormous maintenance liabilities for us in the process.

In the traditional development pattern, our collective investments built wealth. In our new suburban experiment, the auto-based development approach, our collective investments destroy wealth.

There is a powerful insight as to why our cities are broke.