Articles

Athwart the Wrecking Ball: Last House Standing

by Allison Meier on January 3, 2014

Baltimore row house

A row house in Baltimore, photographed by Ben Marcin as part of his “Last House Standing” series (all images from “Last House Standing,” courtesy the artist)

Many neighborhoods of stately row houses that rose along the East Coast late in the 19th century have declined into decay, or been torn down entirely. Yet sometimes there’s one solitary holdout standing tall and proud, its neighbors long since demolished. Photographer Ben Marcin has made these lone structures the subjects of his Last House Standing photography series.

“When they were built over one hundred years ago, they were designed to last a very long time — unlike many of the generic looking houses that are being built today,” Marcin told Hyperallergic. “However, demographic and social changes of the last 30 to 40 years have caused many city neighborhoods to deteriorate rapidly to the point where entire blocks have been abandoned or destroyed — burned down or purposely demolished by local governments in an effort to control crime. Normally, when a block gets torn down all of the houses go.”

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

But what intrigued Marcin was: why is there sometimes one building left? This brought him to seek out the last structural survivors for his photographs in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Camden in New Jersey, which are currently on display at C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore. The German-born photographer has lived in Baltimore since 1978, currently in an 1880 row house with his wife.

The “last houses” are similar, in a way, to the Chinese “nail houses” — where some tenants refused to budge when development rolled up to their front steps, except here it wasn’t new construction that the hold outs were resisting, but destruction and urban blight. In that way these American holdouts recall the Merchant’s House in Manhattan, which became the only single-family townhouse where the residents refused to relocate with their wealthy neighbors when the neighborhood changed. This also makes them something more than just photographs of ruins, as it’s those that remained and preserved this shadow of their neighborhood that are central.

A diptych of the vanishing of a Baltimore row house

A diptych of the vanishing of a Baltimore row house

While he was able to find the homes in some of the most hard-hit Baltimore neighborhoods, Marcin turned to aerial captures on Google Maps to scout Philadelphia and Camden, although, he noted, “more often than not, when I arrived at the spot where the map indicated a solitary house, it was already gone.”

In another series — A House Apart — he’s also examined abandoned homes that were left when suburbia moved in on farms or industry made a homestead no longer desirable, and in The Camps, he documented Baltimore’s homeless camps constructed in the woods on the edge of the city that are quickly vanishing. He’s also focused on this eroding green in documenting the urban trees, from their “prime” to their “eventual deterioration.” Each is set up like a portrait photograph of an unassuming subject in the urban sprawl.

“On the surface, all of these photographs exude a sense of isolation,” he stated. “Yet, I was also interested in the undercurrent of defiance that runs through some of the work. The bent and broken tree; the homeless camp made entirely out of wooden doors; the standing solo row house — all of these are struggling to hold on in a world in which they no longer fit in.”

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

Baltimore row house

House in Camden, New Jersey

House in Camden, New Jersey

House in Camden, New Jersey

House in Camden, New Jersey

House in Camden, New Jersey

House in Camden, New Jersey

Row house in Philadelphia

Row house in Philadelphia

Row house in Philadelphia

Row house in Philadelphia

The decay of a red brick row house in Baltimore

The decay of a red brick row house in Baltimore

Abandoned house in Howard County

Abandoned house in Howard County

Ben Marcin’s Last House Standing (And Other Stories) is on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery (523 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, Maryland) through January 25. 

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  • fahrender

    The lack of imagination in which city governments tear down houses in the effort to “prevent crime” is astounding. This practice is emblematic of what has happened to pretty much the whole country except for the privileged areas. In taking this course our history, our memory, is being edited, erased, deleted.

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