Abandoned property in Denmark symbolizes small-scale gentrification

In a port town 170 km from Copenhagen, a house stuck in time dispels the notion gentrification only happens in big cities, and raises the question of whether or not smaller communities are better off preserving their historical buildings in the race to modernize.

By Lauren Morris

The dilapidated property is strangely beautiful and best compared with a haunted house, fulfilling nearly all requirements- yet lacking the mandatory inhabitation by ghosts and skeletons-and-rats decor.

What it doesn’t lack is rich history and symbolic relevance. Situated in the center of Ebeltoft, known for its plethora of summer houses and charming cobblestoned streets, the ruination is a subtle but marked emblem of the gentrification that’s occurring worldwide.

However, this isn’t the kind of the gentrification that’s holding cities like San Francisco and London captive in its wake of displacing low-income residents and feverish rebuilding at the hands of companies.

In Denmark, a country of a little over 5.6 million people, the only city that has the potentiality to factor into this widespread urban discussion would be the capital, Copenhagen- and already it has, with neighborhoods like Vesterbro seeing major changes in recent years.

“The time frame is different than cities in the US. The historical narrative is far longer, the scale is far smaller, and there is not a direct relation to people and dwellings. The question of gentrification is a whole different one. It’s a question of whether or not maintaining cultural heritage supports or conflicts market intentions,” says Mikkel Thelle, a Danish historian.

Answering this question thus proves to be a matter of identifying whether cities and towns benefit more from the process of modernization or restoration.

A picture of abandonment

Ebeltoft is quiet and quintessentially Danish. The multicolored houses that line up the road to the church seem to embody centuries of stories and it’s obvious that the town was no inspiration for the sleek, architectural lines that modern Scandinavian design is so renowned for today.

In its classical quaintness, it’s so visually eclectic that nothing seems out of place. In the center of town, an immaculate white Protestant church proudly sits atop a meticulously manicured hill. It’s a stark cry from its neighbor to the right, whose walls are almost indiscernible, overgrown with tangled greenery.

The shards of glass still left in the windows catch the light, alluring visitors with a healthy sense of curiosity to investigate the scene. You can see remnants of someone’s life as you peer in the house: newspapers, mattresses and fake flowers litter the floor, calendars from 1993 remain on the wall, pans still sit on the stovetop as if to suggest dinner might be ready soon.

There is a main house, a guest house, a garage, and a workshop on the Grønningen property in Ebeltoft, all connected by a jungle-like courtyard. By all accounts, it seems as if the residents up and left one day, taking nearly everything of importance, but leaving behind personal clues about their life behind.

To modernize or restore?

In one perspective, it could be dubbed a town eyesore, hastily deemed worthy only of demolition and utilized for the land.

This is the crux of the problem when it when it comes to taking actions with properties like this. Often, renovations are costly, time consuming, and they require certain permits from the city- especially when properties are protected under preservation plans.

“The establishment of the Danish welfare society from the late 1930s to the 1970s can be seen as a modernization process. The slum clearance policy was also a part of this process with the aim to make a modernist urban space, which could be a symbol of the new welfare society,” says urban history researcher Kristian Buhl Thomsen, “In the process public authorities followed many of the mechanisms of gentrification. Gentrification is often seen as a mixed process of production and consumption.”

Infographic shows process of production vs. consumption explained by Kristian Buhl Thomsen.
Infographic shows process of production vs. consumption explained by Kristian Buhl Thomsen.

Thomsen believes that the demolition is deterred easier in smaller communities because there is a heightened priority to retain historical identity and a lessened need to make way for urbanization.

In a case like Ebeltoft, people are not being forced out of their homes because of increased property values- what is happening is a sort of cultural gentrification- as the town has increasing pressure to make decisions about whether to honor the past or slowly modernize.

“Gentrification can in many cases contribute the preservation of urban heritage. When participants of gentrification buy old houses and restore them, the wish is to buy the identity that old houses supply to the town or city. As long as this wish exists there is not necessarily a clash of interests between gentrification and preservation,” he says.

Local perspective mixed, yet respectful of history

The Grønningen property is owned by a holding company, and protected in the town of Ebeltoft by the local preservation plan no. 177, allowing for little modifications to be made without the council’s consent.

According to the website for Syddjurs Kommune, the municipality that controls the councils and boards within Ebeltoft, this entails the “Preservation of landmark buildings and the overall urban environment, and continuous improvement of current misfit building conditions, architecture and details through future renovations and refurbishments – taking into account the individual building, for the intended effects of the whole street scene.”

The history of the house spans back to the 17th century, when it was used as a rectory, going through several pastors and bailiffs throughout the next few centuries until it was acquired to be used as a beer and cider depot in the early 1900s. In 1977, the property was purchased by the Danish antique dealer Misser James, and her British husband Leslie James, and they proceeded to turn it into a doll museum.

Jakob Vedsted, the chief curator at Museum Østjylland, one of the largest local history museums in Denmark, moved to Ebeltoft in 1985 and remembers when it was owned by the James’. Although Misser died nearly 20 years ago, the property’s face value began to disintegrate while Leslie was still an old man living there. It was bought in 2011 by the current owner and has been neglected since.

Vedsted says, ªIt is often seen that people buy a small house in the town and want to change it to a much bigger house with sea view and so on. It is normally not possible.” He thinks that the people of Ebeltoft have contributed more to the preservation of old houses than the city has, believing the house will be restored rather than modernized- there have been complaints that it’s a disgrace to the town.

“I believe that both the local inhabitants and the town government do not like the situation. All are of course interested in a nice and well-preserved old town,” he says.

Advantages of preservation vs. demolition

There have been proposals for homes to be built on the property, which have been rejected by the Syddjurs Kommune.

Another local idea is to establish a museum on the site honoring Hack Kampmann, an acclaimed Danish architect who grew up in the house while his father served a pastor at the church. Kampmann went on to design the theater and royal summer palace in nearby Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city. Ironically, he was also responsible for many restoration projects, most notably the Aarhus Cathedral.

Mikkel Thelle, who is an associate professor at Aarhus Universitet, thinks that excessive modernization runs the risk of stripping the entire soul of the small towns, not just sectioned neighborhoods like in large cities. He believes historical value can be utilized advantageously by Ebeltoft as a business model.

“In a case like Ebeltoft, I could see two reasons for a local community to be in opposition to removing this house. One would be, usually in a well functioning community, there is an engagement with historical buildings and generations of people having relation to this place. Another reason would be that people seeing the identity of Ebeltoft in competition with other cities gives an advantage by being this historical and attractive city,” he says.

Thelle draws comparisons to bigger Danish towns like Ribe, Roskilde, and Viborg, saying they have transformed themselves into something of a historical theme park using this model.

Studies conducted by the World Bank have shown that towns keeping their cultural identity is important. An excerpt in the urban development section of their website states, “Cities that are the most successful at attracting investments and businesses to meet the aspirations of their citizens, while alleviating poverty and promoting inclusion, are those that harness all of their resources, including their heritage.”

Europa Nostra, a citizens’ movement for the ‘safeguarding of Europe’s cultural and natural heritage’ teamed with the EU-funded project ‘Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe’ to investigate deeper into the advantages of keeping cultural heritage alive in a modern world and explained ten main points.

Infographic shows the 10 main points to respect cultural heritage as explained in the Europa Nostra and CHCfE report.
Infographic shows the 10 main points to respect cultural heritage as explained in the Europa Nostra and CHCfE report.

What the future entails

Although Ebeltoft is a very minute piece of the global gentrification puzzle, the Grønningen property stands as a reminder even to larger cities that cultural identity can never be replaced once it is lost.

In urban areas, modernization often happens rapidly and is in the process before citizens can properly react. By this time, integral facets of culture that stem from historical buildings and the communities who inhabit them are buried beneath dusty stacks in public archives,  which will be touched by few hand as the years go on.

With choice comes power, and communities are given both if they speak loudly enough. It is not entirely up to town governments and wealthy investors to decide the fate of the past. History gives society a foundation upon which to build and prosper in the future.

Modernization is a necessary catalyst for progression, but it is important to find a balance in which the cities and towns of the world can have their past and their futures coexist.

Reflecting, Kristian Buhl Thomsen says, “Old neighbourhoods give liveable areas with proportions for humans and not for cars, with identity and stories to tell.”

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