Historic Preservation = Community Preservation

This article was originally published in the AIA Central Pennsylvania Chapter Architext newsletter.

For many years, it seemed like historic preservation and sustainable design were on separate paths, occasionally intersecting with one-another.  In recent years, however, professionals from the preservation, design, and construction fields have realized the direct correlation between sustainable design and building reuse.  Credit people like Donovan Rypkema of Place Economics, who frequently lectures about sustainable preservation, and Carl Elefante of Quinn Evans Architects, who coined the phrase “The greenest building is the one already built.”

In 2004, the Brookings Institute sounded an alarm when they projected that between 2005 and 2030, a total of 82 billion square feet of buildings would be demolished – at least at the current rate of demolition.  That figure represents between a quarter and a third of the total national building stock.

So as you drive through your local community next time, picture what would happen if one of every three buildings disappeared within the next fifteen years.  Building demolition is an important part of urban renewal – particularly in the large urban cores with literally tens of thousands of buildings standing vacant and falling over.

But there’s also a price to be paid, particularly when what replaces a demolished building underutilizes the space or worse, is a vacant lot.

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The views of York above were taken from similar vantage points.  The late nineteenth century image on the left showcases two buildings designed by JA Dempwolf – the York City Market House in the foreground, and York Collegiate Institute in the background on the right side.  Both buildings were demolished in the early 1960s.  The image to the right was taken earlier this year, and the single-story building with small cupola was originally a Gulf Oil Station.  When it was demolished, the old market house was in a state of disrepair, and the estimated cost to repair it was $20,000. Instead, the property was sold to make way for the gas station, and the market building was demolished for a cost of $17,000.

It’s easy to look at the wonderful Dempwolf-designed buildings and pine for the days of yesteryear.  But the real story here is not that two architecturally-significant buildings, designed by one of Central Pennsylvania’s greatest architects, were allowed to fall.  The real story is the impact that the demolition had on the surrounding neighborhood.  These buildings were the heart of a vibrant community.  York Sunday News columnist Gordon Freireich grew up in this neighborhood, and his parents owned a small store nearby.  He often writes about the neighborhood of his youth.  My father-in-law lived directly across the street from the York Collegiate Institute when he was young.  He loves to reminisce about how his bigger brothers would go to the market with wagons and cart shoppers meats and produce to their cars in return for a nickel.  Or how one year a college club hazed its new members, making them spend a night on the roof of his house with no food or water.

Buildings most definitely tie us to the past, but when they are gone things change, and often not for the better.  When these buildings were demolished in the name of “progress,” the surrounding neighborhood went into an extended period of decline – and it has yet to recover.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to speak at Historic York’s annual meeting.  After spending nine years on the board of directors, including two as president, this was my final act at my last meeting.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a program called “This Place Matters.”  For several years they have encouraged people to stand in front of a building or place that matters to them and have their picture taken holding a sign, demonstrating that the place really matters to them.  You’ll find a photo gallery on the Preservation Pennsylvania website (www.preservationpa.org).  The title of my presentation was “The Place Mattered: A Voice for the Fallen.”  While the focus was York City, and many of the buildings that have fallen over the years – as well as notable preservation and rehabilitation projects completed in recent years – I noted that Harrisburg and Lancaster haven’t been immune to the wrecking ball, either.  The two collages above were from that presentation.  Sadly, these beauties no longer stand.  In fact, many of Lancaster’s most prominent buildings – including the original Woolworth Building, believe it or not – were demolished as part of an aggressive 1960s urban renewal project.  Incidentally, the project failed miserably.  If you are interested in viewing the presentation, you can find it here: http://youtu.be/wkyMVNSfCyA .

When we retain our historic buildings, we retain the surrounding neighborhood.  Yes, sometimes demolition makes sense – particularly if it is for public safety or if what is built is even better than what stood before.  And of course, we should all be advocates of deconstruction and reuse of the building materials.  But many times demolition isn’t for the greater good.  How could it possibly have been good for York to level a popular market and replace it with a gas station?  The market brought people into the community and provided necessities for the surrounding neighborhood.  The gas station served cars passing by and eventually went out of business.

Historic preservation is community preservation.  In the preservation vernacular, there is another term: rehabilitation.  This deals with renovating a historic building, and using it for a new purpose (think adaptive reuse with historic sensitivity).  So just as historic preservation is community preservation, I believe that historic rehabilitation is community rehabilitation.  When old buildings are rejuvenated, it injects vital energy into the surrounding neighborhoods.  Plus, historic renovations are good for the local economy.  A recent study of the Preservation Green Lab of the National Trust for Historic Preservation noted that residential rehabilitation projects create 50% more jobs than new construction.  And over the past 32 years, historic rehabilitation has created two million jobs and generated more than $90 billion in private investment.

Today, Americans are returning to our urban cores after several decades of suburban sprawl.  But many cities have “pockets” of good areas interspersed with large areas of blight – once vibrant neighborhoods and commercial districts that were allowed to deteriorate.  While the opportunity for community “preservation” may have long since passed, the opportunity for community “rehabilitation” stands before us.

Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM is a former director of the AIA Central Pennsylvania.  Vice President of JDB Engineering, Inc., he is also author of the recently-released book Historic Architecture of Pennsylvania. 

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