Preserving “non-significant” places: Why bother?

Santa Fe R.R. locomotive shops, Topeka, Kansas  (LOC)

The Santa Fe RxR locomotive shops in Topeka, KS. Photographed by Jack Delano, March 1943; courtesy The Library of Congress.

Recently I stumbled across an interesting article about plans to preserve older buildings in Topeka, Kansas:

The plan stressed encouraging private investment downtown and working with neighborhoods to preserve historic architecture. …“If people are taking care of their historic houses and historic neighborhoods properly there’s almost no need for incentive programs,” he (Bill Fiander, head of the planning department) said. “Even the modest neighborhoods are so beautiful — and great places to raise kids.” The city’s code enforcement officers also have a role to play in preventing “demolition by neglect,” when a building becomes so dilapidated that tearing it down is the only option, Benton said. The city can work with the building owner or help find someone else to repurpose it, while seeing that at least basic maintenance is performed, he said. “If you take care of the roof, you don’t necessarily have to paint the building. The building will survive at least,” he said.

Welcome To Depew, OK, Route 66 USA. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Depew, Oklahoma.

All of these things are good ideas when it comes to preserving the often-charming downtown buildings in cities and towns across the country. I’m especially happy to see that the city is willing to help owners find potential buyers willing to repurpose older buildings—all too often, handsome or just plain interesting buildings and even entire neighborhoods are razed to make room for something cold and banal. Even with the cost of rehabilitation included, re-using an older building is more cost-effective than building new, and also again, retains local charm and history.

Anyone who follows along with my work on Flickr knows I have a particular affection for old buildings, in particular vintage filling stations—their middling size, many windows, and often, canopies (to say nothing of often-great locations!) make them ideal for new and small businesses of all sizes, about which I regularly wax on and on. The possibilities for the reuse of even a small place like a filling station are just about endless, (and yes, I harbour a not-so-secret desire to buy a vintage gas station and turn it into a bakery and tea shop, I do, I do!). But even if they’re in fair shape and architecturally interesting, these are regularly torn down, often leaving a blighted empty corner for years, even decades—when if they’d been retained and perhaps some sort of incentive offered for someone wishing to make a go at opening up shop, a business of some sort could move in, providing services to locals as well as preventing the rather depressing blight of a vacant, paved-over corner.

Airborne

Shamrock, Texas’ famed and stunning U-Drop-Inn, restored and welcoming visitors from around the world!

Imagine the gorgeous Art Deco U-Drop Inn being razed—or even the loss of every last “cottage-style” filling station. Yes, they’re just gas stations—but they speak about our past and those living there. The U-Drop, a spectacular, show-stopping piece of architecture in the middle of Texas—in the middle of nowhere, some might say; the cottage-style stations that once dotted the country, quaint as could be and built specifically to fit unobtrusively in with their neighborhoods. From one oil company to the next, you’d find distinctive architecture, making “your brand” immediately recognizable to you even without the benefit of a sign! Are today’s filling stations designed with the idea of keeping in with your area’s aesthetic…or are they cookie-cutter and utilitarian, barely distinguishable from the competition?

Abandoned stone filling station in Kentucky; photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images. All rights reserved.

Abandoned filling station & general store between Harrodsburg and Lexington, Kentucky.

Of course, the EPA and its laws have much to do with these regular razings of older and even historic buildings; the organization can be hysterical about all sorts of things, and this alone literally condemns many an older, still-servicable location because of the costs involved in keeping them happy (why historic buildings can’t be grandfathered in, I have no idea) even when the issues they’re concerned with will actually not harm a soul (Fact: I’m not really a fan of the EPA). At any rate, I’m happy to see another American city taking a look at what can be done to retain its downtown charm and uniqueness.

Missing the point

All of that said, if you read the comments, locals are mocking the idea. Granted, I’ve not visited Topeka yet, so am not familiar with the area, but I see this response to the idea of preservation time and again: “Why bother? What’s the point?” Even the solitary commenter defending the idea only points to buildings with historic significance—and all of this demonstrates that many people miss the broader point of restoration and preservation.

Chillicothe

Chillicothe, Ohio—former state capitol that is experiencing a steady renaissance.

Significant buildings are indeed important and deserve our respect. But if we concern ourselves only with these, we’re missing much of the bigger picture, including the fact that historic preservation & rehabilitation of structures, places, and even landscapes is not just to remind us of The Olden Days or draw business into downtown (or uptown), but also to present to locals and visitors what is unique about our own area.

"Pattern on two planes" Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Carlinville, Illinois.

Those buildings—from the long stretches of shops and brownstones on Main Street to the 1800s farmhouse on the edge of town—are our town’s faces to the world, telling our town’s story, and they do it beautifully, too, because of the craftsmanship that went into building them. It’s undeniable that most newly-constructed edifices haven’t nearly the number of “small touches”, those architectural flourishes and grace notes, that so many of us admire in older ones, things that give our eyes so much to enjoy. And even though the styles may vary architecturally, that very combination of distinctive styles offers its own sort of harmony. This is not the only purpose of or reason for preservation, however. Perhaps even more importantly than offering local character and history, those old structures and places are like lines to our own past. Moreover, unlike a history book or documentary, by being a part of our environment and everyday life, these places subtly remind us of and even gently force us to consider that past, those who lived in and created it, and thereby help give us a sense of place and a sense of human scale in the countless pages of our past.

Pryor Creek Bridge, Route 66. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved

The 1926 Pryor Creek Bridge in Oklahoma—happily, still standing though long ago bypassed by the road.

For many, history begins the day they are born; conserving our physical heritage can and does deny us, however graciously, of the ability to remain in that ignorance (though some will always choose not to respond at all) and historical anonymity. The saving of our older places, keeping them for ourselves and our children, provides each generation a chain of touchstones, like gems along a string leading us to both our past and our future—for as readers of this blog know, the past has much to teach us. This is not intended to be philosophical and certainly not all-encompassing, and I’m sure my thoughts will continue to develop (and certainly better so when I’m not dealing with severe allergies!). In a topic as broad as this, there are many benefits (not the least of them being fodder for my camera, yes?) I’ve not covered; if a building should be completely rehabilitated or preserved as-is; there is the question of what buildings should be saved and those that will not be; how much creative re-use is acceptable before the character and history of a place is destroyed, making it anything but preservation or rehabilitation; whether or not post-initial construction should themselves be preserved as evidence of the times the

Mexican War Streets. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Pittsburgh’s Mexican War Streets, revitalized by locals after the neighborhood narrowly escaped demolition in the 1960s.

place has lived through; the regularly heard-of pushiness and overbearing nature of preservation committees regarding new development even locals want; and so forth.

Not just economic

This post came into being because it frustrates me a great deal when preservationists of any sort are castigated for attempting to save pieces of our history.  I’ve been a history lover since childhood; thus it should surprise no one that pieces of that history are one of the things I most favour in my work. Photographing them, whatever shape they are in, is in one sense my own way of preserving them as they are, at that moment, for all of us to enjoy; it is, obviously, also my own way of showing my affection for what they represent, for the people who built them, lived in and worked in them. Sharing those photographs with you is just another outpouring of that fondness for the past and its impact upon the present. To speak only of economic benefits which are in and of themselves uncertain is unwise in an age when people have become hyper-sensitive to being “sold to”; it smacks of crassness simply because it’s so cold. By neglecting to speak of or quickly passing over the importance of history and engendering a sense of permanence when attempting to convince locals of the worth of such projects, preservation campaigns, as so many modern things do, fail to recognize that people are spiritual, soulful creatures who crave beauty as well as practical ones who appreciate reason.

Blennerhassett Mansion, WV. Photo copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

Wet Virginia’s Blennerhassett Mansion—home of one of Aaron Burr’s associates (boo, HISS), it burned to the ground in 1811, but thanks to the work of archaeologists, it was rebuilt with astounding accuracy between 1984-1991.

By appealing to hearts as well as minds, and even the desire for a Main Street where locals and visitors may shop and socialize while taking in the beauty, I think historic preservation would be more accepted and even desired by even the negative commenters sniping in the Topeka article.

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