Keeping the Faith
By James H. Schwartz | From Preservation | July/August 2010
I opened an email a few weeks ago from a friend who'd just paid a visit to her hometown. Joellyn Beckham grew up in Bessemer, Ala., once a thriving steel and manufacturing center, today a faded industrial giant facing a host of urban ills. She'd gone home to Bessemer to say goodbye to a cherished family friend: the historic First United Methodist Church, where Joellyn, along with her parents, siblings, and friends had worshipped for much of their lives.
First Methodist hasn't fallen. The striking Neoclassical building (shown in the photo above) still dominates the corner of Arlington Avenue and 19th Street, a testament to fine design and decades of care and attention. But for the first time, the future of the landmark is in doubt. Because of declining membership and skyrocketing maintenance costs, the church closed in March, putting an end to a 123-year legacy of stewardship and faith.
Reading Joellyn's email about her visit prompted a troubling question: What happens to extraordinary buildings when the people who protect and preserve them are gone? Is there a future for the monuments they leave behind?
That's where you and I come in. We can make a difference. We can guarantee a future for extraordinary survivors. We can save places that are endangered because of changing circumstances, or changing finances, or changing habits.
Don't take my word for it; look at the accomplishments of the gifted men and women who enliven the pages of this issue. Theresa Segal helped save a spectacular bridge in Florida when U.S. Coast Guard officials argued that it had to go. Carol and Hugo Rizzoli restored a decrepit farmhouse in Maryland when three (count 'em, three) contractors told them to tear it down. And the National Trust is fighting to save all of the sites that appear on this year's list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
"Things which once seemed everlasting … are changing all the time," Thomas Wolfe wrote, and he was right. But change doesn't have to mean loss. It can mean rebirth and reuse. And boy, does that ever feel good.
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