Best & Worst of 2010
The Year’s Triumphs and Disappointments in Historic Preservation
By Magazine Editors | Online Only | Dec. 27, 2010
In a scene from Frank Capra's 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life," George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, stumbles down a nightmarish Main Street, horrified by its changes. Quaint stores have been replaced by pawn shops and bars with flashing neon signs. In place of the bank is an unsavory club. It's a scene that resonates with residents in towns and cities across the country.
Every one of us can recall an old building we grew up with, one that perhaps we drove past every day, which abruptly disappeared, only to be replaced by a mediocre chain store. Although they may not think of themselves as preservationists, a growing number of Americans are noticing, with dismay, what we are losing.
This list is a small sample of what we've lost and what we've saved this year.
Los Angeles Century Plaza Hotel Saved
A midcentury modern hotel in Los Angeles seemed doomed until this year, when local politicians stepped in and encouraged its owner to reconsider. In August, developer Michael Rosenfeld announced new plans to retain and restore parts of the 1966 structure and build two condo towers behind the Century Plaza Hotel. Both politicians and preservationists were "thrilled" by the change of plans.
Hugh Hefner Helps Save Hollywood Sign
McMansions near the famous letters that have been a Los Angeles icon since 1923? Never, said the Trust for Public Land, which purchased the hilltop site near the Hollywood sign, saving the parcel from potential development. A key donor was Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder who had saved the sign once before, in the late 1970s, when an O had toppled down the mountain, and arsonists had set fire to an L. Hefner hosted a swanky fundraiser at the Playboy Mansion and "sold" letters for $27,000 each. This time, Hefner gave $900,000, which clinched the purchase of the land.
Montpelier's Honest Restoration
When the Montpelier Foundation set out to restore a train depot near the public entrance to James Madison's house, just south of Orange, Va., the nonprofit organization knew it faced a challenge: how to tell the depot's story. Built by William duPont, who acquired Montpelier in 1901, the building, last used as a station in 1974, embodied Jim Crow-era segregation: Until the late 1950s, "White" and "Colored" signs identified separate waiting rooms. Working in close consultation with the Orange County African-American Historical Society, the foundation ultimately decided to restore the depot to its original state, separate waiting rooms and all. "It took a lot of careful thought, but we decided that the right thing to do was to tell the story of segregation and make it an educational experience," says Michael Quinn, the foundation's president. "Our real intent was to say, 'Look how far we've come.'"
Money in the Bank
A fire in March damaged the 1928 Beaux Arts Wachovia Bank building in Philadelphia's Center City, but, after a $5 million restoration, it has reopened.
Louis Kahn's Bath House Restored
The architect's 1955 design in Trenton, N.J., was deteriorating eight years ago, when his son made the documentary "My Architect," a 2003 film that was nominated for an Academy Award. But Ewing Township, N.J., stepped in, overseeing a $2.1 million restoration. Read more >>
Chicago's Blow to Modernism
Empty lots are all that remain of Chicago's largest collection of modern buildings. Hoping to host the 2016 Olympic games, ago the city of Chicago announced plans to level a 37-acre hospital campus of more than 20 buildings, eight of them modernist buildings co-designed by Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school. Despite losing its Olympic bid, this year the city demolished most of the buildings on the Michael Reese Hospital campus anyway and even reneged on a plan to save the 1907 main building.
Out with the old, in with the new … chain drug stores
In May, the city of Duluth, Minn., approved the demolition of six historic buildings for a Walgreens. The same story is playing out in Memphis, where the city council is allowing a National Register-listed church to be leveled for a CVS pharmacy. Despite a 10-year-old agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (deemed "non-binding" this year), chain drug stores continue to target National Register-listed properties. Sometimes, however, residents are able to negotiate with corporations: In Clio, Mich., Walgreens abandoned plans to raze seven buildings in the historic downtown.
Chipping Away at Coney Island
A 1923 bank in Coney Island was reduced to rubble this year, and three other historic buildings are slated to fall, including a former theater where Harpo Marx debuted. Owner Thor Equities LLC has proposed strip malls and other development for the area. Although the city landmarked one of Coney's historic buildings earlier this month—the 1925 Coney Island Theater—nothing stands between three others and the wrecking ball. Tearing those buildings down would be a mistake, says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found. "People go to Six Flags or Disney World for one reason, but they come to Coney Island for history," he says. "It's not just nostalgia; there's an emotional component to Coney Island."
Breaking the Rules in Milwaukee
In downtown Milwaukee, a new hotel may replace the city's last intact 19th- and early 20th-century commercial block—a move that would flout the city's historic preservation ordinance.
The five buildings are part of a National Register Historic District and a locally designated historic district. Nonetheless, a developer may be able to tear them down because Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett backs the $50 million hotel project, tentatively planned as a Marriott. Read more >>
Destruction in New Orleans
Imagine surviving Hurricane Katrina, returning to your flood-scarred home in New Orleans, and lovingly restoring it, only to have it torn down. That's what happened to residents of historic Mid-City this year. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Louisiana State University chose the Mid-City neighborhood for the site of their new hospitals, and demolition began earlier this year. Some owners were able to move their houses out of harm's way, however. Read more>>
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