The Wellesley Inn ~ The Original

The Wellesley Inn, in all its former glory (Wellesley, MA)

The Wellesley Inn, in all its former glory (photo credit: Jennifer Emmer)

WELLESLEY, MASSACHUSETTS:  Little did I know when I snapped this picture in 2005, it would be the last one I ever took of the Wellesley Inn.

This is a little like reminiscing about the horses, after the barn door has been opened…..but I feel I must, for my own peace of mind, blog about this. Maybe it’s because I’m 3,000 miles away, so I didn’t get to hear any grass-roots rumblings, but it seems like The Wellesley Inn was torn down with nary a whimper from any of her gentle townsfolk. In researching this debacle, however, I now discover that the Wellesley Country Clubhouse/Original Town Hall/Poor Farm building has gone the way of the buffalo too?

Good Lord, people! Wake up!

Wellesley Inn History: Built by Boston lawyer Henry Fowle Durant, the stately white Colonial inn has overlooked downtown Wellesley since 1860. Durant used it as a summer home for his wife and 5 year old son.  After his son died of diptheria a few years later, a devastated Durant left his law practice to become an evangelist. He ultimately founded Wellesley Female Seminary in 1870, which later become Wellesley College.

Durant also founded the literary society of Phi Sigma, designed to promote social and academic development. Tea parties were a favorite social event of the society, and students rented part of the inn for their gatherings.

The Wellesley Inn, in an old postcard (Wellesley, MA)

The Wellesley Inn, in an old postcard

Activities in the Tea Toom eventually become an “informal club” of sorts. Tea Room manager, Mary Esther Chase said the “college girls flocked for ‘afternoon tea’, ‘ice cream and spreads’ of various kinds. When out-of-town friends came to visit, they were taken to ‘The Tea Room’ for their meals.”

Chase and her business partner, Clara Hathorne Shaw, put together a design plan for “The Wellesley Tea Room Corporation” and by selling shares of stock for $5,  they had enough money to purchase the house itself in 1901. That same year they began taking in lodgers.

The public side included a “cozy reception room, hall, toilet room, and dining room” where they served “luscious griddle cakes and fudge ice cream”.

By the way, many stories claim that fudge was invented at either Vassar, Smith or Wellesley. Here is an original 1886 Fudge Recipe from Emelyn B. Hartridge of Vassar College.

The student half of the inn, on the right, included a reception hall, living room and dining room with Flemish oak paneling, arts and crafts tables, and ”big palms”. In 1914, the inn was sold to Jeremiah Bransfield, whose family managed it for 50 years. They also added the distinctive pillars along the front porch, according to the Wellesley Historical Society.

My friend Danielle, inside the Wellesley Inn, 2005

My friend Danielle, inside the Wellesley Inn, 2005

In 1960, the Bransfields sold the inn to William W. White, who refurbished the building, added a motel wing, and opened a tavern near the back. On a personal note, I spent many a happy evening with my high school chums in that old tavern. It was dark as a tomb, and the wooden paneling and low ceilings made it feel like you had just stepped into a pub in England.

The Treadway Corp. managed the property for years, before White sold it in 2005. Unbeknownst to me (until it was too late), 146 years of history went up in the puff of smoke in 2006.

I could rant on about this, but the damage is done. It seems some other folks are just as bent out of shape as I am about this:

Buffum: How and why we need to preserve for the generations to come

Letter: Where’s the outcry? Where’s the protection?

Oh, and next on the chopping block? My old alma mater, Wellesley High School. Art Deco. Built in 1938. “Perfectly good” as my dad would say.

Have at it:

Save Wellesley High School

If you know of any historic buildings in imminent danger, please let me know by email at or on Twitter at:

“The Old Way of Seeing ~ How Architecture lost its magic – and how to get it back”

A Book Recommendation

The Old Way of Seeing by Jonathan Hale

This manifesto by Jonathan Hale is a must-read for Architecture students, and building lovers. It describes an aesthetic sense that cannot easily be defined.

Almost intangible, it is “the old way of seeing” – which has been lost for quite awhile now, resulting in nameless, shapeless, gutless buildings, that we have the unfortunate pleasure of having to view. Hale shows how contemporary architecture slaps on “symbols” of what it’s trying to emulate, without really understanding the mathematics of it.

For example, a Victorian commerical building can look beautiful with minimal adornment, if the proportions are correct. Meanwhile, a modern builder trying to make something look “Victorian” will slap a bunch of faux gingerbread on his building, figuring “that ought to do it”.

But the builder misses the point. There is a sophisticated system of geometry to beautiful buildings. Hale points out that Audrey Hepburn’s face is beautiful, largely because it is perfectly symmetrical. He uses her face to illustrate “The Golden Section” proportion to the accuracy of 1/1000 of a decimal. This book will definitely fascinate the reader, and it covers a lot of ground. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Perhaps we can convince the publisher to produce another run!

Even the Grand Dames have fallen on hard times

The Redman House, in happier times

The Redman House, in happier times

[From “The Redman House“]

WATSONVILLE, CALIFORNIA: The Redman-Hirahara House is a prime example of a West Coast Victorian farm estate home situated on almost 14 acres of farmland clearly visible from Scenic Highway 1 in the Pajaro Valley on California’s Central Coast.

She greets passersby like a grand lady who has fallen on hard times, just a faint relic of the noble and gracious beauty that commanded the views of the river and valley from her perch on West Beach Road.

Driving through the Pajaro Valley, travelers cannot miss the stately Queen Anne Victorian which stands in the middle of a farm field as a symbol of history.

The house was built for James Redman in 1897; designed by renowned architect William H. Weeks. The building contract was let to the local firm of Lamborn and Uren, at a negotiated cost of $3,368. The interior of the home was finished in eastern oak, birds eye maple and natural hardwoods. It was outfitted with all the conveniences for modern housekeeping.

The Redman House waits patiently to be restored

The Redman House waits patiently to be restored

When the James Redman family died out in the 1930s, the house and property were sold to the Hirahara family, one of the first Japanese-American families to own farmland in the nation. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Hirahara family, along with the other Japanese families across the state, were removed and delivered to internment camps. The Hirahara family managed to maintain ownership of the house and land, with the often-anonymous assistance from the Watsonville community. After the war they returned home and made the house and converted barn into an interim home for several other Japanese families while they reestablished themselves in the community.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, the house and land was sold to Green Farm, a partnership of investors. The land was leased for commercial strawberry farming and the house left to deteriorate. There were “profitable development plans” at that time, much to the dismay of locals.

In 1998, a group of Pajaro Valley residents formed The Redman House Committee to determine what could be done to save the neglected and vacant 100-year old Victorian house. The Committee added the house to the National Registry of Historic Places to prohibit demolition, leased the now pallid land and abandoned farmstead, and designed a conceptual master plan to transform the site into a landmark Visitor and Cultural Education center.

In February of 2005, the property was purchased by The Redman-Hirahara Foundation with borrowed funds for $1.9 million. The surrounding 10 acres of farmland now produces colorful organic crops year-round.

To help restore this beloved jewel, go to: Save the Redman House.

Comstock Ferre Seed Co up for sale

Comstock Ferre Seed Co, Wethersfield, CT

Comstock Ferre Seed Co, Wethersfield, CT ~ Photo by Jennifer Emmer

Old Wethersfield is a charming, historic Connecticut River town founded in 1634. Along Main Street the homes are more than 200 years old, as well as the white-steepled Congregational Church that George Washington occasionally attended. This area is richly endowed with deep, fertile soil, a legacy from the glaciers and the annual flooding of the Connecticut River.  As a result of these agricultural benefits, the Wethersfield area has always produced an abundance of seeds.

As you come off I-91, into Wethersfield town center, Comstock Ferre Seed Company is front and center in the middle of the downtown fabric.  Located in a cluster of antique buildings in the Historic District, Comstock Ferre is the oldest continuously operating seed company in the country. Established in 1820 by James Lockwood Belden as the Wethersfield Seed Company, the original tin signs still adorn the buildings to this day. The company has seen several transitions during its century and a half operation. For the full story, see the history page at the Comstock Ferre Seed Company website.

“Here is the finest ride in America.  A gentleman told me that there is not such another street in America as this one in Wethersfield… We went up the steeple of Wethersfield Meeting House from whence is the most grand and beautiful prospect in the world.”

From John Adam’s Diary, August 15, 1774 .

America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places 2008

[From the National Trust website]

Every year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation releases a list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Since 1988 the list has drawn attention to such landmarks as Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and the TWA Terminal at New York City’s JFK International Airport. The following highlights this year’s “11 Most”—the beloved and significant sites across the country in serious jeopardy.

Vizcaya and Bonnet House, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, FL

Bonnet House Museum & Gardens is fighting construction of an 18-story hotel that would forever mar views from the estate.

Bonnet House Museum & Gardens is fighting construction of an 18-story hotel that would forever mar views from the estate.

Though separated by just 30 miles, Miami’s Vizcaya and Fort Lauderdale’s Bonnet House are both threatened by encroaching development.

A proposed high-rise condominium project would mar Vizcaya’s view, spoil the estate gardens, and adversely affect the single-family neighborhoods nearby. At Bonnet House, massive buildings already intrude upon view corridors. Now a developer has received permission to build an 18-story hotel less than 200 feet away.

Both homes are historic treasures. Industrialist James Deering built Vizcaya between 1914 and 1916 as a winter residence. His Renaissance villa is a National Historic Landmark, celebrated for its palatial Italianate main house, 10 acres of formal gardens, and native hardwood forest. The property includes a bamboo bar, a shell museum, and an aviary, as well as gardens that are home to monkeys, swans, and the occasional manatee.

Michigan Avenue Streetwall, Chicago, IL

The west side of central Michigan Avenue is home to  structures so visible and iconic that residents call the stretch Chicago’s front door. The “streetwall’s” historic character is now threatened by the inappropriate addition of large towers that would retain only small portions of the original buildings or their facades.

Ristorante Puglia, Lower East Side. Photo by Jennifer Emmer.

Ristorante Puglia, 1919. Lower East Side. Photo credit: Jennifer Emmer.

The Lower East Side, New York City

This storied enclave below Delancey Street, once home to thousands of immigrant families, retains a remarkable collection of historic buildings and landmarks. In recent years, an influx of high-rises has threatened the district’s distinctive streetscapes, known for their unusual mix of Federal row houses, tenements, and bodegas. New York City officials will have to designate the Lower East Side a city landmark to prevent further losses and destruction.

Charity Hospital and the adjacent neighborhood, New Orleans, LA

A 1939 art deco landmark, Charity Hospital has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, when levees failed and floodwaters inundated New Orleans. The Louisiana State University medical system deemed the hospital unsafe and endorsed the construction of a new facility alongside a proposed VA hospital. (That would require the demolition of countless historic houses in the neighborhood.) But preservationists argue that Charity can be repaired and reopened to provide services for the poor.

The Statler Hilton, Dallas, TX

The interior of the Statler Hilton Hotel in Dallas, Texas, is falling into disrepair.

The interior of the Statler Hilton Hotel in Dallas, Texas, is falling into disrepair.

A midcentury modern landmark, the 1956 Statler was the first glass-and-metal hotel in the nation. The building has been vacant since 2001, and no buyers have come forward—in part because of a $20 million price tag and extensive asbestos contamination. Barring an innovative proposal for reuse, the hotel will likely be demolished.

Sumner Elementary School, Topeka, KS

In 1950, Oliver Brown walked the seven blocks from his home to Sumner Elementary School and attempted to enroll his eight-year-old daughter, Linda. Because Topeka’s schools were segregated, Brown was turned away; he then became lead plaintiff in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Today, the vacant school building, a National Historic Landmark, has fallen into serious disrepair despite the city’s pledge to protect it. Topeka’s city council has already authorized its demolition.

Great Falls Portage, Great Falls, MT

The site of Lewis and Clark’s portage at Great Falls—one of the most difficult ordeals on their westward journey—has remained largely unchanged since 1805. Now the construction of an enormous coal-fired power plant threatens this National Historic Landmark. (See the story in Preservation’s July/August 2007 issue.) The new generating facility, which will likely include a 400-foot smokestack and several 26-story wind turbines, would alter one of the best-preserved landscapes on the Lewis and Clark Trail.

Boyd Theatre, Philadelphia, PA

The last real movie theater was built the year before the great stock market crash of 1929

The last "real" movie theater was built the year before the great stock market crash of 1929

The 1928 art deco theater, built with a towering vertical sign and dramatic mirrored lobby, is the last surviving motion picture palace in downtown Philadelphia. Once host to premieres with Grace Kelly and Tom Hanks, the Boyd has remained vacant since 2002. Unless a sympathetic buyer renovates this landmark, it will remain vulnerable to demolition. To help save it, go to Friends of the Boyd.

California State Parks, CA

California’s state park system is one of the country’s largest and most successful. Unfortunately, the system remains drastically underfunded and at risk of deterioration—a result of more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s  proposal to increase user fees for park visitors would do little to remedy this dire situation.

Peace Bridge Neighborhood, Buffalo, NY

Peace Bridge Neighborhood, Buffalo, NY

Peace Bridge Neighborhood, Buffalo, NY

More than 100 houses in a community with parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and buildings dating to the 1850’s — may be razed to expand the Peace Bridge complex. (The span connects Buffalo to Canada.) Preservationists argue that existing bridges could accommodate traffic, and a truck plaza, without destroying historic neighborhoods.

Hangar One, Moffett Field, Santa Clara County, CA

Built by the U.S. Navy in 1932 to house dirigibles, Hangar One remains one of the largest aircraft hangars in the world. However, Hangar One’s outdated siding and other materials are leaking toxic PCBs, rendering the dome-shaped structure unusable unless current owner NASA undertakes a rehab effort to remove the environmental pollutants.

Know of a place that needs saving? Nominate it!

Teardowns and McMansions

Teardowns in WestportFrom The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Across the nation a teardown epidemic is wiping out historic neighborhoods one house at a time. As older homes are demolished and replaced with dramatically larger, out-of-scale new structures, the historic character of the existing neighborhood is changed forever. Neighborhood livability is diminished as trees are removed, backyards are eliminated, and sunlight is blocked by towering new structures built up to the property lines. Community economic and social diversity is reduced as new mansions replace affordable homes. House by house, neighborhoods are losing a part of their historic fabric and much of their character.

“From 19th-century Victorian to 1920s bungalows, the architecture of America’s historic neighborhoods reflects the character of our communities,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust. “Teardowns radically change the fabric of a community. Without proper safeguards, historic neighborhoods will lose the identities that drew residents to put down roots in the first place.” To date, the National Trust has documented more than 300 communities in 33 states that are experiencing significant numbers of teardowns, and that number is climbing fast. Click here for an interactive map and listing of Teardowns by State and Community.

In 2002, the National Trust began work to draw attention to this growing trend by placing “Teardowns in Historic Neighborhoods” on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. To help arm neighborhood residents, preservationists and local government leaders, the National Trust has published Protecting America’s Historic Neighborhoods: Taming the Teardown Trend to address the origins and impact of teardowns.

Historic neighborhoods can be protected from teardowns, through a variety of tools and approaches that manage this type of growth. Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution or “magic bullet” that will stop teardowns, communities should expect to use a combination of tools. To help with this process, the National Trust is working to show models and profile communities that have developed innovative strategies through the online Teardowns Resource Guide.

Resources: Teardowns and McMansions

Lest we forget….San Jose’s former glory

The Hall of Records, 1893, San Jose, CA

The Hall of Records, 1893, San Jose, CA

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: San Jose’s Hall of Records was built adjacent to the (current) Old Courthouse in 1893, and housed the offices of the county clerk, treasurer, auditor, surveyor, recorder and superintendent of schools. The current court house is the one with the dome, on the left, built in 1868.

A tragic amount of old buildings were lost in San Jose in the 1960’s, and the Hall of Records fell under the wrecker’s ball in November 1966. Structural engineers had reported that the building was an earthquake hazard, and it was not considered (by some) to be worth the cost of renovation.

In sharp contrast to this opinion is a quote from “Sunshine, Fruit and Flowers” (1896):

“The Hall of Records in one of the most massive buildings in the city, and its architecture is very beautiful. It is built of marble, granite and steel, and is an enduring testimony pf the prosperity and artistic taste of our people.”

I guess those people lost their taste somewhere along the way….

Cornerstone, Old City Hall, built in 1887, San Jose, CA

Cornerstone, Old City Hall, built in 1887, San Jose, CA

Speaking of wrecking balls, San Jose’s original City Hall, a glorious, gargantuan stone Victorian building once stood downtown, in a spot that was converted to the “Plaza de Cesar Chavez” in 1993.

This beauty was built in 1887, to the tune of $150,000 – a rather princely sum at the time. How do we know this? Because the cornerstone, complete with date, was left to taunt us in the Cesar Chavez park. It was two stories high with a basement, and a massive Victorian facade finished with pressed brick and stone trimmings. It contained not only city offices, but a library, and a jail. Apparently the prisoners used to bother the people upstairs by banging their tin cups on the bars of their cells.

Old City Hall, San Jose, CA. Built 1887. Demolished June, 1958 amidst fairly intense protest.

Old City Hall, San Jose, CA. Built 1887. Demolished June, 1958 amidst fairly intense protest.

If all of this nostalgia doesn’t get you a little misty, may we recommend this tear-jerking trip back in time:

San Jose Then and Now

“The Most Historic Building in San Jose” burns to the ground

By Jennifer Emmer, Fierce Preservationist

Houghton Donner House, in better days

The Houghton-Donner Family, on the front porch of their glorious Victorian, late 1880s. This view is of its original location ~ the corner of Julian and North Third Street, San Jose, CA. It was moved to its present location in 1909.

On July 19th, an irreplaceable piece of San Jose history went up in flames.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA: The 126-year-old Houghton-Donner House, built for a member of the Donner party succumbed to fire, turning centuries worth of California and San Jose history, and at least a decade worth of contentious redevelopment arguments, into ashes.

Personally, I am deeply saddened by the loss of the house, as I was present for many discussions of its fate during Preservation Action Council meetings in San Jose at the Petit Trianon, another downtown beauty.

The Houghton Family, late 1800's

The Houghton Family, late 1800s

By the time firefighters arrived shortly before 4 a.m., the “highly suspicious” blaze had fully engulfed the Houghton-Donner House on North Fourth and East St. John streets. Preservationists and developers later tried to carefully dismantle the 5,000-square-foot home’s charred facade to see if it could be saved and incorporated into other buildings.

The house is considered by some to be “the most historic building in San Jose,” Fire Chief Guerrero said. The investigation into what sparked the blaze is ongoing.

The house was built in 1881 for Eliza Donner – a survivor of the Donner Party, a group of early California settlers caught in a deadly blizzard in 1846 trying to cross the Sierra – and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, San Jose’s fourth mayor, a lieutenant colonel in the Civil War and a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The home embodied the Victorian architecture of the time and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002.

The Houghton-Donner House, Before

The Houghton-Donner House, Before

Not only was the building a significant piece of California history, it was an aesthetically pleasing part of the urban fabric of downtown. It always looked a little sad, not being used to its full potential. However, the building did receive an attractive “painted lady” paint job, while it languished.

The Houghton-Donner House, After

The Houghton-Donner House, After

San Jose police were the first to arrive on the scene, escorting squatters from the building. While some older downtown homes have been expensively rehabilitated, others are largely vacant except for homeless people who sneak into the buildings at night and apparently set fires for heat and cooking.

Fire Chief Guerrero said he considered the fire to be suspicious, due to the fact that the Victorian was boarded up with no electricity and no gas. Police had received complaints about squatters using the Houghton Donner House after Keith Watt sold it in 2005.

Both Henry Cord, a representative of current owner Tony Baig, and former owner Keith Watt said they had done everything possible to keep unwelcome people out of the home. Although the windows were boarded up, people apparently continued to break in.

Why does San Jose leave its historic homes vacant for so long, turning them into attractive shelters for squatters?

The plan to make the home a “vibrant place where people live” was moving forward, Cord said. Ironically, a meeting about moving the home to the Hensley Historic District had been scheduled for Thursday. [Current owner] Baig wanted to move the home farther north on Fourth, rehabilitate it and turn it into condos.”

I’ve been working for a year and half to two years trying to save the house,” Cord said. Keith Watts and the Preservation Action Council vigorously fought a 2002 city proposal to move the home to the Hensley District to make room for a parking structure on the corner of Fourth and St. John. Although they eventually stopped the plan, the fight drained the money that Watts had planned to use to rehabilitate the home. He ultimately sold it.

[From the Mercury News, 7/20/2007]

The Houghton-Donner House front porch, in better times

The Houghton-Donner House, in better times

Cord spent at least a year and half working with community groups to gain support for the renewed idea of moving the home. The application to do so is currently on file with the city.

“It has been a real hot potato,” Bellue said. But Cord believed he had the city and community support necessary to make the move this time. Baig made concessions to community demands, agreeing to keep the house as a home instead of turning it into commercial real estate. Bellue said the Preservation Action Council has remained opposed to moving the building but had been rethinking its stances in recent years.

For more on what can be done in light of the fire, see:

Historic Route 66 Motels make the “11 Most Endangered Places 2007”

Route 66 Motel

Route 66 Motel

Affectionately called “The Mother Road,” Route 66 is known for quirky roadside attractions and unique mom-and-pop motels, constructed between the late 1920 and late 1950s and often clad in neon. In recent years, Route 66 motels in hot real-estate markets have been torn down at record rates, while in cold real-estate markets, motels languish and are being reclaimed by the forces of nature.


Stretching more than 2,000 miles from Lake Michigan to the Santa Monica Pier and passing through the states of Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, Route 66 reflects the 20th century evolution of transportation and tourism in the United States. In its early years, the highway facilitated large-scale settlement of the west, saw the desperate migration of Dust Bowl refugees and World War II troop movements, and played a major role in the advent of car culture and automobile tourism. In the postwar era, Route 66 symbolized unprecedented freedom and mobility for every citizen who could afford to own and operate a car. The development of the interstate highway system brought the glory days of Route 66 to an end, and one by one, communities were bypassed and lost their economic lifeline. The final decommissioning of Route 66 in 1985, coincided with a renewed appreciation for this American icon, and recognition that the remaining significant structures, features, and artifacts associated with the road should be preserved.

Over the past decade, private property owners, nonprofit organizations, and local state, federal and tribal governments have worked together to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66 preservation needs. Included in these efforts through an Act of Congress in 1999, the National Park Service was directed to administer the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program that works with partners in preserving and continuing the use of the most representative and significant historic properties along the route.


Many historic Route 66 motels are threatened by the compound forces of long-term deferred maintenance and obsolescence while others fall to the lure of cash to demolish and convert valuable real estate into upscale developments. Motels in expanding urban areas are subject to development pressures associated with sprawl.


Local governments need to develop policies and financial incentives to support motel properties and businesses. Some historic motels have been successfully rehabilitated and maintained in their original use. The Munger Moss in Lebanon, Missouri, and the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari, New Mexico are examples of motels that cater to a growing base of heritage tourists looking for an authentic Route 66 experience. These motels offer models of “best practices” that others can emulate. Most importantly, the traveling public from the United States and abroad can directly support the heritage of Route 66 by patronizing its historic motels and related roadside attractions.

What you can do

[Reprinted from the National Trust Website, August, 2007]

Grassroots Effort Needed to save the Belleview Biltmore on Florida’s Gulf Coast

[Reprinted from National Trust for Historic Preservation website, July 21, 2006]

The Owners Want to Tear it Down for Condos

BELLEAIR, FLORIDA: High-rise condos overlooking Clearwater Harbor on Florida’s Gulf coast are the type of development you would expect to see in the state. However, when a multi-million-dollar project called for destroying one of the state’s most elegant century-old hotels in Belleair, Fla., locals spoke out against another 600 condos and a new hotel.

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

Built in 1896 by railroad and steamboat baron Henry B. Plant, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel originally had 500 rooms and was built in three sections, each 400 feet long, with broad verandas. During World War II, the U.S. Army moved in 3,000 soldiers for two years and painted over its Tiffany stained-glass windows and brass fixtures. It has hosted Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and to Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Longtime residents were appalled that the grand hotel that once played host to presidents would be demolished. Last month, their voices were heard when the Belleair town council voted unanimously in early May to delay the demolition as leaders of a citizens group continue to negotiate the purchase of the 21-acre site with owner Belleview Biltmore Resorts, Ltd.

“We now have four commissioners all rowing the boat in the same direction,” says Rae Claire Johnson, president of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, which is the leading the fight to save the Victorian structure.

Even with the demolition postponed for now, others warn that the fight is not yet over. “Delaying the decision on that application is not a flat-out denial,” says Belleair Town Manager Steve Cottrell. “It is deferment of a major development.”

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

With that in mind, the National Trust announced yesterday that the Belleview Biltmore is one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

“Everyone needs to stay involved until we have ensured that the hotel is protected by the full weight of intelligent public policies, strong local ordinances, and other legal tools such as conservation easements,” says Sam Casella, a professional planner who joined the fight to save the property. “The hotel may be given a reprieve, and the next months and years will determine whether we can make the most of it.”

Johnson would like to see the creation of a for-profit company that can take advantage of historic-tax credits for the renovation, which would include taking down two dilapidated four-story buildings with small rooms. They would be rebuilt and sold as condo hotel units so the revenue could be used to purchase and rehabilitate of the property, she says. After five years, it would be turned over to the nonprofit Friends of the Belleview Biltmore.

“We have offered the owners $40 million, and they want $50 million, so we are negotiating right now,” Johnson says. “I think they know now that I’m not just a little housewife with a cause.”

Reaching that point in this tiny town of 4,500 took some doing. Preservationists started fighting to save the thriving hotel that was once known as the “White Queen of the Gulf” last fall. After last summer’s hurricanes, more than 320,000 square feet of the roof of the four-and-a-half story hotel was covered with tarps, and the owners, Belleview Biltmore Resorts Ltd., made no effort to repair it. As Johnson sees it, the owner wanted to let the hotel deteriorate to support their claim that it had to be demolished. “I think it was their intention to run it into the ground,” she says.

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

Coupled with that were reports that the DeBartolo Development of Tampa had a contract to buy the property to tear down the historic property and build a smaller hotel and condominiums on 22 acres.

So this spring, Johnson and two other candidates ran against the commissioners who were up for re-election. According to Johnson, the Belleair Citizens for Truth spent $50,000 “to defeat us,” and she believes most of money came from the developer.

Even though Johnson lost the election, she didn’t back down when owners filed for a demolition permit on April 21. That’s when the National Trust for Historic Preservation was called into the fracas. National Trust President Richard Moe called the owner in an effort to negotiate a deal to save the resort, which includes a pool and golf course.

“There has been an incredible grassroots mobilization,” says Mary Ruffin Hanbury, who oversees Florida’s historic-preservation efforts from the National Trust’s Southern Office. “There’s a lot of people we have not usually heard from in Florida that were just aghast that this could happen. Our regional office has been bombarded about this issue.”

Belleview water view

Belleview water view

A hotel in excellent condition is rarely a candidate for demolition. The Belleview Biltmore’s last rehabilitation was in the 1990s, when Japan-based Mido Development spent $10 million on renovations and added a Chinese restaurant. Residents were shocked when the company installed a Pagoda-like entrance, which they nicknamed “Godzilla.” Upset by the Oriental décor, Johnson and others refuse to use that entrance. “A lot of us only go in the original front porch, which is now the rear of the hotel,” she says.

Many locals still visit the ice cream parlor or have a drink at St. Andrews Pub, and the hotel is still used for social gatherings like weddings and afternoon teas. “This is the largest wood-frame building in the state, and it still maintains a great deal of integrity,” Hanbury says. “It would be a tragedy to lose it. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”

Hall of Shame: Government Center, Boston

Government Center, Boston, MA

Government Center, Boston, MA

The picture above is that lovely, wide-open vista that seemingly landed in Boston like a meteor shower, creating a giant crater. It’s a trainwreck of a public space that I am unfortunately well acquainted with – Government Center, in Boston, MA.

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS: Being a Bostonian, and studying the History of Boston at Harvard, I am painfully familiar with all the reasons why Government Center happened. What I cannot imagine is why, 30 years later, it remains one of the most awful public spaces in the country.

Boston itself is a superb city, with a rich and varied history. Packed with historic treasures, it is a haven for tourists, who flock to its spectacular sites routinely. Government Center has become the eyesore that won’t go away, in an otherwise magnificent city.

Scollay Square, the unfortunate area which was decimated to make way for Government Center, was a far more interesting and historic area, albeit a tad dicey. Since Boston was a seaport, it was always a haven for immigrants, and with them, came a rather unseemly lot of folk. One infamous place for congregating near the waterfront, which later became a den of iniquity, was Scollay Square. This area was a hotbed of activity, where international seamen and merchants frequented rather bawdy taverns, took in vaudeville and burlesque shows, and other intriguing entertainment.

Scollay Square Before and After

Scollay Square in the black and white photos above: Before (Above) and After (Below)

Scollay Square started out as Boston’s home to the elite and ruling class. John Winthrop (the founder of Boston and first Governor of Massachusetts) lived nearby, as did many other city and state officials. During the siege of Boston in 1775/76 the Brattle Square Church housed British troops. Today, this site would be the base of City Hall at City Hall Plaza.

As immigrants who followed in the mid- to late-1800s, changed the character of Boston, the elite began to abandon the Square, and by the 1880s, it had become the center of commercial activity in Boston.

The Square played a large role in the 1919 Boston Police Strike, brought on in part by the dramatic cavalry charge, ordered by Governor Calvin Coolidge, to disperse the “15,000 ruffians” who had gathered there.

It might not have been perfect, but it sure had character. The city officials were sick of the bar-room brawls, and occasional all-out riots that occured there. By the 1940’s and 50’s, Boston’s economy had become quite depressed in this area, prompting officials to take drastic measures to clean the place up.

The Last Days of Scollay Square – The Old Howard Theater…

The Old Howard Theater goes down in a puff of smoke

The Old Howard Theater goes down in a puff of smoke

Their solution? Government Center. Built by Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles between 1963 and 1968, the design for Boston City Hall and its accompanying plaza won a national competition to replace a 90-acre “urban renewal” site with today’s Government Center. How ironic that nearby – but now effectively cut off thanks to the design of Government Center – is Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, birthplace of another trend in urban planning: historic preservation via the “festival marketplace.”

Why is Boston still stuck with this bloody thing? First off, the new attempts at redesigning it fail to take in the concept of the community, and how it congregates, as well as its nearby neighbors.

“It proves once again that design competitions accomplish little if nothing in creating great places. What does this say about design in a city with so many prominent designers (as opposed to placemakers) – a city where all the truly successful places are older?

While some places in the Hall of Shame have at least a few redeeming characteristics, everything about City Hall Plaza and the surrounding Government Center is all wrong. Bleak, expansive, and shapeless, it has an exceedingly poor image in a city where image should be paramount.” [Great Public Spaces, PPS Project for Public Spaces]

“Pilot’s Row” gets long-awaited attention

Pilot's Row, The Presidio, San Francisco

Pilot's Row, The Presidio, San Francisco

Reprinted from The National Trust website.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA: Once headquarters for the Coastal Artillery Corps that guarded the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge during WWI, Pilots’ Row embodies the dawn of the era of flight in the American West. Understanding the usefulness of airplanes for artillery reconnaissance during WWI, the Army built an airfield along the Presidio’s northern shoreline in 1919. The field was augmented by a crescent of hangars and warehouses in 1921. At the same time, thirteen officers’ quarters—known as “Pilots’ Row”—were constructed nearby to house aviators and their families.

Today, these houses, located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, are vacant and have not seen attention for more than two decades. All contain lead-based paint and hazardous materials both on their interior and exterior and are highly susceptible to earthquake damage.

Grant funds of $50,000 will be used by The Presidio Trust to restore the homes for civilian use and to help preserve a national park and National Historic Landmark District.