Opposition mounts against GOP historic preservation bill

By Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel

Federal_Building_and_U.S._Courthouse,_Milwaukee,_WI_Aug_03

Federal Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A bill proposed by Republican state lawmakers aimed at expanding property owners’ rights would have far-ranging effects on historic preservation in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin, opponents say.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) and Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), would prohibit municipalities from designating properties as historic landmarks without the consent of their owners.

It would also ban municipalities from requiring or prohibiting actions by owners related to the “preservation of special character, historic or aesthetic interest, or any other significant value of the property” without the owners’ consent.

Milwaukee’s Common Council voted Tuesday to formally oppose the proposal. The council’s vote comes amid broad opposition from historic preservationists in Milwaukee and around the state.

“I am concerned that the language in this bill eliminates any protection whatsoever for the physical manifestation of Wisconsin’s history,” Dawn McCarthy, president of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, told state lawmakers at a hearing on the bill last week. “Any privately owned historic landmark, and there are many, could be irreversibly altered or demolished without a public process and without public input.”

Lasee said the point of the bill provision is to ensure that owners of private property don’t have their rights trumped by the government. Property owners and public officials need to both see a benefit to a historic designation, he said.

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations? Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy,” Lasee said in a statement.

The measure, Assembly Bill 568, is part of a package of GOP bills aimed at expanding property rights, which would also make it easier to develop dry lake beds, lessen the regulation of certain ditches and other man-made waterways, and make it easier for businesses or homeowners to get notifications from local governments about official actions that could affect their properties.

McCarthy warned the legislation would have an adverse effect on property values and remove an important economic development tool. She and others argued that municipalities should be allowed to have local control when it comes to creating and regulating their own historic districts.

“Regulating historic landmarks and districts does more than provide economic and cultural value. It protects a property owner’s investment,” she said. “It prevents your neighbor from demolishing or inappropriately altering his historic home and thus the fabric of the historic district that gives your property value.”

Brooks and Lasee called the legislation a “technical bill” aimed at quality housing in a cosponsorship memo they circulated Dec. 4. In that memo, the bill sponsors said the overall legislation was “designed to make it easier for landlords to provide Wisconsin residents with quality housing.”

“Even though this legislation delineates better business practices for landlords, it simultaneously works to ensure that tenants have access to clean, safe and affordable housing,” they wrote.

John Decker, the president of the Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions, warned that the measure was a “radical proposal,” calling it “hastily drafted and poorly considered.”

“Allowing such ordinances to apply only with a property owner’s consent turns upside down the entire concept of land use control,” Decker wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Placing the whim of individual property owners over the public interest is an alarming prospect, and is antithetical to ordered government and local control.”

Gary Gorman, whose Oregon, Wisconsin-based firm has done 25 development projects involving the renovation of historic buildings into apartments, hotels and other new uses, said he could see both sides of the issue.

On one hand, under the current system property owners lose some of their rights to change or demolish buildings if they are designated as historic against their wishes, Gorman said. On the other hand, the new legislation would make it more difficult to preserve historic buildings, he said.

In Milwaukee, property owners can appeal Historic Preservation Commission rulings to the Common Council.

Milwaukee Hotel

Milwaukee Hotel

That happened in connection with the downtown Marriott hotel, which opened in 2013 at 323 E. Wisconsin Ave.

The commission in 2011 allowed demolition of some historic buildings to make way for the hotel, but only if the facades were preserved and blended into the new building. That ruling also required a setback for the hotel’s upper floors.

Commission members said the setback would provide a hotel design that was more sensitive to neighboring historic structures.

The hotel’s developers said it would force a costly redesign and appealed. The council then approved the hotel plan without the setback.

Jason Stein and Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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Boca Raton: Bid Adieu to La Vieille Maison

Seabass with lobster sauce from Chef Christian Potvin, formerly of La Vieille Maison

Seabass with lobster sauce from Chef Christian Potvin, formerly of La Vieille Maison

Is it any consolation that there are idiots everywhere? Not really.

Well, another one bites the dust. This time in Boca Raton, Florida. Apparently this 1927 beauty was too “vieille” for Boca Raton.

Amidst a throng of people who desperately wanted to save the place, the Grand Dame fell to the wrecking ball in November of last year.

“It’s a crime,” said Marvin Kaplan, a patron for three decades.  “Nobody should have destroyed it.”

Instead of designating it as a historic structure, the city building inspectors determined it would be “impossible to restore”.

“Impossible to restore”? Maybe parts of Detroit are “impossible to restore”, but nonetheless, people are restoring them! (That will be in another post). Want to see what “impossible to restore” looks like? See below:

La Vieille Maison, Boca Raton, Florida

La Vieille Maison, Boca Raton, Florida: Impossible to restore?

“Everybody wanted to save it,” Boca Raton Historical Society executive director Mary Csar said. “Many people had ties to the restaurant because they had dined there.

“But it was just in such bad shape,” Csar said.

I mean, really. A little lathe and plaster, paint, and we would be back in business, n’est-ce pas?

From “The Coastal Star”:

“La Vieille Maison was known as the grand dame in fine dining. Nothing matched its ambiance. Waiters in tuxedos gave menus with prices only to gentlemen. Ladies never saw them. The gentlemen were required to wear jackets. Classical music played in the background, blending with the glow of candlelight.

The menu featured such delicacies as caviar with buckwheat blini and fois gras with lingonberry preserves.

The filet mignon was dressed with béarnaise or bordelaise. The escargot, lobster bisque, steak tartare and sweetbreads matched the culinary delights offered by the finest French restaurants in Paris.

Owner Leonce Picot hired only career waiters and captains, who remembered the wine choices of patrons and how they preferred to have their food cooked. They were polished professionals who knew how to prepare and serve crepes Suzette tableside.

“Each waiter would each speak three or four languages,” patron Kathy Assaf recalled. “We would phone ahead and say what language we wanted spoken at the table.”

That was convenient for her husband, Ron Assaf, the Sensormatic founder who did business in 100 countries. La Vieille Maison was the perfect restaurant to entertain foreign executives when they came to Boca Raton.

“We could have our food cooked in special ways,” Kathy Assaf said.  “They would accommodate us in any way.”

The two-story restaurant shaded by massive live oaks had several private dining rooms in addition to the main dining room on the first floor.

Some rooms were the perfect size for business groups and large family occasions. Other more intimate rooms in the old house were a favorite spot for marriage proposals.

The Kaplans always requested the Goldfish Room, where the table overlooked a koi pond.

“It was probably the best French restaurant within 50 miles,”  Kaplan said. “When it closed, I didn’t want to go to another French restaurant. It was that good. I wanted to savor the memories.”

The 2006 closing came after Picot received several offers to buy his property at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road. A historic designation for the house would have prevented its demolition.”

La Vieille Maison, recently

La Vieille Maison, recently

and here’s the kicker:

“I used to think it would be nice to have that designation. But boy, I’m glad I didn’t do it — I’d never be able to sell it,” Picot was quoted as saying five years ago. He received $2.6 million for the property.

The 1927 house was built by Thomas Giles, an engineer for architect Addison Mizner, in the same Mediterranean Revival style that Mizner had chosen for the distinctive homes that he built in Old Floresta two years before.

The Giles family lived in the house for 25 years until it became the Por La Mar Apartments in 1953 and later a real estate office before Picot’s purchase.

The current property owner, TJCV Land Trust, hasn’t requested city permission as yet to construct a new building at the site, Woika said.”

If anyone has any photos of happier times at La Vielle Maison, please send me an email at preservation@usa.com.

Giles House, Boca Raton, Florida, in happier times

Giles House, Boca Raton, Florida, in happier times

This place matters

The New National Trust Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

The New National Trust Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Help The National Trust for Historic Preservation build a photo mosaic of their new headquarters building in Washington, DC by uploading a photo today! Each picture uploaded contributes.

View the mosaic!

Upload a photo of a place that matters to you!

This Place Matters showcases the diverse places that matter to all of us. People from across the country are honoring their favorite places, making a call to protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to all of us.

Upload a photo of a place that matters to you TODAY to contribute to this mosaic.

Forney House falls, and 150 years of history is replaced by a bank

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

MILLTOWN, NEW JERSEY: Last Friday marked the end of the fight to save The Forney House (circa 1860’s) in Milltown, NJ. And why was this old beauty torn down? To build a Valley National Bank.

Just what we need. A bank.

Even scarier is that the exact same thing happened to the Victorian across the street ~ which was demolished to build ~ you guessed it ~ a bank. In a town of 7,500 residents, it would seem that 4 banks are enough.

HISTORY: In 1907 Dr. Norman Forney Sr. came to Milltown with his horse and carriage and began practicing medicine. The home where he lived and practiced was built in the 1860s by John Evans, father of Milltown’s first Mayor, John C. Evans.

Dr. Forney Sr. was later joined by his sons, Norman Jr. and Charles. They owned and operated the clinic in this building until 1980. The house was then sold to Dr. Sharma, who continued to practice there and rented the house to tenants as recently as 2007.

The building was found “Eligible” for listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office, which also deemed it eminently “rehabbable” in 2008.

[From the Milltown Voice] “Resident Michael Shakarjian, president of the citizens’ group, said the demolition of the house could have been prevented if there had been greater scrutiny of the process on the part of elected officials.

Shakarjian particularly called out [Mayor Gloria] Bradford, saying she did not do anything to help matters during the process when he sent her a letter outlining what he, and 400 others who signed the letter, perceived as a failure to follow protocols on the part of the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), whose approval was necessary before the bank could move forward.”

“She does not think it’s a serious situation,” Shakarjian said of Bradford. “That’s what the problem is — none of these people think it’s serious.”

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

“It was definitely sad to see it come down,” said Harto, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Committee. “If we stepped in on that, we would just be opening ourselves to a lawsuit,” Harto said. “It wouldn’t have helped at this point, but it would have helped 20 years ago when Dr. [Bhudev] Sharma started neglecting the property.”

“Since Valley National Bank (VNB) is a nationally chartered bank, it required approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and also was required to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This review approval process was required since the Forney House was eligible for the National Register. Unfortunately, the bank and the property owner did not approach this consultation in a manner befitting a public process and sought to force its demands on those involved.” [Preservation NJ website]

What can we do about this?

Email the whitehouse to ask that we strengthen the Section 106 Laws, so that this doesn’t happen again. Better yet, ask that Historic Preservation Ordinances be mandatory.

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 preservation@usa.com or on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/preservation.

“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: http://www.sanjoseca.gov/planning/Historic/