Each year countless historic buildings and neighborhoods in metropolitan and rural areas throughout our country are lost either to neglect or demolition. With each building’s collapse goes some of the character and craftsmanship that used to define our cities’ main streets and town centers. The intricate columns, detailed sculptures, arches and ornaments that defined the office buildings, homes, theaters, banks and churches of our country are fewer and fewer. Demolished by developers with the approval of local governments, these historic buildings are often replaced by high rise condominiums and apartments, cookie-cutter chain stores, nondescript retail buildings and parking lots. The result is not just the irreplaceable loss of architectural treasures but the historic ambience the buildings brought to the communities where they were located. What replaces them usually lacks any unique architectural quality and provides little cultural value for the future. Attacks on historic buildings are nothing new. For decades they have fallen at the hands of developers who find it more cost effective to rebuild than rehabilitate.
In New York City, the demolition of Penn Station in 1963 attracted national attention to the need to preserve our architectural heritage and helped make the case for Federal protections. Since then, America’s one time tallest building, the Singer Building built in 1908 and located in New York City’s financial district was demolished due to a perceived lack of functionality in today’s business environment. In addition, five historic Broadway theaters built in the 1930s died an untimely death when they were demolished to accommodate a new hotel.
Famous New York City buildings lost forever:
- Astor Theater
- Bijou Theater
- Gaiety Theater
- Helen Hayes Theater
- Morosco Theater
- Penn Station
- Savoy Plaza Hotel
- The Singer Building
The Chicago Tribune in 2003 compared a recent survey of historically significant properties within 22 of Chicago’s historic communities to a city-wide survey taken 20 years prior. The newspaper found that nearly 800 historically significant buildings in the 22 communities had been destroyed over that 20-year period. According to the Tribune, the purpose of the 1980’s survey was to help the city protect its architectural heritage. The point of the report was to demonstrate that the city failed to apply the knowledge obtained from this survey by adding the necessary protections for these historic resources. These non-existent protections are what encouraged the rampant demolition of these buildings.
Famous Chicago buildings lost forever:
- Lexington Hotel
- Mercantile Exchange
- State Theater
- Stock Exchange Building
For a more detailed list and a better understanding of historic buildings lost to development in the City of Chicago from the 1980s until 2003 read the Chicago Tribune series provided below in its entirety.
- Part 1: The Threat to Neighborhoods
- Part 2: The Demolition Machine
- Part 3: The Alternatives
- Part 4: Paths of Destruction
- Part 5: Worth Fighting For
- Part 6: Healing Process
- Part 7: Live or Let Die?
- Part 8: Going? Going, Gone.
The Historic West End in Boston was targeted for urban renewal because of its crowded, narrow streets and unsightly structures including 10,000 housing units that accommodated mostly low-income residents and immigrants. But what fell beneath the bulldozers were not just rundown buildings. In the midst of destruction were also hundreds of colonial structures that gave the neighborhood a unique historic character that can never be reproduced. In today’s landscape of high rise office buildings, condominiums and shops, the West End has precious little left of its historic neighborhood. And, more recently, Boston’s historic Gaiety Theater was given the go-ahead to be razed despite the objections of historians and preservationists.
Famous Massachusetts buildings and communities lost forever:
- Gaiety Theater
- Historic West End
- S.S. Pierce Building
- Traveler’s Insurance Building
- Wolfe Tavern
While the loss of our built heritage provokes lamentation and exasperation in many, their destruction makes the successful preservation of other sites all the more precious and encouraging for the future of historic buildings in the United States. Throughout the history of the United States, there have been efforts, formal and informal, public and private, to preserve historic buildings, sites, and landscapes. The United States has luckily seen many more positive preservation cases than seen in the following list, but these serve as the movement’s most glorious successes, the high points that further fuel preservationists in their future efforts.
As the famous story goes, Ann Pamela Cunningham’s mother stood aboard a steamship sailing down the Potomac River in 1853, aghast at the sight of George Washington’s deteriorating home. She wrote a letter to Ann Pamela describing the building’s condition, who in turn began the work in forming the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. When the U.S. Congress rejected their petition entitled “The Proposed Purchase of Mount Vernon by the Citizens of the United States, in Order that They May at All Times Have a Legal and Indisputable Right to Visit the Grounds, Mansion, and Tomb of Washington,” Cunningham had the Ladies Association formally charted in 1856. She acquired funds from the Association’s members throughout the Union, which they used to purchase, restore, and curate Mount Vernon for visitors. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association still owns, maintains, and operates the historic site.
Charleston, SC and New Orleans, LA
In 1931, Charleston, South Carolina, became the first city in the U.S. to establish a historic district with regulatory control. Despite the lack of legal precedent and enabling legislation, Charleston formed a historic zoning ordinance and a board of architectural review. The success of the risky venture was due largely to the community, who supported the efforts in order to prevent the destruction of many of Charleston’s historic buildings occurring at the time.
Charleston’s historic district became the template for subsequent historic district formations. The Vieux Carre section of New Orleans had been unofficially designated a historic district in 1925, through efforts to preserve the French Quarter. In 1936, Louisiana amended its state constitution to formally authorize the Vieux Carre historic district. Others soon followed, including San Antonio, TX, in 1939, Alexandria, VA, in 1946, Williamsburg, VA in 1947, Winston-Salem, NC, in 1948, and Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, in 1950.
Grand Central Terminal
In 1978, Penn Central Transportation Company applied to the New York City Landmarks Commission for approval of the construction of a 55-story addition to the 1913 Grand Central Terminal Building. The Landmarks Commission denied approval, and Penn Central attempted to have Grand Central’s historic designation overturned. The New York Court of Appeals upheld the Landmarks Commission ruling, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Landmarks Commission ruling was upheld at the federal level in a six-to-three decision. The case has become an important benchmark for the cause of preservation, as it supported the legitimacy of historic preservation as a governmental goal and responsibility and showed that historic ordinances function as the methods to accomplishing the goal and the responsibility.
Christman Company Building
The Christman Company Building, formerly known as the Mutual Building, in Lansing, Michigan, became the world’s first LEED double-platinum-rated building, earning the platinum rating in LEED Core and Shell and LEED Commercial Interiors in 2008. Built in 1928, this historic, National Register-listed building sat on a brownfield site in Lansing in a state of disrepair when SmithGroup decided to rehabilitate the structure as an example of how historic preservation and sustainable building form a natural relationship. 92% of the building’s existing walls, roof, and floors were reused in the rehabilitation, which also features low-flow plumbing, and energy efficient lighting systems. The double-platinum LEED certification of the Christman Building is an incredibly important preservation success, as it not only rehabilitates a historic building, but shows that the reuse of an existing structure is sustainable.