Friday, July 3, 2009

Why Do Only Homes Get to be "Historic"?

The Greenway - a reminder of Uptown's rich industrial heritage

Before I get into my spiel on the importance of local commercial and industrial buildings and landscapes to Uptown's "character," let me get a few disclaimers out of the way:
  1. Historic houses are important, and do contribute to Uptown's character.

  2. I think it's wonderful that the Wedge is actively working to designate part of the neighborhood as a historic district.

  3. It's better to focus primarily (or virtually only) houses than on nothing.

  4. Every neighborhood in Uptown should have a committee, or at least an informal group of residents, who actively consider issues relating to local history, culture, and, where relevant, preservation.

That said, hearing about the updates on LHENA's historic district, as well as their hopes to engage other neighborhoods, leaves me practically shaking with frustration. Take, for example, the current wording of LHENA's NRP Phase II Action Plan, Strategy 1.1.2 (bolding mine):

"In order to preserve historic homes and thus maintain the integrity and character of the neighborhood, LHENA will explore the possibility of designating the Lowry Hill East neighborhood as an historic district.... LHENA may explore networking with nearby neighborhoods which share similar interest, goals and needs to historic preservation."

The Board voted on proposed changing to the wording (at the July 1 meeting; I wasn't there, but assume that it was approved) to expand the section (leaving the above part alone) to include a paragraph stating that the neighborhood would "raise awareness and interest in historic preservation, through means such as producing and issuing commemorative plaques to recognize neighborhood homes and structures aged over 100 years or that have otherwise made a significant architectural or cultural contribution, and other educational efforts."

I don't have a problem with these statements say, but I do have a problem with what they don't say. When homes are emphasized over all other "structures" then it becomes all too easy for people to forget about our commercial and industrial past. And while that may be a simple oversight, I also wonder if there are larger issues at play here, even if maybe only on a subconscious level. Some thoughts on history and historic preservation in Uptown (in a broad sense, and not just in the Wedge):

Uptown's commercial buildings are just as important as its houses . Uptown's older commercial buildings contribute greatly to Uptown's character. There are the obvious landmarks, of course - the theaters, Temple Israel, my beloved Buzza Building (Lehmann Center), the Calhoun Beach Club - but there are many, many other commercial buildings throughout the neighborhood that contribute immeasurably to local character. They may even contribute more to a sense local community than do most individual houses. Businesses serve as landmarks in a neighborhood; they're open to everyone, serve as destinations, and become a part of people's individual neighborhood histories and memories. My family home is historically significant to me and my family, as well as to those who lived there before we did; that's important (and it would be personally devastating to see it torn down or massively remodelled), but of more importance to the neighborhood as a whole would be if a building like the Bryant Building (Magers and Quinn's building) or the Uptown Theater were demolished. Those buildings and their various businesses have been etched into local Uptown history in a way that touches many more people than does an individual house. That's not to say that local historic homes shouldn't be protected, or that they don't contribute to area character (and certainly the wide-scale demolition of older homes would detract from neighborhood character), but that shouldn't mean that homes should get a higher emphasis than does the local commercial past.

Uptown has an industrial heritage, like it or not. This is where I start to wonder if there are deeper currents when discussing local historic preservation. I don't get the sense that many residents really care about Uptown's industrial past. One need only take a walk or ride down the Greenway for a reminder that the neighborhood has an industrial past. Manufacturers, lumberyards, and other often dirty, sometimes loud, utilitarian businesses lined the tracks. These businesses provided jobs for thousands of local residents. Not every warehouse or old building needs to be preserved, but we should collectively take a look at this corridor and have a broader discussion about what should be saved, what can go, and what, if anything, of Uptown's industrial past should be acknowledged. I've got to wonder, though, if part of the apathy towards the industrial past is because to acknowledge that Uptown's historical character included a lot of gritty, blue-collar, city history (and not just lake-oriented pseudo-suburban "character") runs the risk of opening up a can of neighborhood character worms. Overall, though, I think most people just don't think about industrial history very much, and have fallen into the trap of focusing on the "finest" examples of rich people's houses because that's what often passes as history in modern society.

Plaques are a nice starting point. I don't quibble with the idea that commemorative plaques will increase interest in local historic preservation. I think they're a wonderful idea, and a potential source of revenue. Perhaps the price of the plaques (which should be shouldered by the homeowner) can be priced to provide an extra pot of more publicly-oriented historic education money. This could be used to produce high-quality outdoor signage located throughout the greater Uptown area; these signs could provide basic, site-specific historical information. Maybe a couple along the Greenway, by Lake Calhoun, by the former West High School, in the local parks, and so on. Signage of this sort is a more democratic way to educate a broader public about local history and culture, as well as enhances community, and - dare I say - character.

I'll leave it at this for now. In short, good for LHENA for taking a stab at boosting awareness of local history and historic preservation, but please, please, don't let a focus on homes blind the neighborhood(s) to the very significant nature of our commercial and industrial heritage. The combination of all of these elements have shaped Uptown into what it is now, and a responsible, inclusive approach to historic preservation and education can serve to shape Uptown into an even greater neighborhood in the future.


  1. FYI, the city's HPC historic plaques cost over $200 each. I don't think there's much room to build in slush on top of that.

    (But if you guys find a better/cheaper source, please do publish those details.)

  2. While I agree that Uptown's commercial pass is very important to the community's character and sense of history, I don't necessarily see it as getting less recognition in the way that you seem to imply. Commercial properties tend to change more frequently than residential properties because of tenant changes. I think residents tend to view their home and their neighbors' homes as more constant while the commercial district is more in flux. With most residential properties bordering other residential properties, the "fear of change" issue could also affect changes within residential areas more than commercial areas, though I don't want to assert that those who support historical preservation as fearing change.

    I think the approach of preservation should take place in the form of carrots and education, not sticks. Sometimes completing renovations are too expensive and other options need to be explored. Other times the direction a property owner is going may not be based on sound advice or have had an opportunity to fully understand their options. The This Old House tax benefit was a nice way to try and encourage those to make improvements to their older homes.

    As for preserving older commercial buildings, I think it's important to figure out the issues facing property owners and tenants, then figure out what historical aspect is it that is trying to be preserved. For buildings that the community think are essential for preservation, being proactive to try and resolve some of the issues that a property owner or future property owner may face is one of the more effective tools, I think.

    For example, you mention your love for the Buzza (Lehman Ctr) Building. I imagine it's going to be an incredibly expensive renovation and take an incredibly creative team to figure out how to reuse that property. It's a ton of space, an odd layout, and horribly outdated inside. There's a lot of debt on the property (according to the MPS' RFP) and the economy stinks. So it's going to be a major challenge to reuse.

    To be proactive, I'd recommend someone or the City to determine the financial tools available, some concepts for reuse, and try to encourage creative minds to come together to reuse it. Could it be a hotel? Could it be office and a hotel? Could it be apartments? Etc?

    A different approach would be to get it designated and potentially end up with a building that sits vacant for years, like the Sears Building did. Ultimately the deal got done, but this building is in a much different political it's in Uptown where the land values are significantly higher and other users may want the land.

    This is in an interesting issue. I'll be giving a talk this fall at the Walker Library on the history of the Midtown Greenway corridor, discussing and sharing photos of its industrial past, back when there were coal yards and heavy industry. Check it out.

  3. I may be the odd one out, but I strongly support both historic preservation and change, at least some change; I do believe, though, that historic preservation, or at least the acknowledgement that Uptown does have history, can play a role in both the creation of enhanced sense of place, build a stronger community, and overall make the neighorbood an even more interesting, vibrant place to live. As for the Buzza Building, I'll have to post more about that another time.

  4. $200 is rather pricey - guess I'll be waiting a bit before I can put one on my (not-yet purchased) Wedge home. Well, perhaps some alternative signage funding options could be pursued for broader historical signs. It should be a larger, Uptown-wide iniative in any case.