Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Problem with Preservation is Poor Planning

The news that the Cleveland Clinic had demolished an old Hathaway Brown building on its property, which came as an unhappy surprise to Cleveland preservationists, underscores the problem with saving historic structures: our approach is too unplanned, piecemeal and last-minute to be effective. Witness that the long-time head of the Cleveland Restoration Society didn't know that the demolition was in the works until she saw a fence go up around the building.

This isn't an indictment of CRS, as its mission is not a grassroots activist organization designed to rally troops against impending demolitions. Nor are our other local history and preservation groups equipped for the task, like the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, or the Western Reserve Historical Society. Most attempts to block demolitions come from individuals and ad hoc groups formed around particular crises, such as the Committee to Save the Huletts, and events moved too fast for the Hathaway Brown house.

What would be a big help would be if someone like an Ed Hauser took it upon his- or herself to monitor all the demolition filings, Landmarks Commission meetings and other venues where earlier notice of threats could be identified. But even this is really approaching the problem too late. Rather we need to systematically examine our preservation ordinances for weaknesses, such as the gap in coverage that applied in this case, to work for stronger ordinances before a particular problem arises, and to identify which are the buildings and districts so valuable to understanding Cleveland's history that they cannot be allowed to get to the point that an owner or developer has invested too much money and ego in a project to back down. Working these structures into an economic development plan, partially centering around tourism or adaptive reuse, and actively promoting them with markers, local and national landmark designations, and literature about their contribution to the city would go a long way towards announcing that these structures are not to be threatened.

As it happens, I don't think the Hathaway Brown house was one worth fighting for, given the nature of the situation. But which ones are? The big old churches on Euclid near the Clinic? The Play House complex? Look at the tremendously built-up nature of East 105th and Euclid a fifty years ago (vs. today) and imagine how that district could possibly have been preserved in anything like its historic use. But it once replaced the village ambiance of nineteenth century Doan's Corners, so many of today's landmarks were yesterday's new developments that leveled cherished buildings then.

I'm not arguing that all Progress stop, or that historic preservation is a losing proposition, but rather to point out that we're drifting from crisis to crisis because no one is doing the hard work of crafting a vision of how history should be preserved in Cleveland and taking the steps to ensure its success.

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2 Comments:

At 1:12 AM, Blogger Susan Miller said...

- examine ordinances for weaknesses
- work for stronger ordinances
- identify valuable buildings and districts
I agree Bill. These are indeed the things that need to be done.

What does the Cleveland Landmarks staff and commission do anyway? Whatever they might have accomplished, they (like the city's sustainability team) sure aren't letting anyone know. Doesn't seem like CRS is doing that either. What are they doing anyway, giving out awards? (Memo to CRS - let AIA do that or Arts Prize can add a prize sub-category in Architecture.)

But Bill it's so 'Cleveland' of you to suggest that "someone like Ed Hauser" (who died trying to wake up our city, county, state and federal officials) do these things. Ed had to do it because the people who are paid to look at these things are doing... what? What are they doing? Slapping each other on the back if a success happens to come their way?

Who do you know who is willing to volunteer a decade to monitor the filings, lobby to change ordinances and lobby building owners to accept landmark status toothless as it may be?

Keeping the Breuer standing was a year's worth of volunteerism for me and several others (another one that caught CRS by surprise), but 3 months after the county accepted K&D's specious bid, Eric Trickey published this quote in Cleveland Magazine, “Some do-gooders thought it was making a statement about a profound architect,” (Tim) Hagan scoffs. “I thought that was absolutely amusing. It could have been written for a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, to have some architects talk about the beauty of the building no one had used for 20 years.”

That's what you get for trying to preserve our built environment in Cleveland. Not that I wouldn't go to bat for another important building, but sometimes the rudeness just makes you want to wretch. 43 historic buildings in the way of the innerbelt. Aw... shucks. The Woodland Cemetery possibly in the way of the Opportunity Corridor? Oh, well... sigh.

It is on point that we need research and education, but we also need our elected officials and their staffs and the business community folks who pull the strings to understand the value of history. Clearly they don't because we see the same mistakes made time and time again.

The Carnegie Medical Building: ripped down replete with its furnishings. Now that's some sustainable historic preservation.

Are you proposing a meeting of preservationist like minds? Who can compile the rhetorical sums of cash we have missed out on because our forefathers did not save millionaires row or the Severance Estate for example?

Could Cleveland have a tour of historic churches now closed? Public art audio walking tours that actually cover something pre-1980? Neighborhood tours with bus drivers who can tell people the story of the Hough and Glenville riots? Come to Cleveland and see the site where Rockefeller poured oil down the bank of the Cuyahoga and made a fortune.

I don't see anything like that at miserablecity.com. It's, as you say, an opportunity cost that we're not considering.

Tell me when the meeting will take place. I have 5 years assisting Ed Hauser, a year in the Breuer debacle and 2 years in Sec106 Review for the innerbelt. Cleveland has taught me that when it's time to just say no to bad ideas, you've got to be tough. That was the city's tagline when I moved here 31 years ago. I have verified it for myself.

 
At 2:35 PM, Blogger Ask the Cool Cookie said...

I blame CRS. They have put themsleves out there as the only group with muscle and they simply don't flex it enough. Greater Cleveland is simply too large to believe that a group like CRS can do it all, or is willing to even do anything aside from its "pet projects". Feh!

 

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