The Problem with Preservation is Poor PlanningThe 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.