Demolish or Preserve?

By Deborah Kaufman

Many today may believe that demolishing historic buildings is a foregone conclusion with modern advancements, thinking new construction is better — and old — well, old is just old.

Historians worldwide have a different opinion and have argued that demolishing a historic property is typically not the right thing to do, even if the property has been abandoned or left unused for a number of years.

In many cases, restoration can be a viable solution, not to mention one that can draw attention to a city with historical significance.

In fact, if it weren’t for historic preservationists, we wouldn’t have properties like George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, which was saved from demolition in 1858 by The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, or the famous ‘French Quarter’ buildings in New Orleans, which were saved from demolition in 1925 and led to the adoption of the United States Historic Preservation Ordinance.

In 1965, the World Monuments Fund was founded, which has since helped preserve historic sites worldwide.

This occurred shortly after the famous New York City demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1964, which shocked many people into supporting the historic preservation movement.

Decision to Save or Demolish

It turns out that a building’s fate is more pragmatic than one would assume. According to a 2017 Washington Post article, “Demolished or repurposed for the future: what decides a building’s fate?” deciding to demolish a building happens for the following reasons: its functional obsolescence, technical obsolescence, site underdevelopment not permitted under current zoning regulations or renovation unfeasibility…it’s in such bad shape that it would be cost-prohibitive.

Suppose one ascribed to the idea that preserving history is irrelevant to the modern world. Why then is there so much invested each year in leveraging these aging structures to be repurposed, remodeled, or expanded for sustainable development, downtown revitalization, heritage tourism, and economic development?

Cultural Identity Advantage

Every place has a story. Often handed down over generations, these stories remind people of the community’s culture and complexity, giving residents a sense of permanency and heritage. This deeper look into a city’s past through its architectural assets distinguishes a community from other places. These tangible connections to the people and events that have shaped our history create a sense of place and community pride.

Heritage Tourism Advantage

According to the Travel Industry Association, heritage travelers spend more time and money at their destinations than other types of travelers. This helps to develop sustainable local economies that often don’t get as popular as large tourist attractions.

Is it the warmth of the materials, the reflective marble as you enter the foyer, the stained glass windows, and hand-carved cornices―or simply a chance for your mind to wander through a different time in the same place? Maybe older buildings convey stories that are just more interesting.

Regardless of how people spend their lives, historic architecture and places have intrinsic value in their own right as the fabric of human achievement in arts, design, and construction, essential to the spiritual and cultural well-being of the nation. America’s downtown revivals suggest that people are fascinated by historic structures and will go to great lengths to protect them.

By seeing historic buildings―whether related to something famous or recognizably dramatic―tourists and longtime residents can witness an area’s aesthetic and cultural history.

Sustainability Advantage

Cultural heritage plays a vital role in sustainable development by regenerating industrial-age cities and promoting the adaptive reuse of buildings. Even the younger generation’s interest in environmental sustainability aligns with the adaptive reuse of historic structures, believing that the greenest building you can have is one that already exists.

A 2017 National Trust for Historic Preservation study found that 97% of millennials agreed it was essential to “preserve and conserve buildings, architecture, neighborhoods, and communities.”

Studies also weigh in on the sustainability of the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, an energy-efficient new building takes approximately 65 years to save the energy lost in demolishing an existing building. The bottom line is reuse is more sustainable than new construction, with less construction and demolition debris in the country’s landfills.

It turns out that when you preserve an existing structure, you preserve previously invested resources, including materials, labor, energy, and money, representing a sound sustainability strategy for communities.

Economic Advantage

Historic preservation can be an effective tool for a wide range of community goals, including small business development, affordable housing, sustainable development, neighborhood stabilization, Main Street revitalization, job creation, promotion of arts and culture, heritage tourism, and economic development.

Investing in the preservation, rehabilitation, and ongoing use of heritage buildings and other historic places economically benefits residents, visitors, and their communities. Heritage conservation can also lead to economic growth through increased property values and tax revenues, better quality of life, and a more vibrant community.

Historic Preservation Initiatives

Looking for great preservation examples, one doesn’t have to go further than the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565. This Florida City boasts 11,231 registered homes. In fact, a staggering 22% of all homes are on the National Register of Historic Places, offering an authentic sense of place that attracts more than six million visitors annually.

Properties designated as local landmarks and listed on the national or local register require approval by their Historic Architectural Review Board before being issued a demolition permit.

Another large-scale project is New York City, which designated over 80 historical districts since 1965, most of them in Manhattan. A 2003 Independent Budget Office paper, The Impact of Historic Districts on Residential Property Values, showed the benefit of their preservation efforts. When all else is equal, prices of houses in historic districts were higher than those of similar houses outside historic districts.

Closer to home, Saratoga Springs began their preservation effort with the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation in 1977 as a pathway to revitalize their community by setting up a Design Review Commission to regulate demolition, new construction, and exterior renovations within their local historic districts. Known as the “Queen of Spas,” the community has a rich history as a health resort and gambling center during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Locally, the City of Little Falls began its initiative to protect its historic assets by establishing the Little Falls Historic District in 2012. The district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and includes 347 historic structures from the mid-19th to early-20th century.

Chartered in 1895, the City enjoyed a reputation as a leader in the knitting industry and the marketing of cheese, becoming recognized as the cheese capital of the United States. The historic structures throughout the City provide a glimpse into the wealth and achievement of the City’s early history with Italianate, Federal, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Queen Ann, and Colonial Revival designs.

Little Falls also has numerous natural and historical assets. One of its most prominent is the Erie Canal and its history surrounding Lock 17. Lock 17 was an engineering marvel when it was built, replacing the five-lock system with a single 40-1/2 foot lift at the canal’s most difficult impasse, Little Falls.

While listing a property or area on the National and State Registers alone does not limit a property’s private use, alteration, or demolition, it is a significant first step.

Many cities add another layer of regulatory protection for proposed projects within their historic districts with an Architectural Review Board, Design Review Commission, or Historic Preservation Commission, usually made up of persons with specialized interests or expertise in historic preservation. The Historic Review Board/Commission’s role is to recommend to the City Council or Planning Board applications proposing additions, alterations, changes, construction, demolition, or relocation within the historic district and historical landmarks.

Enacting a landmark preservation law is another step in historic preservation adopted by many municipalities.

What’s all this mean for the revitalization of Little Falls?

Plenty. By leveraging the City’s abundance of natural resources like the Erie Canal, Profile Rock, Moss Island, 40-1/2 ft Lift Lock 17, and a historical district with architectural assets including Main Street, City Hall, Holy Family Parish, Masonic Hall, Overlook Mansion, etc., there is an opportunity to use historic preservation as a central component to the city’s long-term economic development.

City Hall in Little FallsWhile there are challenges with reusing buildings, the benefit is immeasurable. Instead of old buildings sitting unused, they’re given a fresh new life. Giving a new purpose to a historic asset draws the community’s attention. It’s a fantastic way to preserve the past while looking ahead to our future.

Regret Goes Only One Way

The preservation of historic buildings and natural assets is a one-way street. There is no mulligan to save a historic site once it’s gone. This reality highlights the importance of locating and saving historic buildings, landmarks, and other assets―because once a piece of history is destroyed, it is gone forever.