In 1984, the theater of the Homestake Opera House burned. A two-story on Main Street, but with the city of Lead’s steep topography, it’s a three story building at the alley where the theater is located. The blaze took a long time to extinguish. An expedient roof was put over the space, but the restoration of the damaged theater is still ongoing. In recent years, an active schedule of plays, weddings, and other community events has brought renewed energy into seeing a renaissance for the Homestake Opera House. The newest project is an Interpretive Center telling the history of the opera house and Lead. They’ll soon be continuing restoration on the decorative plaster and box seats in the theater.
An article in CityLab on (local) historic districts and efforts in Michigan and Wisconsin state legislatures to restrict designations has made for some interesting public debate about the local designation of historic districts.
[Note: This debate is NOT about listing historic districts in the National Register of Historic Places, which doesn’t carry the same regulatory review power that local districts might]
This article in New York Magazine by Justin Davidson makes a balanced counter-argument–If you’re looking at economics or social equity, historic districts have mixed results, just like many other urban planning / real estate tools. But, he goes on to say this, which I LOVE (In all seriousness, I’m tearing up):
“What I get from all this contradictory evidence is this: Tearing down fine old buildings doesn’t always, or even often, lead to greater equity or civic virtue. But it always leads to the obliteration of memory. Sacrificing gracious old residential districts to the unfeeling predations of the market is an act of willful amnesia….
History can’t always defend itself against momentary desires or the indifferent marketplace. That’s why we need to protect it with laws and a culture of respect. We will always have to keep debating where the proper boundaries lie between preservation and change, between cultivating the past and living in the present. But abandoning historic districts to the whims of buyers, sellers, and developers would be a form of cultural vandalism we would quickly come to regret.”
There have also been a few blog posts that take up the counter-argument with less formality than the news, and with satisfying sarcasm. PlaceEconomics had a few of the links on their Facebook page, and I’d bet that they’ll continue to follow the discussion, so check them out. From those links, I really liked Vince Michael’s response on his blog, Time Tells:
“This is one of those tricky issues – like gentrification – where you want to have a neat and clean reaction but you can’t. Because it is messy. I would like to have everyone who lives here stay here. I would like to protect my property’s value. I don’t want to be told what to do, but I REALLY want to tell my neighbor what to do. Also, a pony would be nice….
The left and the right should both stop using historic districts as a whipping post. These are tools that communities use to help determine their destiny in a more precise and individual way than is possible for most communities. Also they save precious resources from filling landfills. And grant a bit of beauty, grace and depth to our lives.”
In South Dakota, we don’t have many cities with local designation procedures. Deadwood has a strong historic preservation program– most of the city is a National Historic Landmark–so new designations aren’t common and their local economy allows for several grant programs to help owners with some kinds of restoration costs. Sioux Falls’ new zoning codes have an option for a Historic Preservation zone, but no neighborhoods have been zoned that way yet.
We do have many National Register-listed historic districts. By state law (SDCL 1-19A-11.1), if a body of state, county, or city government is going to take an action (fund a project, issue a permit, etc.) that might “damage, destroy, or encroach upon” a National Register-listed property (individual or district), then they need to let the State Historic Preservation Office review, investigate, and comment on the project before they make a decision. No outcomes are dictated by the legislation. In some cities/counties with local preservation boards/commissions, those folks usually get to comment too before the city makes a decision whether or not to proceed with the action. If you’re interested in more about this process, check out the state SHPO’s website, here.
Now that I’ve had time to process the conference, have returned from subsequent trips, and have (sort of) caught up at work, the following is my brief run-down of days 2 and 3 of the DOCOMOMO-US national symposium. Minnesota has a great deal of Modern treasures and a seemingly solid group of advocates who love Modernism. An interesting theme was the impact of the world wars on the prominence of Modernism – there were the expressionists and Bauhaus after WWI, and at Mt. Zion Temple, Christ Church Lutheran, and at St. John’s Abbey, we learned that it was the end of WWII that pushed those communities to be willing to break with tradition and create a new order for their built environment.
On the second day, some of my first-day concerns were met when we spent more time on the modern vernacular – how Modernism played out across the many scales of our built environment. A speaker from the MN State Historic Preservation Office talked on Modern preservation in greater Minnesota (outside the Twin Cities) and the author of Mid-Century Mundane spoke about that site and a newer project he worked on for Queens Modern. Both were successful as glimpses into other places, as preliminary documentation and advocacy, but fell short of a bigger context that could provide a foundation for identification and evaluation elsewhere. More work to do for all of us! Another presentation promoted the need to look at urban renewal history, and evaluate its strongest architectural legacy that is worth preserving. There’s a strong potential for such study in Sioux Falls I think…
On to the tours and photos and lessons-learned at the end of it all!
Last weekend, I was able to drive to Yankton to attend an open house at the Mead Building. It was an incredible visit. The Yankton County Historical Society has taken on the rehabilitation of the grand building for their Dakota Territorial Museum. After years of neglect, the building had many needs and the YCHS has worked systematically to address them all. They’ve completed the roof project and have started working on the windows and historic plaster repair projects. And their fundraising efforts are commendable, ranging from selling old roof nails as souvenirs to offering naming rights for the different museum galleries. They’ve also partnered with the Yankton College alumni organization, which will occupy part of the third floor. I’ll share below a bit of history on the building and more photos from my visit. Keep up with their progress on their website and Facebook, and help support the project at these links!
The Waldorf Hotel in Andover, South Dakota was built in 1903 and was a destination for travelers. It had a reception room, a dining room, a barbershop, and a pool hall. Grand hotels in towns large and small across the state were the most iconic signifiers of the town’s aspirations, the booster spirit, as described in an entire chapter of Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Americans in 1965. “In America first-class hotels appeared even before the railroad. They were, in fact, often built for the purpose of attracting railroads, along with settlers, newspapers, merchants, customers, lawyers, doctors, salesmen, and all the other paraphernalia of metropolitan greatness” [Boorstin, 141]. From Boorstin, Americans of the nineteenth century created community in hotels, they gossiped, they rested from their travels, they did business over a meal… Hotels were both public and private, they represented the “fluidity of dynamic America” [Boorstin, 147].
According to its state historic survey record, the Waldorf was built 400 feet south of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad line in Andover. The hotel hosted countless travelers on the railroad as well as salesmen, farmers, and promoters. The town residents held ice cream socials on its porch and orchestras from Minneapolis gave performances at the hotel. On Saturday nights, men of the community would gather at the public baths for their weekly scrub. Salesmen used a room in the hotel basement, the “Trunk Room” for showcasing their products. From the 1979 nomination, “Andover is an excellent example of how the railroad, the hotel and the American small town were closely bound together at that point in time.”
The Waldorf closed down in the 1970s. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. In the 1990s, a group of interested people formed the group Waldorf Hotel Preservation Inc. to work towards preservation of the neglected building. They did work on the roof and windows, but the damage moved faster than they could. One of the rear walls crumbled years ago leaving interior rooms exposed to the elements. In 2003, KELO ran this story on the history of the hotel and the need for its preservation. With the combined difficulties of fundraising and finding a viable use for a relatively grand building in a small community, they sold the building c.2006 to a man in California who planned to rehabilitate the building. When the new owner passed away, his estate ignored the building. In 2013, George Thompson wrote this piece for Dakotafire on the desperate need that the Waldorf faced.
Very recently, a section of the façade collapsed as well and the town pulled down that portion of the building. [Photos on the Aberdeen American News]
A sober reminder that the challenges of historic preservation in small communities cannot be overstated.