Then, Now, and What Comes Next
The field of preservation as we know it today began as a reaction to post-war urban renewal policies, but the idea that our historic resources should be protected was nothing new. The passing of the Antiquities Act in 1906, formation of the National Park Service in 1916, and creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949 were all important milestones in the preservation movement. However, by the mid-twentieth century, there was still not widespread public awareness for the cause of preservation.
By the 1960s, vast expanses of inner city neighborhoods had been razed through urban renewal programs. The negative effects of urban renewal were coming into focus and people recognized that the physical evidence of the past was being lost forever. In response, Lady Bird Johnson released a report that analyzed the effects of urban renewal. The report, With Heritage So Rich, was an accumulation of essays that included an expansive inventory of properties reflecting the nation’s heritage, a mechanism to protect those properties form undue harm, a program of financial incentives, and an independent federal preservation body to coordinate the actions of federal agencies affecting historic preservation. As a result of the awareness raised by the report, the National Historic Preservation Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on October 15, 1966. The Act established the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices.
Now, more than 50 years after the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act, the field of preservation is entering a new era. We see preservation in not only the careful restoration of old buildings and historic house museums, but also in creative adaptive reuse projects that re-imagine old factories as apartments, and Main Street Organizations that help invigorate local businesses in the heart of historic districts. And, in an ironic turn, the very buildings whose construction was protested in the 1960s and 70s now need protections of their own. It is easy to forget that many post-war buildings now meet the Secretary of the Interior’s 50 year age threshold for listing on the National Register.
Preservation is often a forgotten cause. Too often, we step in at the last minute, trying to change decisions that have already been made. Too often, we are left wishing we could turn back the clock. In November of 2018, the New Haven Preservation Trust launched a campaign to prevent the demolition of the gatehouse at the Brewery Square Apartments. Though the majority of the late-nineteenth century brewery complex was converted to apartments in the 1980s, the gatehouse was left vacant. When the roof collapsed after a heavy snowfall in early 2017, nothing was done to mitigate the damage and the building was left open to the elements, allowing further deterioration. On November 13th, the city issued an emergency demolition permit, citing public safety as the motivation. The Trust, with help from SHPO and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, strongly urged the owner and city officials to investigate alternatives to demolition, but with public safety as the official reasoning behind the demolition order, all preservation efforts fell short of saving the gatehouse.
The eleventh hour efforts to prove that the building could be and should be saved were not enough. The outpouring of support by over 1500 people came too late. A proactive approach could have prevented the demolition of the gatehouse. Stronger city ordinances could have addressed the demolition by neglect. Getting ahead of issues that threaten our city’s historic architecture is key to successful historic preservation.
In the coming weeks and months, you will see more change come to New Haven, this time at the corner of Elm and Orange Streets. The 1948 art moderne building, commonly referred to as the former Webster Bank, will be demolished to make way for a new hotel. When most people hear the words “historic preservation”, images of picturesque Victorian homes, brownstones, and museums are more likely to come to mind than the sleek, even stark form of the building at 80 Elm Street. However, the post-war era of architecture now deserves a second look, as it often holds its own fascinating stories from another time. Inside the former bank, now closed to the public, are the remnants of the late-nineteenth century St. Thomas Episcopal Church. When the First Federal Savings and Loan Bank was constructed, the nave of the high Victorian Gothic church was incorporated into the structure. This building, and its story, will now be lost. Though listing on State and National Registers alone will not prevent demolition, it can be an important first step in ensuring they remain in active use and thriving parts of our cities. The former Webster Bank was eligible to be listed, based on age, in 1998.
To ensure our city’s historic architecture survives and thrives we must change the conversation. Preservationists must become proactive. Blight must be identified before it is too late. Buildings must be recognized and protected before the demolition permits are issued. In reaction of the gatehouse, and the pending demolition of the former Webster Bank, the Trust has begun working with city officials to identify ways to better protect New Haven’s historic architecture, such as helping to identify blighted buildings, recognizing important unlisted structures, and changing internal protocols to slow the clock on future demolitions.
In order to succeed, preservation must be a collaborative effort, one part of the bigger picture that makes our cities viable, exciting places to live. Preservationists cannot stand alone, unwilling to work within the realities of city life. Afterall, cities are ever changing, ever evolving, and should be allowed to do so.