So you want to save one of St. Louis’ historic buildings?
So you want to save a historic building? There have been some notable successes and failures in St. Louis and across the country over the decades, and I’ve found that in all of these cases there were some common themes. While it doesn’t seem like it at times, this region still has a much better track record than many parts of America. This is true of both older cities with a rich architectural heritage and younger cities that have grown rapidly over the past few decades. That said, here is a list of do’s and don’ts I’ve compiled over the years of what works and what doesn’t. We’ll start with that Not.
1. Don’t just talk in jargon or in other words about the architectural merits of a building that the average person doesn’t understand. It’s important to remember that terms you use with your friends and co-workers may not be as obvious and reasonable to others – even thoughtful and intelligent people. First, talk to friends and do these dense architectural notions. Do they know what you are talking about? If not, politicians and the general public are unlikely to either.
2. Don’t insult the owners or developers who are planning to demolish your favorite historic building. This should go without saying, but you are not going to change hearts and minds by calling the person with the finance capital to either renovate or demolish the building you are trying to save an idiot. Courtesy is a must.
3. Don’t talk about awards won decades ago for such famous buildings or how such and such a building was written in such and such journals or academic journals decades ago. I can speak of many terrible people who have given awards and other accolades to other terrible people throughout history, and I also know many mediocre buildings that have received awards from less-than-honorable organizations over the years. Unless a magazine has a wide circulation or circulation, it is likely that the general public will not find it too impressive that a building has been mentioned on its pages.
4. Do not try to save ugly buildings – unless the building in question has incredible historical significance. If you can’t use the word “beautiful” to describe what you want to store, you have a hard time convincing people of the value of storing. And ask your friends off the field again: Is the building you want to save as impressive to them as it is to you and your architecture friends? Ask your brutally honest friends.
5. Do not try to save buildings or structures that are hopelessly out of date. I agree that the old canard of “progress” is an often misused term used to justify a lot of stupid acts, but sometimes progress is a legitimate reason. The Merchants Bridge, the second oldest bridge over the Mississippi, will soon be replaced by a new and improved span (the pillars will be technically preserved and reinforced), which will allow increased rail traffic and higher speeds. While it will be sad to lose the historic superstructure, I doubt even the original builders would be against demolition if it means a new trade bridge will make the St. Louis Railways more competitive.
So what should you do?
1. Try to buy historical buildings if you can. I want to emphasize that sometimes this option is just not on the table. Many of the losses to the St. Louis built environment were never brought to market as their owners had an unfortunate fatalism that denied potential buyers the option. But I’ll never forget when Charles Drury came in and bought the International Fur Exchange and its neighbors – while they were already being demolished – and restored them to one of the more interesting historic hotels in downtown St. Louis. Most of us lack the capital Drury owned, but we can do simple things like buy the abandoned LRA property on the block and fix it – and put our money where our mouths are. I know a lot of people who have done this.
2. Emphasize the economic benefits of maintaining a historic building for its owners. In the footsteps of my advice not to offend property owners above, emphasize how a historic building can make money when it is refurbished. Saving a historic building for history’s sake only works for a select few buildings Let’s face it, while throughout human history cities were founded for a variety of reasons, including civil, religious, and military, the vast majority of American cities were founded for commercial and industrial reasons. By emphasizing how a building restored to its former glory can be used in a modern economy, conservationists can advocate for the preservation of a building. Take Union Station; While the old terminal is perhaps a simple example, it has a wide, largely unobstructed “blank canvas” that allows for constant reinvention, from train sheds to shopping centers to aquariums. It can also be reinvented in the future if necessary. It makes money for its owners.
3. Emphasize to the owner and the public how preserving the St. Louis architecture as a whole contributes to the competitiveness of the area. Let me ask my readers a question: How many summer weddings have you had photos taken in front of shopping malls along Manchester Road or in the Galleria parking lot? Conversely, how many wedding photos were taken in front of the old courthouse and arch or at the foot of Art Hill? Which is more likely: rock and roll is born in the Chesterfield Mall or in the Greater Ville? Historic architecture can be a powerful economic engine when properly marketed. Take New Orleans, for example. It’s not nearly one of the largest cities in America, but it’s one of the most recognizable American cities in the world, known for its rich cultural and historical tradition. Would all the great culture have happened to New Orleans if the French Quarter were malls? I don’t think so, do I?