The Pro-Development, Anti-Historic Preservationist

How the Business of Saving Buildings Is Changing

Story by Michael R. Allen

Published on

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On a Saturday night on Cherokee Street in St. Louis, a crowd of young people descends through a hatch in the floor of Strange Overtones Vintage to a speakeasy party. All around them are the trappings of history: Old scores chalked on boards left from when the basement was a bowling alley and, on the entrance upstairs, a pharmacist’s name in gilded letters from when the space was a neighborhood drug store. Across the street, partygoers sip cocktails inside the Fortune Teller Bar, which even in the dim lighting evokes the past with its tin ceiling and patterned tile floor.

Jason Deem, 33, is floating between the two scenes. Wearing a carabineer loaded down with keys hooked to his belt and a curious eye scanning the room, Deem is the landlord and developer of both of these buildings, as well as dozens more in the business district.

Deem started rehabilitating historic buildings along Cherokee Street in 2004. Although one of the most active preservationists in St. Louis through his company South Side Spaces, he’s not one to attend the meetings and fusty conferences that typically come with the territory. “I don’t see the value in talking about preservation in order to talk about it,” Deem says.

Instead, Deem creates retail, office and residential spaces that are attracting buzz around the city. He is always on the hunt for people with interesting business ideas, like Strange Overtones’ Amy Flauaus, who had been selling items out of another establishment’s storefront beneath Deem’s Cherokee Street apartment. For the young developer, keeping historic buildings standing isn’t the point — it’s about turning them into places people want to use. “If you preserve without intent for a building,” he says, “you are just starting the cycle of decay again.”

Cherokee Street in St. Louis, before and after a rehab. Credit: Jason Deem

Deem may find himself less of a preservation outsider as the movement reconsiders its core beliefs and message. When preservationists appear in the public eye today, they may sound like preservation consultant Christine Madrid French, who calls herself a “futurist” and asks audiences about whether we might preserve Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, which was built in 2003 but already shows signs of wear. They may present figures — as in dollars and cents — on the economic impact of historic tax credit programs. PlaceEconomics principal Donovan Rypkema, for instance, has made speeches around the country reframing preservation as an economic development tool.

If the audience has an environmental bent, preservationists may use data to show that reusing a building is more energy efficient than putting up a new one. In cities such as Indianapolis, “Atomic Crash Parties” held at renovated mid-century homes have helped generate interest in aging yet iconic residential properties. Then there’s the approach of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists, fronted by Bernice Radle, who have taken it upon themselves to shower beloved buildings with colorful paper hearts on Valentine’s Day.

People who don’t consider themselves “preservationists” at all are getting in on the action, too. In Baltimore, where early preservationists fought successfully to save the city’s iconic brick rowhomes, bloggers for the website Slumlord Watch shame current-day owners into maintaining decaying treasures. Without ever invoking the language of historic conservation, the anonymous bloggers post photos of derelict buildings, identify the property owners, and provide links to the city and state agencies that could push to revive the buildings. The bloggers aren’t chaining themselves to fences or testifying in hearing rooms, but they are helping stop wrecking balls.

The Baltimore bloggers aren’t alone in their conviction that the future of buildings depends on a new kind of conversation. In 2010, soon after moving to post-Katrina New Orleans, artist and urban planner Candy Chang made hundreds of vinyl red and white fill-in-the-blank stickers printed with the words “I WISH THIS WAS.” She posted grids of these stickers on vacant buildings. The hope was that passersby would fill in the blanks and start thinking about what they would like to see reanimate their storm-damaged neighborhood. Instead of simply talking about the preservation of buildings, Chang is talking about the reincarnation of those buildings. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Loveland Technologies created “Blexting,” a mobile app that allows users to help map and photograph every vacant parcel in the city.

Credit: Candy Chang

Today, there seems to be very little that is “historic” about the world of historic preservation in the U.S. Those involved — everyone from National Trust staffers to rehabbers to neighborhood activists — seem to speak a different language than their predecessors. Gone are the odes to stylistic details and dead famous people. Today’s preservationists are more likely to talk about the asset value of buildings, the importance of storytelling to communities, and the sustainability of existing structures.

After decades of reminding the public about the history of places, preservationists are slowly shifting to presenting imagined futures. They sound more like planners or developers these days, and the discursive shift is intentional. “If we don’t imagine our own future (and the future of our historic structures), then someone else will,” French writes in an email. “Our reactive preservation model often ends in failure and requires that we scramble each time to save an important structure.”

Last year’s National Trust for Historic Preservation conference was titled “Preservation at the Crossroads,” named for the Indianapolis location as well the particular historic juncture now confronting the movement. Unlike past conferences that emphasized architectural eras or building types, sessions dealt with new and varied topics including social media strategy, data analysis and the role of modern architecture. Attendance was strong, and notably young.

Alex Ihnen, editor of the St. Louis blog nextSTL, frequently writes about the relationship between historic preservation and urban change. “Long fighting an uphill battle, preservationists today may be finally rolling downhill,” Ihnen says in an email. “They are gaining momentum and leveraging a demographic and social change that favors cities and the reuse of the built environment.”

The bloggers aren’t chaining themselves to fences or testifying in hearing rooms, but they are helping stop wrecking balls.

Despite the momentum, it is not an easy time for preservation everywhere. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of vacant housing units in the U.S. rose by 4.5 million, according to a 2012 Brookings Institution report. With cities intent on strengthening downtowns and promoting redevelopment in outlying areas, bulldozers are often the simplest way to handle the deluge of empty structures. A city council can get a neighborhood eyesore demolished and have a press conference to celebrate in far less time than it would take to mastermind a redevelopment. And while there is little spare money around to pay for mothballing buildings to keep them intact — if unused — federal subsidies for demolition give an incentive to welcome the wrecking ball.

“Often, if you do a pure cost analysis, demolition is a no-brainer,” writes Dominic Robinson, director of the Northside Urban Partnership in Syracuse, N.Y. But “such narrow calculations often neglect to account for the true, long-term value proposition that historic structures offer.”

Yet the preservation movement’s financial challenges are deep. The public and charitable sectors it has traditionally relied on are shrinking, and even the White House is pulling back on its support. In 2011, President Obama eliminated the popular Save America’s Treasures program that directly funded physical conservation of buildings and heritage sites, and his administration has routinely proposed cutting federal funds for state and tribal historic preservation offices. At the state level, budget choices often put many of the nation’s 34 state historic rehabilitation tax credit programs under the axe.

“The preservation movement must continue to evolve to stay relevant,” Bonnie McDonald, president of Landmarks Illinois and a veteran preservation leader, says in an email. “The big picture is about evolving the way that we talk about the impact of preservation to engage an ever-broader audience.”

“Sometimes All the History in the World Is Not the Answer”

Congress established the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1949, and its first mission was to save the endangered homes of past U.S. presidents. It was a popular mission that spoke to a nation still united around a clear historic narrative. The early successes of the preservation movement led to increasing appreciation for different building types, districts, styles and landscapes. Today, preservation laws protect Mount Vernon with the same rigor as districts of wooden “shotgun” houses in New Orleans or the ruins of the Anaconda Copper Mine in Montana.

The value of places like the Anaconda mine is largely taken for granted, with thousands of small cities and towns building tourism industries around these relics. Yet it’s not only the strategies of preservationists that are changing, but also the histories they seek to preserve. The movement is no longer as straightforward as saving textbook-appropriate ruins. Some of the most heated recent battles, in fact, involve structures built in the last 50 years.

Enter Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, demolished over the shouts of admirers and architectural critics last year. Built in 1975 and designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg, Prentice was an example of the (not exactly universally beloved) Brutalist style. Brutalism’s use of raw concrete forms draws as many detractors as it does fans — a problem that the Beaux Arts movement faced in the 1960s, when New York’s Penn Station and other public buildings in the style disappeared.

Then there is the eternal question of whose history is being preserved, and to what end. In the South, African Americans often challenge the state-sponsored preservation of plantations where their ancestors were enslaved. In most cities, having your block designated as a “historic district” means all repairs to your home’s façade must be done using particular materials, raising the cost of renovations. For that reason, longtime residents in historic neighborhoods have challenged what seems to be, on its face, an innocuous designation.

“Sometimes preservationists, like critics, find it hard to look at these buildings through the eyes of laypeople,” design critic and historian Alexandra Lange tells Next City in an email. “Sometimes all the history in the world is not the answer.”

Prentice Hospital in Chicago. Credit: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

Indeed, preservation cannot avoid delving into matters of architectural taste and competing ideas of what is history. The Museum of Modern Art’s decision last year to tear down Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s 13-year-old American Folk Art Museum provoked wide outcry. Many were upset at the idea that MoMA would destroy a work of contemporary architecture, which seemed to contradict its mission. “If you don’t believe in the institution’s creative morals and standards to their community, how can you exhibit in that type of space?” artist Sonya Darrow asks. Integral to this argument was the point that the Folk Art Museum, with its hammered bronze façade and slender footprint, is a work worth saving.

The decision to demolish this award-winning piece of starchitecture came soon after the Houston Astrodome, the world’s first multipurpose domed stadium, was put in the National Register of Historic Places in an attempt to thwart plans for an imminent demolition — plans now on hold pending a decision by city commissioners. Indeed, this is a strange time for preservation.

The campaign to put the 1965 stadium in the National Register wasn’t based on its architectural significance. Instead, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s campaign built upon an emotional appeal of shared experience. “The Dome’s place among modern architecture and its significance as the world’s first domed stadium was mostly irrelevant to both supporters of reuse and those calling for its demise,” Beth Wiedower and Chris Morris write on the Trust’s blog. Preservationists instead built a story for the public based on widely shared interest in the iconic building, while quietly telling its architectural story through the official National Register listing.

The story of the Astrodome ended differently (for now) than that of the American Folk Museum for multiple reasons, not least of all economics. MoMa had a financial incentive to tear down its neighbor, while Houston has the opposite: Why pay to demolish a building that still can do its job? Yet the decision could easily swing the other way, especially if demolishing the dome is found to be significantly less costly than rehabilitating it.

“People aren’t going to just get on board with preservation,” Robinson writes, “purely because of their love of architecture.”

The Folk Art Museum in Manhattan. Credit: Kathia Shieh on Flickr

Preservationists also must accept that recent victories might seem random. In St. Louis, a mass mobilization of city residents and supporters around the country in 2012 saved a mid-century gas station, known as the “flying saucer” for its Jetsons-esque edifice. A vibrant social media campaign pitching ideas for the saucer’s reinvention convinced the site’s developer to reuse rather than demolish the 1967 round concrete icon. A few years earlier, the same city lost a more architecturally important round building: Edward Durell Stone’s Busch Stadium (1966), demolished for a new baseball stadium with almost no resistance. The convergence of adaptive reuse and wide public sentiment doesn’t materialize out of nowhere.

“The narrative needs to be about ambition, utility, creativity and learning rather than aesthetics,” Lange writes.

St. Louis preservationists are now battling for another, less well-known modernist landmark: Frederick Dunn’s 1963 Lewis and Clark Branch Library in suburban St. Louis County. Ahead of an official release of the proposed replacement building, preservation organization Modern STL released its own rendering of what an expanded and renovated building could look like. A year prior, the Chicago Architectural Club awarded a prize for best alternative plans for Prentice Hospital. Lange observes that it is “increasingly important for preservation advocates to come up with equal-but-opposite visuals. Raise money and hire someone to render adaptive reuse.”

Deploying renderings instead of rhetoric follows the direction of what everyone is after: funding. According to McDonald, younger preservationists “give money when they have a clear understanding of how their money directly supports saving a specific building or type.” McDonald notes that Landmarks Illinois and similar organizations fail to gain younger members when they fail to provide direct and tangible outcomes to support.

“Preservationists need to make the case for public and philanthropic subsidies by articulating the true potential for return on investment,” Robinson writes.


Last year Detroit businessman and task force member Dan Gilbert made headlines when he proclaimed the city’s need to rid itself of all its estimated 78,000 vacant buildings. “You get these structures down and, I mean, all of them, not most of them, all of them,” Gilbert told a crowd at a September 2013 conference at Wayne State University.

Gilbert isn’t the only one with a raze-it-all mindset. The Hardest Hit Fund, a $7.6 billion program established to help communities harmed by the housing crisis, has administered money to states for the purpose of demolishing vacant buildings. Just last year, the U.S. Department of the Treasury exempted these federally subsidized demolitions from the standard “Section 106” review designed to protect properties eligible for the National Register. Michigan is set to receive $100 million for upcoming demolitions, $52 million of which will go to the city of Detroit alone. This would leave thousands of structures vulnerable to be razed without review.

In 2012, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s Right Sizing Task Force commissioned a study to determine the role preservation played in planning for high-vacancy districts. The study, done by Donovan Rypkema’s firm PlaceEconomics, found that planners rarely think about conserving building stock in these areas, even though other research has found population loss to be lower in areas designated as historic and preserved.

PlaceEconomics’ Cara Bertron doesn’t think hostility to historic buildings is the problem. Cities don’t have the money for planning in the first place, making preservation a low priority that can seem like a luxury. “One planner we spoke with was the only planner employed by the city, and was putting together a comprehensive plan using pretty much only volunteers,” Bertron writes. “This story underscores that it’s not just preservation that’s getting short shrift: it’s all planning that’s losing out. And that’s bad for everyone.”

Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been progress.

“If you preserve without intent for a building, you are just starting the cycle of decay again.”

In St. Louis, developer Jason Deem watched as city officials demolished a vacant corner building on Cherokee Street in 2006, after bricks began to tumble off of its walls. Today Deem wants to put a shipping container café on the site, but he wishes that the original building remained. “The same funds that demolished the building could have been used to stabilize it,” Deem notes. St. Louis city government spends about $3 million a year to demolish vacant buildings, but is now exploring public funding for stabilization of vacant buildings.

In Detroit, the influx of federal dollars for demolition sparked a productive new partnership between the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the Motor City Mapping Project. The two groups worked together to create an overlay of historic preservation data to aid in the implementation of future demolition funding. Like other preservationists adopting the language of business, memory or culture, the Michigan groups took on the lingua franca of contemporary urban planning — data.

“Preservationists are often thought of being always oppositional and antagonistic,” Emilie Evans, preservation specialist for MHPN and a founder of the Preservation Rightsizing Network, told Next City in February. This stereotype, she argued, comes from the fact that preservationists aren’t typically part of early conversations about a building’s fate. By the time they get involved, she said, “they’re left to being reactionary.” Bringing historic data into the conversation early on could change the dynamic and help guide decision-making. That way, buildings worthy of preservation can be saved while those that threaten public health and safety can be demolished as expediently as possible.

“The reality is that not every property can be preserved and not every property should be demolished,” writes Kim Graziani, vice president of capacity building at the Center for Community Progress. Graziani started her work in the Pittsburgh city government before taking a position that involves networking across cities and states dealing with vacant property. Her advice to preservationists trying to save buildings from city officials trying to reduce vacant building counts: “Get in the room together earlier, before a condemnation notice is stuck on the front door.”

Houston’s Astrodome. Credit: AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

In some ways, the intersection of historic preservation and the complex policymaking around urban vacancy represents a regeneration of the roots of the old movement. While laws and policies are useful tools, preservation leaders must step backward and examine the reasons why those tools should be used in light of pressing social problems.

Vincent L. Michael, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund, writes on his blog Time Tells of being challenged to write a history of the preservation movement that had nothing to do with laws. “I couldn’t, really, but I could show that tons of preservation was happening in a lot of places long before there were any laws,” he writes. “The laws came later as an expression of the public will to preserve, especially in historic districts.”

Embracing Change

Nearly 20 years have passed since historian and activist Dolores Hayden published The Power of Place, a manifesto that excoriated the exclusion of everyday landscapes and structures from mainstream preservation and architectural historical practices. “A politically conscious approach to urban preservation must go beyond the techniques of traditional architectural preservation (making preserved structures into museums or attractive commercial real estate) to reach broader audiences,” Hayden wrote.

The challenges Hayden saw still confront the movement today. In her first address as National Trust for Historic Preservation president in 2010, Stephanie Meeks argued that preservation needed to become more visible and accessible. Others, including Vincent Michael and Donovan Rypkema, press for replacing “historic preservation” with “heritage conservation” to make the movement more outwardly inclusive.

Indeed, the movement seems to realize its greatest ambitions when it embraces the polyphonic nature of places. Who will be called a preservationist in the future, and what will they save? The fact that we don’t know is a good thing.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Museum of Modern Art as the Metropolitan Museum Art.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Michael R. Allen is the founder and director of the Preservation Research Office and a lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His writing on historic preservation, architectural history and public art has appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Temporary Art Review, PreservationNation, nextSTL and other outlets.

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