May 31, 2010

Why not All Old Buildings Should be Saved

by: Taz Loomans


This weekend, the Phoenix Historic Neighborhood Coalition (PHNC) released the Most enDangered Dozen.  It’s a list of local historic buildings in danger of being torn down, some because they are in blighted neighborhoods, some because they themselves are in terrible condition and some because their owners have foreclosed.  In other words, these properties are on the verge of being sold to some very enterprising but potentially culturally insensitive people that will likely tear these buildings down.

The buildings that made this list elicited different reactions from me.  With some of them like the Art Deco Professional Building and Al Beadle’s Whites Gates house, it broke my heart that they were in danger of being torn down.  They are beautiful buildings and no brainers in terms of their architectural significance.  Others like the Leighton G. Knipe house in particular seem too problematic to save.  This house, pictured in this post, looks to be in really bad shape and although it may be significant because it was built in 1909, it doesn’t seem special enough architecturally or historically to save, considering it is in such disrepair and zoned for transit-oriented development.  This might sound shocking to my historic preservation friends but I think for us to have a successful historic preservation policy in Phoenix, we must have a balanced and nuanced approach.

In my opinion, just because a building is old doesn’t mean it should be saved.  Some buildings were just average when they were built, are in terrible shape now and perhaps it IS best for them to be torn down to make room for something more appropriate and usable.  An example of this is the Beef Eaters building just west of Central on Camelback Rd.  Having gone on two tours of it, I was disappointed in the lack of architectural significance in the building.  It was just an average building that was added on to over time in an average way and now it’s a sprawling giant in disrepair on a very valuable lot.

What makes Beef Eaters significant isn’t the building, it’s what happened IN the building.  The stories of all the deals that were made, of the people who ate and drank there, of the meetings that were held are what make Beef Eaters so important.  But I question the assumption that preserving the building is the only way to save these memories.  Perhaps a monument, or a portion of the building can be saved and serve as a museum to what was there before.  But it doesn’t make sense to keep the whole thing, especially because it’s unworkably large and it’s just not that great of a structure to begin with.

So this brings me to the more nuanced approach to historic preservation.  In my opinion, there are at least two major categories of old buildings.  The first is comprised of buildings that were very well built and have stood the test of time.  These are beautiful buildings, well-designed and architecturally significant.  These buildings must be saved.  The old Harold Ekman building where St.Francis restaurant is now comes to mind.  This building was great in its inception as the office of architect Harold Ekman, it stood the test of time and now has been cleaned up and glamorized (in the best sense) by architect Wendell Burnette.  It’s a historic preservation success story in Phoenix and one that will hopefully be repeated many times.  Most of the buildings on the Most enDangered Dozen would fit into this category.

In the second category are  old buildings that were only average when they were built and have deteriorated over time.  Buildings in this category should be taken under consideration for demolition.  This doesn’t mean that the history of these buildings shouldn’t be preserved.  Perhaps their history can be captured by preserving a small section of the building, or by reusing some of the components or even by writing the stories of the building on a plaque or displaying old photographs of it.  The important thing is that the history is saved, preserved and here for us to integrate into our present and future identity.

My challenge to the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition is to make a subset list of historic buildings that MUST BE SAVED, which in my opinion is not the same at the Most enDangered Dozen.  This would require some difficult decisions and creative thinking, but wanting to save every building just because it’s old is not only unworkable but I question if it’s the best way to move forward.

However, the question arises, who decides what’s worth saving?  I think it should be decided by a collaborative team comprising not only of historic preservationists, but of developers, architects, urbanists, sustainability experts and neighborhood residents.  The wider perspective of a multi-disciplinary team would result in the most balanced recommendation behind preservation, demolition or a multitude of third options.

The above is a best-case scenario.  Right now, we have no consideration whatsoever towards historic preservation and therefore we end up tearing down gems of buildings.  But I caution against the opposite notion that every single building built before 1985 should be preserved because of its age.  This ties the hands of future development too much.  It might just be that the best way to fight Phoenix’s tear-down mentality is not with a broad-brush ‘save everything’ approach but with a more nuanced and realistic approach of what must be saved and what has a reasonable case for demolition.

I do applaud the PHNC for putting together this list and getting this conversation started.  Without this very important first step, historic preservation would be a vague idea in the minds of concerned citizens instead of a concrete list of specific buildings that require specific actions.  I also applaud the PHNC for compiling a “watch list” of endangered historic places to be released at a later date.  Putting specific buildings on the public’s radar is the first step towards a successful historic preservation policy.

Photo Credit:  photo of the Leighton Knipe house from the PHNC’s social media release of the Most enDangered Dozen.

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13 Responses

  1. Donna Reiner says:

    It is my understanding that the Knipe House is much sounder than it looks from the picture. Yes, it needs a new roof, but its skeleton & foundation are rather decent. See if you can get an inside view to determine whether this is true or not.

    • bloomingrock says:

      Donna, thanks. I’ll peak in the windows and see what it’s got! By the way, thank you for all the work you and the PHNC did in compiling this list. It’s excellent work.

  2. Steve Weiss says:

    To be listed for the City of Phoenix historic designation, there needs to be a social/community/historic linkage. It’s not that it’s just old, it’s that it’s emblematic of a period, a home of a historic figure etc.

    The funny thing is the dividing line of historic and vintage. Mayor Gordon touted the buildings he personally saved and the ones saved or semi-saved by the city. Nowhere is vintage considered. Adaptive reuse “saved” the 411 N. Central building, but can we point to that as historic preservation, especially when the murals that made it unique were already gone?

    What I see is thinking in terms of districts that tout an architectural direction, so we don’t end up with a historic place here and empty lots or bad architecture surrounding it. The “keep the facade, tear down the context” is not the solution.

  3. bloomingrock says:

    Steve, agreed! Good points. The kind of holistic approach you mentioned – social/community/historic is exactly what we need in considering what buildings we spend our energy saving. I would add architectural significance to your list as well.

    Distinguishing what’s vintage from what’s historic is difficult but important and fundamental to true historic preservation.

  4. Bob Graham says:

    I agree with the gist of your point, however it is regrettable that your lead example is the Knipe House. It may not look like much, but the building was the home and studio of L.G. Knipe. Who? Only the architect AND structural engineer of the Jefferson Hotel, the Frenchy Vieux house, Tempe City Hall (the original), the Wigwam Resort, the Tempe Normal School Anthropology Building and Krause Hall (ASU), and numerous other buildings and homes around town between 1909 and 1936. Oh, and this house too.

    As you might guess, I have some personal knowledge of the Knipe house, and as an architect, I have to admit a soft spot for a fellow professional who worked in relative obscurity (compared to some others of the day) but made such a big impact on the built environment of early Phoenix.

    Please keep in mind that if our cultural heritage is to be saved for the education and enjoyment of future generations, you can’t just focus on the architecture. You also can’t jump to conclusions that a building “doesn’t seem historically special” without looking into the background of why us historical wonks think it’s a gem.

    • bloomingrock says:

      Bob, thanks for the background about the Knipe house. Fascinating indeed! You’re right that many times there are special nuggets of history behind many old buildings that might not appear to be much.

      And maybe the only way to pay tribute to contribution Knipe made to Phoenix is by saving his house. But maybe there are other ways too. I don’t know.

      Thanks for sharing the history behind the house and it’s architect. At least some of his story has been revived on this blog!

  5. […] yesterday, there was some strong disagreement in the historic preservation community about my post Why Not All Buildings Should be Saved.  It’s important to hear all points of view on this subject and have a constructive […]

  6. Jack Sakes says:

    I don’t want to get embroiled in the many specifics of the “what to save, what not to save” argument. I do want to say however, that I’ve been a preservation-watcher in town for a long time, and frankly the record of our city officials is abysmal. It has reached the point where almost any building is worth saving because there are so few left. If we don’t fight for everything, we’re going to wind up with nothing. Yes I know I’m painting a dire picture with a broad brush, but for those of us who’ve seen the rampant demolition and false-sympathy that come with it from the Council & Mayor, it’s an easy panic to justify.

    • bloomingrock says:

      Jack, thanks for your comment. It’s true that first we need to put a stop to the default demolition that goes on here and then go back in with a finer brush and set priorities.

  7. Will Novak says:

    I don’t know if Beefeaters is really ‘unworkably large’. It seems to me it could be an excellent Comedy Club or Concert Venue, both something Phoenix, and particularly Central Phoenix is woefully lacking in compared to other majors cities.

    I’m not sure of Beefeaters exact dimensions or square footage but from the floor plan they have on the “Save Beefeaters” Facebook page its pretty easy to envision it as a performance venue of some kind.

    I also agree with what Jack says, we’ve torn down SO MUCH history in this City, nearly everything left ought to be saved. I don’t care if something was a ho- hum building in 1920, the fact that its a building from 1920 that still stands in Phoenix makes it unique.

  8. Wayne Murray says:

    Preserve yes. However we also need to consider the preservation of the community and the neighborhood. If the historic building is to be preserved then do so. Keeping a blighted condition in a community for years on end serves no-one and contributes to the deterioration of the neighborhood and other historic homes. I have tried for 15 years to have a “contributing home” unblighted next to our maintained rental properties. A home that sees frequent gang activity, graffiti, and is in “dangerous” disrepair. We cannot get nor retain decent renters when this activity continues unabated for years and years. I agree with Bloomingrock in that history can be preserved without the structure in some cases, and it is important to preserve the present and the future of our communities not at the expense of “brick and mortar”. As others have pointed out it needs to be determined what “historial qualities” need preserving and allocate resources to that task. I do not need to preserve my dad’s 71 GTO in my back yard to preserve his memory in ways I can share with others….OK maybe I wish I had…..but you get the point.

  9. Jacob Wipf says:

    An additional problem with fighting to preserve every old building regardless of its true historical value is that it detracts from the credibility of preservationists. If no discrimination is used in choosing what is really worth saving, it’s much easier for people to make the argument that preservationists have no standards and don’t know what they’re talking about. A more nuanced and case-by-case approach demonstrates the true value of the sites that are worth the effort of preservation.

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