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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 12:59 am

Preservation hasn’t arrived, but it’s getting there

Reasons to save old buildings are practical — and beyond practical

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Untitled Document Looking out over the crowd at the Historic Sites Commission’s Mayor’s Awards for Historic Preservation, I began to think that maybe historic preservation in Springfield has reached the tipping point, that magical critical mass where the movement just takes off like an epidemic. At this 15th annual affair, the crowd was bigger than ever. Two wonderful landmark projects, Union Station and the Elijah Iles House, have been completed and were recognized. Two rare Culver-stone houses at North Grand and Patton received awards, as did houses in Enos Park and the neighborhood west of the Capitol. To those of us who remember the days when the Springfield City Council and the daily newspaper used to applaud as an uncaring town routinely demolished historic structures, preservation of old buildings finally seems to be catching on.
But as I moved through the crowd, talking to battle-toughened veterans, it became apparent that although the preservation movement has come a long way, there is reason to be wary. Every success seems to have its shadow. It’s great that the state police moved into the old Franklin Life buildings, ensuring their preservation, but what will happen to the historic, but now disparaged, armory building they left behind? Springfield College and Benedictine University won an award for saving the King’s Daughters Home on the same day it was announced that they are closing the 150-year-old Ursuline Academy. Because the Iles House is now safely and wonderfully restored, it only becomes more apparent that the Helmle apartment building, right behind it on Cook Street, is boarded up and blighting the neighborhood. Fifth and Sixth streets downtown are in great shape, which serves to emphasize that Fourth is a street of parking lots and Monroe has too many empty buildings. There are too many challenges ahead to start talking tipping point.
So we need to keep reminding others, and ourselves, why preservation makes sense, even when it seems costly and difficult. Don McLarty, the new architect of the Capitol, reminded us of several   reasons in his remarks at the preservation awards. One is that preservation is the “ultimate green design.” In a world that is suddenly catching on to the value of reuse and recycling, people start to see the value of recycling buildings. As one preservation leader put it, “The greenest building is the one that already exists.” But the green of it goes far beyond saving building materials and keeping demolition waste out of landfills. As one who rehabs residential buildings, I get asked by my eco-trendy friends whether I’ve ever considered using green design. No, I tell them, we just put insulation, efficient new furnaces, and new windows into buildings that have always been leaky before, and then we sell them to people who will live close to the heart of the city, on public-transportation routes, rather than in the sprawling suburbs. But most people still don’t get it: Preservation is good for the environment. Another practical reason Springfield needs to hear is that preservation is good for the city’s economy. “The more we do to preserve and protect history, the more we do to promote tourism,” McLarty said. History-minded tourists who come to visit the Lincoln sites quickly ask what else there is to see. Perhaps someday guides will routinely suggest a stroll to the area just north of the Lincoln museum, to the historic Edwards Place, and a walking tour of the restored neighborhood surrounding it.
Preservationists can and should find other practical reasons for doing what they do, but the best motivators I heard at the awards event took on a more mystical and spiritual flavor. In various ways, speakers and restorers said that preserving the old and used keeps our ancestors alive and reminds us that our town has a past, and a future, and that we are but stewards for a little while. McLarty quoted the president of the Ohio Historical Society on this point: “Preserving venerable old buildings and making them useful for today is certainly an important part of historic preservation. But it is about so much more. It is about the power of place, the significance of community, and the stories of people. Simply put, these places are worth preserving because they are important to people and they tell us about who we are and from where we come.”
Judith Pensoneau-Feurer, the tireless organizer of these preservation awards over many years, put it more simply: “When your children and grandchildren come back to Springfield, they will say, ‘I know where I am.’ That makes us special in the world.”  

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com
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