As we renew our membership commitment for another year, I would like to reflect on where we are as a preservation community today, and where we were some fifty years ago.
With beginnings in the 1960s and 70s, and progressing into a steady stream of activity in the 1980s, urban pioneers and Main Street saviors began transforming our downtown and core neighborhoods one structure at a time. The 600 block of Massachusetts was blighted, and at one point a shopping mall was proposed that would have covered the block and forever closed the intersection at 6th street. The Lawrence Opera House (Liberty Hall) was headed for a sheriff’s sale on the steps of the Courthouse. Stately properties such as 701 Louisiana sat with for sale signs in the yard for months at a time. The very real threat for many of these properties in core neighborhoods was demolition and replacement with suburban design, fourplexes or apartment houses.
When these pioneers began their work, probably unaware that they could be called ‘preservationists’, or that they were part of a movement, others watched in amazement and told them they were wasting their money. “It’s a labor of love” was the likely response, and for most of these pioneers, it was.
Once a few of these early rehabilitations were completed, others saw they could do it too. Neighborhood associations had been formed, and some even succeeded in downzoning actions. The library, community pool, Eldridge Hotel, downtown churches, and the Carnegie Building were improved instead of scattered to satellite sites. Voters approved bond issues that succeeded in keeping neighborhood schools. Downtown became a mecca of dining and entertainment options, office space, and boutique shops. A key component, however, in all these individual actions that created this critical mass of something great and desirable, was a common-held belief that our stock of historic structures should be valued and preserved. The fact is those early naysayers that felt preservation was a waste of money couldn’t have been more wrong.
These days, downtown is a great place to take family and friends. A ‘for sale’ sign never stays in a residential front yard for long, if it appears at all. While those early pioneers may have wondered if anyone would ever join them, now there is great demand to live in these vibrant core neighborhoods and enjoy the great life they offer.
While demolition was the specter hanging over our old housing stock fifty years ago, the danger today is more likely to be that while a number of these folks feel an attraction to the core neighborhoods, they don’t really want an old house at all. Judging by agendaitems this year at the Lawrence Historic Resources Commission (HRC), some have purchased old houses with no intention of actually living in them until they can take the ‘old’ out, and replace with new.
Those urban pioneers of the past would typically redo a kitchen and take out a small upstairs bedroom to create a bigger master bath or walk-in closet. Sometimes a garage was built or an addition built on the back. But by and large, it was understood that “character-defining features” of their historic property were to be preserved- not removed, mimicked or redone to the point of obscurity. The HRC is there for people with properties listed on historic registers to help them achieve this goal and still fit their definition of ‘livable’. Of course, not all older properties are listed on historic registers or within the environs of local register properties, which would require HRC review. Massive additions, however, that turn the original house into a vestibule, or an original front façade with an entirely new house behind it, are not what the standards for review are meant to allow, nor what our predecessors who created what is now so desirable had in mind.
This current demand on our downtown and core neighborhoods tells us that what has been achieved collectively over the last five decades has great cultural and economic value. There is certainly room for more people to come in and make it even better, but before they design a building plan that effectively jumps in with both feet, they should take some time to understand their neighborhood and what makes their recently-purchased historic structure valuable. Unless you can purchase a vacant lot, a downtown loft, or an inappropriate older infill structure, the price of the ticket to this party is a wonderful old house, and that’s as it should be.
Dennis J Brown, President