A Wrecker’s Dozen—twenty Years Later

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As was not at all predictable two decades ago, historic preservation is now the credo of American development; our architectural landmarks are revered and well protected. The National Trust for Historic Preservation wields its strong influence at both the state and national levels and currently has open to the public seventeen historic house museums across the United States. This was not always the case. In the 1950s and 1960s urban renewal projects facilitated the demolition of hundreds of notable buildings and the construction of indistinctive and cheap replacements for them. Carl Nelson of the National Trust says that these programs might have been better termed urban removal programs, because they needlessly destroyed so many buildings. He attributes the rise in architectural conservation in part to the recognition by so many Americans of the damage wreaked on their downtowns in the name of progress. In 1970 “A Wrecker’s Dozen” came out of this environment of despair, at a point when historic preservation was still caught in the throes of adolescence. The National Trust was a small organization then, and local preservation groups were few and far between. In those days it was only reasonable to expect that the buildings would be torn down to make room for new structures.

Here’s how the wrecker’s dozen fared:

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Railroad Station Rotunda was saved, and the building still stands. Its baroque facade and interior have been completely restored to their 1902 splendor, and arches glowing, the rotunda greets passengers coming to and going from Pittsburgh on Amtrak’s Western Pennsylvania Line as it has done for more than three-quarters of a century. The adjacent station was saved too; it is now divided into retail and residential units.

Chicago, Illinois

The Grand Central Station and Clock Tower, finished in 1890 and a fine example of the Romanesque style, was demolished in 1970 shortly after our original article ran. The building site, which lies parallel to the South Branch of the Chicago River, was used briefly as a sculpture park but now lies vacant.

Grand Rapids, Michigan

City Hall fell prey to the plague of urban development even as our article went to press. The building had been erected in 1888 and designed by Elijah E. Meyers (the architect of the state capital at Lansing). Its Victorian Gothic design and beautiful clock tower made it one of the finest in Grand Rapids. It was not felled easily. A local preservation group protested vigorously, and one woman went so far as to chain herself to the wrecking ball, all to no avail. Despite the loss of the hall, the group was able to save much of the Downtown Historic District. Today, says Gordon Olson, the city’s historian, buildings still face the threat of demolition, and not every structure is saved; “but at least it’s an open, well-explored issue.”

Poughkeepsie, New York

Springside, the estate of Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, was rescued. Its gatehouse is the only surviving major work of the nine-teenth-century architect Andrew Jackson Downing. Condominiums occupy about 50 percent of the estate’s forty acres, and the buildings themselves must contend with the vandals who plague them. Nevertheless, a recent grant has allowed the restoration process to begin, and it is thought that Vassar’s home will be completely restored by the mid-1990s.

San Francisco, California

The Old Mint, too, was saved. An austere building, designed by A. B. Mullett and built in 1869, it survived the cataclysmic earthquake of 1906. The subsequent fire that raged through the city threatened the building, but mint employees and soldiers fought it for seven hours, saving the nation some two hundred million dollars in new cash. Today the building serves as a museum.

Denver, Colorado

The Emmanuel-Sherith-Israel Chapel, built in 1876, is still standing. Originally an Episcopal church of mixed Romanesque and Gothic design, it was converted into a synagogue in 1903 and remained one until 1963. Threatened by a large urban renewal project in the late 1960s, the building was almost lost. Late in 1969, however, the chapel was accepted by the National Register and subsequently saved. It is now a private residence.

Washington, D.C.

The Franklin School, built in 1868 and 1869 to the design of the architect Adolph Cluss, is a majestic brick structure in northwest Washington. Its innovative design and imposing towers provided a model for educational institutions around the world for much of the nineteenth century. Virtually abandoned by the superintendent of schools, this building, from which Alexander Graham Bell sent the first wireless telephone message in 1880, was in severe danger in the early 1970s. It is now the home of the Adult Training Center of the D.C. public school system, and extensive restoration will begin later this year.

The other D.C. buildings were saved as well. The Alva Belmont House, which is now known as the Sewall-Belmont House, is one of the oldest residences on Capitol Hill. Its first section is thought to have been built by Lord Baltimore in 1632, and the main house was added by Robert Sewall in 1800. Leased by Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison, the house is supposed to have been the site where Gallatin worked out the finances for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. When set upon by British troops in 1814, the house was partially destroyed by fire, but it was restored to become one of Washington’s social centers. In the early 1970s the building was almost demolished to make room for a new Senate parking lot; a bill declaring it a National Historic Site saved it. Now the Sewall-Belmont House is a nonprofit museum operated by the National Women’s party.

The west front of the U.S. Capitol also came very close to being demolished. A proposal to redesign and extend the structure was put forth in 1966 by J. George Stewart, at that time the official capitol architect (although he himself was not an architect). The plan, which would have removed the only remaining visible Benjamin H. Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch designs at the Capitol, was considered feasible as late as 1982, although its necessity had been refuted in 1970 by an independent consulting firm. A vote in the House during the summer of 1983 canceled plans for the extension, and it is now free of danger.

Hudson, New York

The Hill, which was built in 1796 for Henry Livingston, a justice of the Supreme Court and hero of the Ticonderoga campaign, was dismantled in 1983 after a serious fire in the early 1970s ravaged it. Modeled after a Palladian villa, the mansion overlooking the Hudson River has been replaced by a contemporary private residence.

The General Worth Hotel, an 1837 model of urban Greek Revival design, was demolished in late 1969 after a long and heated battle between concerned citizens and the town’s mayor, Samuel T. Wheeler. The hotel was designed by Isaiah Rogers on the model of the Tremont House in Boston. Lincoln stopped at the Worth during his inaugural trip to Washington in 1861, and it was long considered the finest hotel in the northern Hudson Valley. In its place today is an electrical supply company and a parking lot.

Los Angeles, California

The Walter Luther Dodge House, Irving Gill’s sprawling 1916 design for the millionaire creator of Tiz, “for tired feet,” was an early architectural triumph for reinforced concrete. A ranchlike structure of the early International Style, it joined a large garden with a bilevel house, a raised swimming pool, and a two-car garage. The best preserved of Gill’s houses in the 1950s, it was destroyed in 1970 and is now the site of an apartment complex.

Destrehan, Louisiana

The Destrehan Manor House, to round out the wrecker’s dozen, was saved. Built in 1787, it is the oldest plantation home in the lower Mississippi Valley. Early this century the property was sold to the Mexican Oil Company, which operated a refinery on the site; when the refinery was abandoned in 1958, the house fell into disrepair. The River Road Historical Society took over the property in 1970 and has almost completely restored it. About twenty-five miles from New Orleans, the Destrehan Plantation is now a museum and National Historic Site.