Many cities across the nation have commissions of passionate and subject-matter educated residents who participate in their city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). Cities across Texas have these bodies. The aim is to protect and promote the architecture and history of an area.
In 1966 Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act. The aim of this law was to protect important buildings and site of architectural and historic significance. The thrust of this act was that it made clear as to the expectations of both state and federal governments when it came to saving properties.
A brief HPC history of significant buildings
The first known preservation-type act was in the mid-1800s, before the Civil War. Residents who lived near the homes of John Hancock and George Washington felt passionate about saving these historic buildings and banded together in their efforts to spare then destruction.
In the 1920s, a group worked to protect the French Quarter of New Orleans. In the 1930s, after seeing several one-of-a-kind buildings demolished, residents of Charleston, South Carolina adopted a historic preservation ordinance.
Groups in New York have worked together over the course of the last century to preserve architecturally and historically significant buildings. In 1964, when Manhattan’s Pennsylvania Station was torn down, it shocked many residents into taking action to recognize and preserve buildings that contributed to the city’s history.
What caused historic buildings to be slated for demolition?
To some the old adage “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” seems to ring true when it comes to tearing down iconic edifices. Throughout the decades the way we live has changed. For example, the Great Depression and WWII caused a collapse in the housing market. Urban mansions which once housed single families, were often divided into smaller apartments or turned into rooming houses.
Urban sprawl and population growth also affected how and where people lived. As people moved from the city out to the suburbs in the late 1940s-1960s, cities needed to create more efficient transportation routes. The advent of the interstate highway and four-lane freeway meant that many buildings, and sometimes entire neighborhoods, needed to be moved or removed.
During the growth spurt of the Eisenhower era, many large mansions, old libraries such as the Public Library of Cincinnati, hotels, government centers and post offices were demolished because they were outgrown, proved to be inefficient or were burdensome and expensive to maintain and heat.
The energy crisis in the 1970s caused a shift in thinking; people felt that, while it was a hard choice, conserving energy was the most important factor to consider.
What to do when looking forward
Not all buildings are architecturally significant. Not every old house or store or factory contributes to a community. In some cases, to best serve the needs of a city, buildings do need to be torn down. Better schools, energy efficient housing and considerations for health, safety and growth always need to be taken into account.
Cities are often faced with “Scylla and Charybdis” decisions. When it comes to choosing between the lesser of two evils, we all hope to make the best decision for today and for generations to come.