Friday, April 25, 2014

Lessons Never Learned

Hidden City
Another in a long string of systematic miscommunications has preservations singing a familiar tune on East Chestnut Street. City Blue's Art Deco Vitrolite façade at 1106 Chestnut Street has been weathering for years, but on April 11th one of the glass panels finally crashed to the ground.

Max Ufberg offers an outstanding history of Markham Ashberry's iconic building on Hidden City. Much to my surprise, the building's façade is not an addition to an older structure, but the entire building itself was built as it stands in 1933. Considered Late Art Deco, Streamline Moderne came from Germany's Bauhaus school in the late 1930s. Thusly, the building was added to the Historic Register in 1986.

But things got bureaucratic this month and no one really seems to be to blame. L&I issued a violation, deeming the building unsafe. The department asked the owner hire a structural engineer to report on the safety of the façade and install a sidewalk shelter in the mean time. The owner applied for a permit to build the shelter, but also hired a contractor to remove the glass from the façade, breaking some of the panels in the process.

A mess of absent communication between L&I, the Historical Commission, and the property's owner has offered a recurring nightmare.

The owner is retroactively seeking a permit from the Historical Commission to remove the glass already gone. But whether or not that permit is granted, and if it's not, what that would actually mean for the fate of the building is irrelevant. The damage is done. Replacing the glass will be costly, and it's hard to say if the historic unique material can even be replicated.

This allows the owner to apply for the same hardship exemption we've seen at the Church of the Assumption and the Boyd Theatre, and echoes of preservationists crying, "oh no, not again."

Standing, for now.

But the woes of preservationists isn't the only misstep being repeated. Like the Church of the Assumption, the city has allowed a property owner to move forward with unpermitted demolition. But we've also watched those in the preservation community rush to the site of an historic building after its fate seems sealed.

Noteworthy, and still alive

I hope the best for Ashberry's historic façade, particularly given the breadth of history unearthed in Ufberg's piece. But given the past decisions made by the Historical Commission we all know how unrealistic that hope is.

Will this be behind the wrecking ball before the historical community takes note?
Meanwhile there are umpteen deteriorating façades along East Chestnut Street and nearby on Market, walls that haven't yet crashed to the ground. Are those in the historic community going to step up and address the unusual PFCU façade, Robinson's Department Store, or the more traditional collection of historic buildings at 11th and Chestnut before it's too late?

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