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Around the World: Travel to Save our Nation’s Endangered Places

Jennifer Merin on

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that’s dedicated solely to doing exactly what is indicated in its name, celebrates its 32nd anniversary by publishing yet another annual roster of the eleven most endangered historic places in the United States.

The organization stands strong as the guardian of places that are of significant historic and cultural importance to our nation, especially those that have quite evidently fallen into danger of being destroyed, demolished or lost in some other way due to abandonment, neglect, lack of funding for maintenance or the encroachment of other developments

The Trust’s annual list is intended to focus public attention on a new crop of historically and culturally important places that are in such precarious circumstances. The purpose of the list is to engage the public, raising sufficient interest and activism to prevent the demise of each endangered place.

The sites on the list vary from year to year. Always represented are a wide variety of places, including sports arenas and national parks, public buildings and disused factories where popular merchandise was manufactured, neighborhoods and specific streets, hotels and transportation terminals, monuments and odd land landmarks that have become significant over the years.

Of course, the Trust uses its list to activate not only locals whose lives are enriched by their proximity to historic and cultural places, but it also targets tourists whose visits to the endangered places bring with them an influx of capital that can prove to have a significant contribution to preservation efforts.

As tourists, we must pay close attention and care for our national treasures, even without the Trust’s list as an annual reminder.

It is sad that inclusion on the list doesn’t automatically guarantee that an engendered place will get the attention and maintenance it needs and deserves.

In other words, the Trust hasn’t always succeeded in its mission.  Among the places that are no longer in existence despite their placement on the Trust’s endangered places list are two Midwestern treasures: the beautiful Guthrie Theater, the original home of the acclaimed regional theater and cultural center in Minneapolis, which was demolished after it was abandoned in 2006, and Tiger Stadium, the original home of Detroit’s beloved hometown baseball team, which was torn down in 2009.  And there are many examples of other listed endangered places that still face an unsure future.

But there have also been many successes. Because of the Trust’s efforts, we can still enjoy visiting famed architect Eero Saarinen’s beautiful TWA terminal at JFK International Airport, for one example. And, for another, the Trust’s 1994 listing of the oldest surviving McDonald's eatery, built  in 1953 in Downey, California, raised sufficient support  from McDonald’s devotees to save the fast food mecca from being closed. The corporation renovated the building and turned it into a nifty tourist attraction.

Topping this year’s Endangered Places List is the Tenth Street Historic District,  Dallas, Texas, an area settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. The site includes a collection of buildings dating from the late 19th to early 20th century. A 2010 change to a local ordinance allowed the city to obtain demolition permits for houses less than 3,000 square feet without regard for Landmark Commission rulings, which is substantially increasing the rate of demolition. To date, at least 70 of the district’s 260 homes have been demolished. A local preservation group filed a lawsuit against the City of Dallas to stop demolition..

In Nashville, Tennessee, Music Row is a musical mecca that embraces more than 200 music-related businesses, making it unique in the world. From the district’s private homes and commercial buildings, a variety of celebrated music recordings have emerged to delight generations of music lovers. Known internationally as Music City, the area attracts many tourists, but since 2013, 50 buildings—the majority serving music-related functions—have been demolished to make way for new development. The objective is to preserve the remaining sites and attract music tourists to them.

In Puerto Rico, Hacienda Los Torres—built by Jose Maria Torres in 1846 during the height of Puerto Rico’s coffee industry—is one of the last historic coffee plantation houses on the island and one of the oldest remaining structures in Puerto Rico. It’s also associated with the “Grito de Lares” revolt and the Spanish-American War. Long-term deterioration and the effects of multiple hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria in 2017, threaten this historic site, which needs restoration. 

Southeast Utah’s Ancestral Places has been identified by archaeologists as one of the country’s most culturally rich areas and beautiful landscapes, but the unprotected area is open and vulnerable to oil and gas extraction. In the last two years, the Bureau of Land Management dramatically escalated leasing activity in the region, despite concerns from the National Trust, affected tribes, and our regional partners. 

Chicago’s James R. Thompson Center is the windy city’s best example of grand-scale Postmodern architecture. But Governor J.B. Pritzker recently signed legislation allowing for sale of the building within two years to help fill a state budget gap. Without preservation protections, the Thompson Center is vulnerable to demolition instead of being repurposed for ongoing use.

In North Dakota, the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge, connecting the communities of Bismarck and Mandan, was constructed in 1883, It was the first rail bridge built across the upper Missouri River. The iconic bridge has been recognized as an International Site of Conscience for the role it played in opening the western United States to white settlement—and the resulting profound impacts to Native American communities—but it has been proposed for demolition by railway company BNSF. The Coast Guard has proposed a conditional permit that would require BNSF to retain the historic bridge until after an adjacent new bridge is constructed, in order to allow time to identify a preservation solution for the Bismarck-Mandan Rail Bridge.

Industrial Trust Company Building in Providence, Rhode Island has been part of the city’s skyline since 1928.  Known as the ‘Superman Building,’ the structure has been vacant for six years, during which there has been significant deterioration. There are no redevelopment plans in place, although the building is located with a zone that’s eligible for capital gains tax incentives. The building’s future is in question.

Charlotte, North Carolina’s The Excelsior Club was a leading private African American social club in the Southeast, hosting artists like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong during its heyday. It was listed in the Green Book, the touring guide for African-Americans traveling through the segregated South. The Art Moderne building needs significant investment. The property is currently listed for sale for $1.5 million, but even if a buyer is found, a reuse plan and significant investments are necessary to ensure a strong future. 

Washington DC is the setting for the National Mall Tidal Basin, part of the National Park System. This culturally rich area’s landscape is comprised of some of our nation’s most treasured monuments and the famous cherry trees that blossom annually. It’s estimated that as much as $500 million is needed to upgrade and maintain one of the most popular and visited sites in the National Park System.

In Buffalo, New York, the Willert Park Courts complex was New York State’s first housing project constructed specifically for African Americans. It  is a unique example of early Modernism with bas-reliefs depicting scenes of everyday life,. Today, the site is vacant and many of its structures are open to the elements. The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority has proposed demolishing the complex to construct replacement housing. If so, all of the public art will be destroyed.

Mount Vernon Arsenal and Searcy Hospital in Mount Vernon, Alabama, was held by the Confederacy during the Civil War and housed Geronimo and approximately 400 Apache prisoners of war during the 1880s and 1890s. The hospital complex served as a segregated mental health facility for African Americans after 1900. The historic complex was closed in 2012. It is now vacant and deteriorating, and vulnerable to further damage that could lead to demolition.

Visit these endangered places when you travel to their cities. Remember that you, as a tourist, can make a big difference in preserving these endangered places. If you’re traveling to their vicinity, make sure you pay them a visit. If you live nearby, become active in any program that’s working to save them. In doing so, you will help to preserve America’s heritage for the enjoyment and enlightenment of future generations.


Copyright 2019 Jennifer Merin


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