When people ask me what I liked best about Prague, there's one thing that keeps coming to mind — and it's not the cheap beer. My favorite part about the city (and really, about any European city I've traveled to) was how old everything is. Every winding street, every narrow building seems steeped in history. If these walls could talk, they would tell stories of Slavic kings and Protestant reformers and Communist occupation. Compare that to the most populous parts of many American towns, where there's hardly anything more than 50 years old.
Obviously, the Europeans had a bit of a head start on us. But it's also true that we regard our buildings differently. Take this example from Houston, home of the teardown. In 2009, Wilshire Village, a garden apartment complex dating to 1940, was removed to make room for a new grocery store. The building, while still very beautiful, had been allowed to fall into disrepair over the years, making a rehab economically unfeasible. Across the street from the old Wilshire Village location (and from the new grocery store) is an older grocery store, a neighborhood landmark for decades. A couple of years after the opening of the new store, word has come that the older grocery store will be torn down, to be replaced by… an apartment complex.
I cannot make this stuff up.
I'm not suggesting that we need to save every grocery store. I am suggesting that when we treat our buildings as disposable, something valuable about our cities is lost. Buildings are not just places where we live and do business and make money. The buildings we build say something about who we are. Older buildings are not just beautiful — they're like living history books, a tangible connection to the past. They give a city an architectural texture and a sense of place.
Each year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation publishes a list of America's 11 most endangered historic places. This year's sites come with a twist — for each endangered place, you can donate money to a campaign dedicated to preserving it for other people to learn from and enjoy.
Here are some of the highlights from the list. Check out all 11 places here.
The Village of Zoar
The Village of Zoar, in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, was founded in 1817 by German immigrants seeking religious freedom. Many of the village's structures have been preserved as part of the Zoar Village State Memorial, and others are maintained by private citizens. Currently, the village is threatened by flooding — a levee built in 1937 to protect it from backwater from a nearby dam is failing, and the Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting a study to determine what should be done. One option would involve destroying the levee completely, which would mean Zoar would have to be moved or destroyed.
Ellis Island Hospital Complex
Although much of Ellis Island has been preserved as a museum, the hospitals and quarantine wards on its southern side have fallen into disrepair. Donations will help to rehabilitate these sites so they can be opened to the public.
For years, Texas courthouses, built in a myriad of styles, have helped establish a unique identity for the cities where they are located. But the courthouses in many small towns, including Karnes City and Jefferson, have fallen into disrepair for want of funding.
Sweet Auburn Historic District
Sweet Auburn was an African American neighborhood in Atlanta, founded by African Americans during the Jim Crow era. It contains the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., and its bustling commercial district was home to many churches and businesses before it fell into decline during the 1980s. Donations will be used to help create a plan to revitalize the area while maintaining its unique character.
Bridges of Yosemite Valley
Three iconic bridges which span the Merced River in the heart of Yosemite National Park are being considered for demolition by the National Park Service.
(Images: National Trust for Historic Preservation)