Having worked on historic preservation issues at the city, county, state, and national levels, I continually encounter requests for demolition because the building isn’t safe or no longer useful. The property owner or developer often assumes it’s the first time I’ve heard that the building is old fashioned, run-down, or an eyesore, or that it’s cheaper to build a new building than bring an old building up to code. Although it can be an uncomfortable conversation, it’s an opportunity to advocate for local history and community heritage. I’ll mention that the situation is often better than it seems and encourage them to get a professional opinion from a preservation architect and consider how tax credits can make a project feasible. But increasingly, I’ve encountered situations where the property owner has consulted with a professional who’s confirmed the opinion that the building needs to be demolished. Although the professionals may have borderline credibility, such as an architect who’s never worked with historic buildings or a salesperson for a window manufacturer, they frequently have the ability to convince commissioners and staff of the veracity of their opinions, alas. I sometimes wonder if it’s worth the struggle and frustrations.
Last week, I stayed at Colorado Chautauqua, a National Historic Landmark in Boulder, Colorado, and was reminded that preserving historic places is a battle worth fighting. If you’re not familiar with the Chautauqua movement of the late 1800s, it’s like a summer camp for adults focused around education with lectures by professors and music by traveling musicians. At first, participants stayed in cloth tents but these were quickly replaced by wooden cabins as seasonal retreats. Chautauqua Colorado survives as a historic district of about 100 cabins with a dining hall, academy building, and auditorium, offering a wide variety of programs and workshops in the foothills of the Rockies. Mary and I relaxed on the screened porch of our one-bedroom cabin, hiked the trails around the camp, and enjoyed a nice meal with friends at the dining hall, and had we stayed over the weekend, we could have enjoyed a concert in the auditorium. But in the 1970s, it was regarded as a slum and threatened with demolition. To confirm the city’s opinion, “an architectural consultant had advised the City that the ancient Auditorium and the Dining Hall, both built in 1898, were in such bad repair that funds needed to restore them far outweighed their usefulness.” The City owned the land and had plans for a beautiful and profitable resort.
Fortunately, local preservationists came to the rescue and overcame the opposition, but it required nearly 150 community presentations on the history and significance of the site, speaking out at City Council meetings, close monitoring of government plans and discussions, nominating the buildings to the National Register, the resignation of the entire Chautauqua board, hiring an experienced manager, struggles over governance and priorities, and rethinking programming, restoring buildings, and updating equipment. It took nearly a decade to work through the transition and I’m sure it was frustrating and bloody at times, but today it’s a great place to visit and experience. It’s a reminder that architectural consultants and city councils can be wrong, and that wonderful unique places can come out of what is seemingly a hopeless eyesore. If you’re confronted by a similar situation, be sure to get an experienced opinion from someone who’s gone through the process and remind your opponents of the success at Colorado Chautauqua. And if you’re thinking that preservation is old-fashioned, the Colorado Chautauqua Association isn’t standing still and is pursuing “high performance preservation.”