Tourism & Hospitality and Environment and Economic Development and Sports Business

Commentary: Do we need a disaster to wake us up?

April 28, 2008

About 20,000 historic properties were damaged in the storm, and Gay, executive director of Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, has led the charge to save them.

"We never felt like throwing up our hands," Gay said. "We don't do that." The Preservation Resource Center contacted owners of the nearly 4,000 historic properties that were condemned after the hurricane. About 600 of them have been spared to date.

The PRC also has been helping review the planned demolition of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

"That review process is so important in a disaster because people are hysterical and make bad decisions," Gay said. "We stopped the wholesale demolition that might very well have occurred in National Register districts."

Although thousands of historic structures still are slated to be torn down, Gay remains optimistic.

"There has been more talk since the storm than I've ever heard before about the importance of our historic architecture," she said. "I think the outlook for New Orleans neighborhoods is stronger."

Gay will share her experiences at a free presentation at 4:30 p.m. May 4 at the Old Centrum at 1201 N. Central Ave. The event is sponsored by Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.

The organization is bringing Gay here to mark National Preservation Month and to inspire locals with New Orleans' example. After all, Indianapolis has plenty of its own buildings in distress. Here are a few:

Old Centrum. This former church was built in 1892. The Romanesque Revival structure is in decline and has been closed. "There are uses out there," said David Baker, administrator of the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission.

Illinois Building, southeast corner of Market and Illinois streets. The IHPC hopes to create within a year a local historic district to protect Monument Circle and surrounding structures, such as this vacant 1925 office building. Made of limestone and green marble, it was designed by local architects Preston Rubush and Edgar Hunter.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the public's opinion has been influenced by the years it was a food court," Baker said. "But if you step back and look up, you see the most magnificent building, with details you can't even believe."

Bush Stadium, 1501 W. 16th St. Multiple uses have been suggested for this deteriorating 1931 ballpark, but none have borne fruit. The facility sports Art Deco features and played a key role in the Negro Leagues in the 1940s.

James E. Roberts School 97, 1401 E. 10th St. Indianapolis Public Schools has threatened to tear down this 1936 Art Moderne-style building, which originally accommodated only children with disabilities.

Rivoli Theatre, 3155 E. 10th St. This 1927 structure, with a Spanish Mission-style exterior and Georgian Revival interior, once boasted the city's largest stage. It is now in the hands of a not-for-profit formed to save the theater, which has sustained significant damage from neglect.

The list of historic properties in danger does not end here. Look around your own neighborhood, or buildings you pass on your commute, and you're bound to find other victims of neglect.

"Almost anything can be saved, with money," Baker said. "It's amazing how people have been able to take buildings that are literally falling apart and save them. It's not that hard if you know what you're doing."

Of course, historic preservation is about much more than having a soft spot for soffits. It's about protecting the environment, since the "greenest" building is one that already exists. It's about economic development, since historic preservation creates more jobs than new construction (according to Planning Commissioners Journal), and since historic properties often drive heritage tourism and spawn nearby retail and service businesses. It's about financial security, since the value of properties in local historic districts rises faster than those in other areas. And it's about enriching our quality of life by remembering our past and retaining some of its beauty.

The motto of the National Trust for Historic Preservation is, "Helping people protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to them."

Do any of these places matter to you? If so, contact Historic Landmarks Foundation at 639-4534 or info@historiclandmarks.orgto find out what you can do to prevent more local casualties.

"We don't have to go through what New Orleans did to make a commitment to our historic properties," said Marsh Davis, president of Historic Landmarks.

Amen.



Parent is associate editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to tparent@ibj.com.
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