When is it worth preserving historic or iconic buildings?

The Sandstone school in Sandstone, Minn., was constructed with local sandstone in the Richardson Romanesque style with massive arches and bastions in 1901 and later rebuilt after a fire in 1909 destroyed the interior. The impressive structure currently sits vacant and serves as backdrop for modest residential homes. Here, neighborhood resident Brynn Kenowski, 4, picks dandelions on June 11, 2013. Brynn and her family live across the street from the school. (Ann Arbor Miller for MPR)

Ground Level from MPR News: It looms in the heart of town, perhaps an old school or a hotel, stone or brick, big and empty. Infrastructure from the past but no longer in demand, it occupies high ground, an architect-designed, iconic building made of solid local materials. It once was a town’s soul. Now it’s a problem.

Residents in hundreds of Minnesota towns in recent years have wrestled with what to do with prominent old buildings that no longer define the community. The efficiency of demolition weighs against an instinct to preserve. Many have struggled to find new uses, to create new souls.

Through ambition and imagination and energy, schools have turned into senior living facilities, and hotels have become art centers. Churches have become bookstores, and creameries have become coffee and quilt shops. Many others have fallen to the bulldozer.

This Ground Level project portrays the difficulties, the angst, the cost and the lessons learned by people making an effort to refresh their towns by saving an icon.

Today’s Question: When is it worth preserving historic or iconic buildings?

  • rperschmann

    When is it not? One that has me fuming is the Saarinen TWA terminal, the gateway to the universe, in New York. This ultra modern work of art is being lost… after a significant restoration. This building is every bit as beautiful as the finest projects of Frank Lloyd Wright… which I also love. Saarinen is the man who designed the Gateway Arch and the Tulip chairs. It’s like throwing away the Eifel Tower to build a roller coaster.

  • James

    Old buildings should be preserved when they have utility and economic viability with no, or extremely limited public investment required. It is a fine line between a nice old building and a white elephant. Like it or not, the cost of meeting regulatory standards (ADA, etc.), heating and cooling and providing modern telecommunications infrastucture is going to relegate some nice old buildings to the scrap heap.

  • Gary F

    Lead paint, asbestos in the pipe insulation and ceiling tile adhesives, mold, lack of insulation, inefficient windows, lack of ADA compliant ramps/elevators, outdated mechanical and electrical systems, all redone to make a coffee shop?

    At whose expense?

    Are all the pot holes and roads fixed in these towns? Their schools funded?Their public employee pension funds solvent? Senior mobility projects funded?

    Nice to have versus need to have?

  • Owen

    It is worth it when those who want it preserved are willing to pay the cost. Tax money should not be involved.

  • david

    Shame to see some of those old schools go. Having grown up since 4th grade in an outer suburb, I attended school in the most uninspiring cinder block pole barns apathetic communities could conceive. Now small towns are dying and I can’t see many being able to afford to repurpose these buildings after generations of building public infrastructure being scorned as a bad thing. Without a vibrant tourist business the private sector won’t take on the risk. Easier to bulldoze and slap up a precast walmart. Who needs a soul.

  • JQP

    here is a case of small-minded, short-sighted, in-the-box thinking.
    1) the district and the community should have been seeking to sell that building for $1 the day the decided to build a new school somewhere else.

    2) if the building didn’t sell, then immediately after transfer to the new school – they should have sold everything of value ( copper pipes, hardwood floors, trim-wood, doors, windows, stone work, etc. ) with Buyer to remove ant own expense)

    3) after all value is extracted from building. – raze the site for future development.

  • PaulJ

    That’s a question for the specialists and the locals. I mean, I think my boyhood home should be preserved but that’s just one man’s opinion.