Too Far Gone to be Saved?

I had an interesting juxtaposition tonight.

As I listened tonight to the sound of bricks, plaster and concrete from North Intermediate School being loaded into dump trucks, I was reading an article in Preservation magazine, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And it got me thinking.

What we heard from the owner of North, of course, was that, upon inspection, the building was too far gone to be saved.

Over the years, we’ve heard that a lot in Saginaw. The Feige’s building was too far gone to be saved. The old LaSalle Lounge is too far gone to be saved. Most of our downtown was too far gone to be saved. Even several of the buildings that have been or are being saved.

So let’s take a look at a picture.

BookCadillac2

All the copper has been looted. The leaky ceiling has left the plaster completely destroyed. It’s infested with vermin.

Clearly, as any lay person can see, this building is too far gone to be saved. About two years ago, I took a tour, with City Council members and members of Saginaw’s Downtown Development Authority board, through buildings on the 200 block of East Genesee. This is the kind of thing we saw. Some city officials and several members of the DDA board said “these buildings are too far gone to be saved.”

Now, let’s take a look at the room pictured above … as it looks today.

BookCadillac3

This was, and is, the Venetian Ballroom in the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit.

Now, let’s take a look at a another building, an industrial structure. Been vacant for many years. It, too, had all the scrappable metal removed, had been badly damaged by water infiltration, wildlife and vandals.

BaltimoreDesign1

To Saginaw, definitely too far gone to be saved, right?

This building is in Baltimore, and the complete derelict state it was in made it an appropriate setting for occasional scenes of the HBO drama series The Wire. Today, though, it’s a featured story in Preservation:

BaltimoreDesign2

Let’s think about this. In Baltimore, they took a seriously compromised industrial building and, being creative with the financing, turned it into a school.

In Saginaw, we can’t take a school building that’s in far better condition and turn it into anything except a pile of rubble.

Why?

Because we’ve always done it this way. We got on the urban renewal, if-it’s-old-get-rid-of-it bandwagon in the ’50s. But unlike nearly every other city that has successfully launched a rebirth, we’ve stayed on that bandwagon.

Despite evidence before our very own eyes that it’s foolish. The Temple Theatre (which came perilously close to being razed), the Bancroft/Eddy buildings, the Strouse-Hopkins apartments, most of the bars in Old Saginaw City, Jake’s, the Cathedral District … if you look at some of the most important projects in Saginaw, “old” buildings are at the center of them.

Maybe we’ll learn someday. Hopefully, we’ll still have a few historic buildings left when we do.

But in the meantime, when you hear people around here say, “it’s too far gone to be saved,” understand that they’re probably not talking about the building.  They’re talking about their attitude.

Photos of the Book Cadillac from The Morning News and the Book Cadillac Westin. Baltimore School of Design photos from Preservation. 
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3 thoughts on “Too Far Gone to be Saved?

  1. In Washington DC when old buildings were demolished, the developer had to preserve the facade of the building and thus many 10 story modern office and condo buildings still retain the history, look and feel of an older city. If I were spearheading a Saginaw revival, I’d give a tax abatement, free land, to any developer that would create a building with the face of any building from pictures of downtown taken between 1910- 1955.

    • New Orleans has similar laws to protect the historical character of the buildings in the French Quarter. It works to preserve if you want it to happen!

  2. Note that “too far gone to be saved” is really not true about any structure. As long as you have photos or information on what the structure looked like, you can replicate architectural details, bricks and virtually anything else with fairly high quality reproductions. I taught at a college that turned a single-story former Carnegie Library into a two-story journalism building. The building was reduced to a shell, the bricks lined with plexiglass to keep the historical facade, and a new structure built inside of it. The rooms had some highly eccentric fenestration when viewed from inside, and those windows didn’t open, but it worked; the result was an up-to-date, modern building, inside a 100-year old (now) facade. But the only issue, of course, is money. That building was restored by Dan Quayles family’s endowment and thus the Pulliam School of Journalism had the snazziest building on campus, I have seen at least one multistory building, with the same plexiglass restructuring, that was now merely a parking lot (I believe the Michigan Theater in Detroit had a similar transformation). You need the right investors who see the value of the investment’s return. Not easy to find currently in some parts of Michigan and the Great Lakes region, I fear!

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