Springfield’s lazy, hazy, razing days of summer
July 24, 1981
I have noted in several settings how important Springfield’s old buildings were to my understanding of history and of my own identity. I took their careless destruction personally, which disqualified me as a reporter on the trend but qualified me perfectly as a critic.
"The automobile [is] the mechanical cockroach that has eaten our cities."
Guy Davenport, in The Geography of the Imagination
The Greeks told the tale of Erysichton, who destroyed the trees in a sacred grove favored by Ceres, and was cursed by her with a hunger so vast that "no abundance shall ever satisfy him." He even sold his daughter to buy food; in the end, he devoured himself in a fatal attempt to appease his appetite. I thought of Erysichton the other day when I read that three more landmark buildings in downtown Springfield are going to be torn down to make way for parking lots.
For example, St. John's Hospital plans to destroy the seventy-five-year-old Culver Construction Co. stoneworks "castle" on Ninth Street. This is not exactly news; next to termites, old buildings in Springfield have no worse enemy than churches and hospitals. St. John's may be exempt from taxation, but it should not be exempt from condemnation. To St. John's I say, "Physicians, heel thyselves!"
Of even greater import is the decision by Blaine Stuches and Earl Roland to tear down two late 19th-century commercial buildings they own on Fifth Street, just south of Monroe. Both buildings are part of the downtown national historic district established in 1978. In published interviews, Stuches has expressed his regrets over the impending destruction. Like most downtown property owners, he pleads necessity; he is, he hints, as much a victim of the market as his buildings. He and his partner, you see, also own the twelve-story Ridgely Building across the street, at Fifth and Monroe. Built in 1927, the building housed the Ridgely Farmers State Bank, which went bust in '32. It is one of the very few major downtown buildings to survive the modernization blight of the 1960s, which resulted in its once-distinguished neighbors up and down Monroe Street—from the United Mine Workers Building at Fourth to the Ferguson Building at Sixth—being made to look like farm implement dealerships.
Stuches and Roland have announced their intention to restore the Ridgely Building. This is happy news. But Stuches, noting that the building is now only 70 percent occupied, has said he needs more parking space for tenants, even though there are 2,756 parking spaces within a two-block radius of the building, according to the regional planning commission's 1981 parking survey.
Is this folly? Is the sky blue? There is a shortage of first-class, reasonably priced office space downtown. The people who manage some of the largest buildings agree that of the many factors that determine a building's rentability—location, prestige, maintenance, cost per foot, design—parking is a problem, but not the problem. Given the existing inventory of on- and off-street spaces, given the possibilities (so far untested) of expanding existing surface lots vertically (perhaps using low-interest industrial development bonds or the new tax increment financing plan recently proposed by city hall) access to parking would not seem to be insuperable. Expensive, yes. Insuperable, no.
Stuches asserted to the State Journal-Register eight months ago that the Fifth Street buildings were dilapidated fire traps. So they are. But so was the Maldaner's Building before Carolyn Oxtoby converted it into high-class apartments. So was the laundry that restaurateur George Baur reopened as the Opera House. So was the Hickox House (site of the celebrated local pub, Norb Andy's) until Charles Gramlich decided to rehabilitate it into an office. So was . . . but the point has been made a hundred times. One man's fire trap is another man's opportunity.
One of the surprises that adulthood held in store for me was the realization that people who own big buildings (who I, in the innocence of youth, believed to be influential) were in reality merely the errand boys for the "market." The market told them how to use their buildings, at what price, and on whose behalf, told them when to build or destroy, to buy or sell.
Perhaps. Still, I wonder how the market—which ultimately is merely the public expression of collective private anxieties, hopes, and greeds recast as law—is shaped by the fact that so many of the men and women who own and develop property are busy people who drive big cars, individualists whose impatience with things like speed limits and no parking zones and zoning codes is so elaborated as to amount to a political philosophy. Given who has a hand in their drafting, it is no surprise that the laws of the marketplace place little value on fine workmanship or graceful architecture, and none at all on coherence or continuity or diversity.
If the market attaches no value to these things, government, representing the public rather than the private interest, must. Officially, the City of Springfield is pursuing an aggressive redevelopment policy, whose ultimate aim is to make such properties as the Fifth Street buildings too valuable to use as parking lots. But for the moment the city does less to protect its dwindling inventory of historic structures than it does to protect stray dogs. The city is being run by a businessman-mayor who was elected on a pledge to bring a business approach to city hall.
Thus the city shies from punitive measures, preferring to develop what it calls "positive incentives" for redevelopment. What that means is the city worries less about helping property owners keep buildings standing than it does about helping them make money from them. The "market" continues to rule that it is not possible to do both; while it waits for wisdom, the city allows the wreckers to work on.
The city code attaches as little value to historic buildings as the market does. It fails to even address the issues of preservation technology in its building code, for example, and the sections of the zoning law pertaining to the historic district are ludicrously lax. All one needs to destroy a building in the downtown S-3 zoning district is a demolition permit. There is talk of making parking lots a "conditional permitted use" downtown, which would at least offer an opportunity for a public hearing and city council review of such projects. But while the city is not even close to voting on such a reform, it has found time to develop a revised animal control law which, if passed, will allow the city to file criminal charges against pet owners who carelessly allow their dogs to be killed in traffic. There is no such penalty for property owners who carelessly let buildings die.
I can't think of a single building that was saved because of the city's positive incentives, though I can think of a whole bunch that were lost because it lacks negative ones The city could, through its taxation policies, building codes, and zoning laws make it unprofitable, illegal, or embarrassing to tear down historic buildings. That would be bad business, true. But it would be good government.
While city hall chats on about positive incentives, the city is falling down around its ears. Redevelopment schemes to repopulate the resulting sores, such as the tax increment financing plan now being drafted, are well enough, except that they miss the central points about preservation: 1) Building a new building is more expensive than salvaging an old one; and 2) no matter who builds them or who designs them or how much they cost, new buildings will never be as well made, and probably not as handsome, as what stands there now. ●
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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