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New uses may give old buildings new lives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2012 - For many a historic building, the kiss of death comes when its doors and windows get boarded up and the structure falls into disrepair.

“As soon as you board it up, it’s the beginning of the end,” said architectural historian Christine Madrid French. “Once a building gets boarded up and it becomes an eyesore, people say, ‘Well, we can’t wait to get rid of that eyesore.’ Then the history is lost, people forget why it was built, and then it’s just a downward spiral.”

The best way to save a building may be to give it a new use.

French was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation. The conference, which attracted 250 people, ends today. It included talks, workshops and tours of famous St. Louis landmarks. 

The goal of historic preservation is to protect houses, buildings and landscapes with cultural or historical significance. But historic preservation is increasingly concerned with looking beyond the history of an individual building to its impact on the surrounding area or on the field of architecture. 

A common way to extend the life of a historic building is by repurposing its interior. Esley Hamilton, a preservation historian, noted that all but one of the buildings surrounding the City Hall in University City’s civic plaza have changed their use since the city was originally built.

“But yet the overall image has remained intact,” Hamilton said. “If you have a good environment, you need to protect it. But at the same time, I think some people feel that preservation precludes progress. I don’t think that’s true. I think historic buildings can be adapted.”

And once adapted -- appreciated. French said that architecturally interesting buildings like the Orlando Public Library in her hometown pull people in from across the country.

“I’ve talked to people and they’re like ‘oh yeah I’ve been to the Orlando public library,’” French said. “Not people in Orlando, but people from Boston, people from here [St. Louis]. When these buildings are gone you lose that connection to people, you lose that connection to the past.”

Currently French is working with the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office to survey modern structures within the city. She will list about 200 structures built between 1945 and 1975, and select about 30 for a more detailed analysis. This will include looking at the buildings' history and architect. French said that this kind of research helps people who aren’t savvy with architectural history understand why a building is important to the area.

“It will illuminate a lot of St. Louis' history from that period,” French said. “Without the context, you don’t have anything to talk about. You need to have historians do that research. That’s part of what this survey is about. What does St. Louis have, how do we get the public to understand it and know it and appreciate it?”