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For Urban Preservationists, Six Big Saves

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s new list of the most endangered places in the U.S. looks back at 30 years of going to bat for buildings in need.

Little Rock Central High School, one of the 11 preserved places highlighted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. (Carol Highsmith/courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Today, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its marquee list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.” This is the 30th anniversary of the annual list, so the Trust added an appropriately history-minded twist: They dug back into three decades of these lists—more than 270 places—to highlight some of the best successes.

The full list boasts some classic once-endangered places, like the Lewis and Clark campsite at Travelers’ Rest in Montana and Nine Mile Canyon in Utah, a Native American site that practically doubles as an outdoor art gallery. And there’s Antietam, the Civil War battlefield that successfully fought off an invasion by a shopping mall in 1988. (Disclosure: My fallback job is working at my family’s Civil War antique store in nearby Gettysburg, so my very-biased opinion is that Antietam is only the second-greatest United States Civil War battlefield.)

All this is very cool, but for our purposes we’ll focus on preservation wins that survived urban renewal: Here’s a murderer’s row of city sites, and the battles that saved them.

An aerial view of Governors Island (Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation)

Governors Island – New York City
from the 1998 Most Endangered List

Check out that view of New York’s skyline from Governors Island—you can’t tell me some developer wouldn’t have hopped on the historical kitsch wagon to build on this 172-acre island across from Lower Manhattan. Home to America’s longest running military post, the island served as a base for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and later the U.S. Army and the Coast Guard from 1776 to 1995. The Trophée d’Armes sculpture atop Fort Jay’s Arch was also designed by Joseph Mangin, the architect of New York’s City Hall.

When budget cuts closed the base in 1995, no one was quite sure what to do with it. President Clinton designated the island as a National Park Service site on his way out the door in 2001 and the land was sold to the city in 2002. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki put out a call in 2007 for ideas to transform the island into a proper public amenity. While the island is still trying to find tenants willing to commute by ferry from its 52 landmark buildings, the 72-acre northern side boasts a new fancy park, The Hills, and attracts frequent visitors to its cultural center and music festivals.

This downtown L.A. cathedral is now hosting bat mitzvahs. (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Cathedral of St. Vibiana – Los Angeles
from the 1997 Most Endangered List

St. Vibiana opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1876 and served parisioners until it was heavily damaged in a 1994 earthquake. When the archdiocese wanted to start over on the site and removed a bell tower to begin demolition without a permit in 1996, Los Angeles preservationists protested and halted a Saturday morning demolition attempt. The parties came to compromise with a land swap: The city got the cathedral and the archdiocese got to build the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels as a successor near the 101 Freeway. The city later sold St. Vibiana and it’s been reborn as Vibiana, a wedding, event, and performing arts venue. The original cupola has even been restored.

Honorable mention: Another California city makes the National Trust’s list for the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, a point of entry for Pacific Rim immigrants from 80 different countries between 1910 and 1940.

The facades of Boston’s Paramount Theater, Boston Opera House, and Modern Theater. (National Trust for Historic Preservation)

Historic Theaters – Boston
from the 1997 Most Endangered List

The Boston Opera House, Paramount Theatre, and Modern Theater presented a test case for rehabbing old buildings to revitalize a neighborhood in the mid-1990s. The Hub’s theater district was full of dilapidated, asbestos-riddled buildings that housed adult entertainment venues. Condo builders were eager to raze the theaters for posing a fire risk. But the late Mayor Thomas Menino and city agencies worked with developers, nonprofits, and others to give the faded venues an extreme makeover, transforming them into performing arts centers for students at Emerson College and Suffolk University, as well as providing a stop for touring Broadway shows.

An integration landmark, still holding classes. (Carol Highsmith)

Little Rock Central High School – Little Rock, Arkansas
from the 1996 Most Endangered List

Built in 1927, Little Rock was the largest high school in the nation when it became the focal point of the national struggle over school de-segregation in 1957. When nine African-American students were blocked from its halls in defiance of the Supreme Court, the “Little Rock Nine” became the first students to test the strength of Brown v. Board of Education. After years of deterioration, the school needed $6.5 million in repairs and Congress established the school as a National Historic Site in November 1998. It still functions today as a public high school.

Honorable mention: Another key Civil Rights Movement site on this year’s list—the Penn School in Frogmore, South Carolina—predates Little Rock by 95 years. Founded in 1862, it was one of the first schools in the South that welcomed students freed from slavery.

History can also be shiny. (Michael Cagle)

Statler Hilton Hotel – Dallas, Texas
from the 2008 Most Endangered List

The youngest building on the list is a Modernist marvel in Dallas, Texas. Built in 1956, the Statler Hilton Hotel was the first hotel designed by architect William B. Tabler, who also penned Hiltons in Pittsburgh, New York, and Washington, D.C. The huge Y-shaped structure brimmed with mid-20th-century design features and proclaimed itself the “last word in hostelries,” with luxuries that were “unheard of at the time of its construction,” according to the Trust, including elevator music, rooftop swimming pools, and TVs in every guest room.

Hilton sold the building in 1988 to investors from Hong Kong, and interior renovations erased most the original design elements. The Statler has sat vacant since 2001, spared from demolitions during a Dallas downtown revitalization but littered with complications for potential buyers—the Trust’s 2008 release for the building cites the building’s lack of parking, low ceilings, and environmental issues such as, you guessed it, asbestos. But a $175 million renovation is now in progress. When it reopens to the public, the hotel will again be managed by Hilton Hotels and promises a lounge, restaurants, and a music venue in its 14,500 square foot ballroom.

Abraham Lincoln surveys his old summer place in Washington, D.C. (Erica Abbey/President Lincoln's Cottage)

President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home – Washington, D.C.
from the 2000 Most Endangered List

This modest Gothic-Revival cottage constructed in 1842 sits on 251 acres at the third highest point in Washington near a former “military asylum” known as Soldiers’ Home (which now functions as an Armed Forces retirement home). It was once President Lincoln’s escape from the stresses of politics during the Civil War, a suburban summer getaway in a very-fortified Washington. But the cottage fell into disrepair post-Abe, with “seeping basement floors, rotting wood windows, and outdated electricity and plumbing.” After a $15 million renovation spearheaded by the Trust, the cottage re-opened in 2008. Now this hallowed ground offers D.C. residents historical tours, book talks, and the always sold-out Bourbon and Bluegrass picnic. Seriously, someone get me a ticket.

We only dug into the anniversary list, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation has a huge list of previously endangered urban spaces. Tell us your favorites in the comments.

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