Saving the Past
As local leaders decide the fate of aging buildings, a look at efforts to preserve them
By Russ Gifford
(Originally published in The Weekender, 01/02/03)
Photo by Russ Gifford
The Livestock National Bank was designed by Chicago architect William L. Steele and was built in 1920. SiouxLandmark members hope they can save the dilapidated structure.
"To give a 100-year-old building another six months? Is that too much to ask?"
That's the central question posed by SiouxLandmark, an organization dedicated to preventing the destruction of Sioux City's architectural heritage. Over the years, these volunteer preservationists have asked this question at critical junctions, acting as advocates for buildings that are marked for removal, and frequently have no other defenders.
As an organization, SiouxLandmark has only one tool - awareness. Their goals are to make the community aware of the importance of these buildings, which have included Historic Fourth Street and the Castle on the Hill, and their value to the community.
"These buildings set us apart from the different towns. They are part of the character and charm of our city. This is our heritage, and no one else has these buildings," said Glenda Castleberry, President of SiouxLandmark.
Renovating and recovering these structures has become recognized as a vital piece of heritage, tourism and economic growth across the nation. Noteworthy Midwest projects have included Lincoln's Hay Market and Kansas City's Westport Historic district.
"Beginning in the '90s, the federal and state agencies began supporting historic preservation with tax credits, recognizing the value of maintaining these buildings," said Patty Heagel, economic development director for Sioux City.
The efforts of SiouxLandmark haven't come without opposition. Sioux City leaders are called on regularly to decide the fate of one building or another. Last year it was the Sioux City Auditorium, while this year the old East High School has come into the spotlight.
Currently there are a number of buildings around Sioux City slated for destruction which the volunteers at SiouxLandmark are working to preserve. Some of those projects include the Livestock National Bank in the stockyards, as well as the few remaining historic buildings on 4th Street between Pierce and Nebraska streets.
SiouxLandmark's other goal is to make people aware of the dangers to these buildings, not only from development, but from fire and flood, as well. Most often, it is the promise of new development that puts SiouxLandmark on the front line in preservation of a building.
"It is important that businesses are aware of what other uses are available for an historic building," said Tim Orwig, a founding member of SiouxLandmark, and a charter member of Sioux City's Historical Preservation Commission. The Call Terminal building on Fourth Street, for instance, was renovated from retail and office space to include an apartment units.
Advocacy for buildings is considered by some to be in the path of progress and often leads to vocal opposition. Witness the clashes over the years on numerous projects, beginning with Sioux City's downtown "urban renewal" years from the late 1960s to the '80s, up to recent debates over the fate of the Morningside Fire Station. While opponents argue that new buildings could be built for far less that the cost of renovating aging buildings or neighborhoods, architecture and history advocates lament the loss of an irreplaceable link to the city's history.
Too often, when a building is targeted for destruction, the issue becomes one of "it's old and ugly." Castleberry's response is direct. "Walk away from your home for 60 years, and see what it looks like," she said. "I try to explain to people that in 50 or 100 years, our beautiful new art center will be an old building. Someday someone might be struggling to retain the history and the heritage that this building represents of our time."
Most often, though, the deciding factor is about dollars and cents, opponents say.
Castleberry is no starry-eyed idealist - she knows all about the fiscal bottom line. In her "day job," she puts hard numbers on paper for projects with SIMPCO, the Siouxland Interstate Metropolitan Planning Council, and making dollar and cents arguments there, as well. Rather, she argues for preservation in terms of dollars and sense.
But don't expect Castleberry or any of the other volunteers on the SiouxLandmark group to back down because of the money issue or the answer isn't apparent at the moment. "Just because we can't find a use in six months, is there anything wrong with waiting? Could we not wait for someone that might make use of the building, saving it for the future?"
Waiting has made the difference numerous times between an historic building being retained, or becoming a permanent loss, Castleberry said. "When the Cook School was vacated, who would have thought it would be used by Lamb Theatre? Or that the Carnegie Library would be renovated into an apartment complex?"
But with so many buildings, which ones are important to save? How does SiouxLandmark choose when to advocate retention? "In a perfect world, we try to save anything that is really important," said Castleberry. There are three key criteria to decide what is important:
• Is the architect of significance?
• Does the building represent a significant or unique style?
• Did an important event happen in or near this building, or does it represent events important to understanding Siouxland's history?
Obviously, not everyone agrees on what is important, and what isn't.
Photo by Mike Northrup
The Hose House is among the buildings on local preservationists' endangered list.
Recently, SiouxLandmark's volunteers have had some high profile examples of why they are in existence. The Morningside Fire House was recently remodeled and updated. This unique California brick bungalow firehouse, built in 1917, appeared almost friendless at the beginning of the process, and seemed destined for destruction. One member of the City Council was quoted as saying "all I see is an old building - it just does not look historic." Council members were initially convinced that it would be too costly to remodel, and members of the Fire Department, tired of working from cramped quarters, were equally concerned that the building - no matter how updated - would never meet their needs as a modern fire station.
As in most cases, the bottom line was cost. City Council members were adamant in demanding that the project make fiscal sense. Often this is where historic preservation is derailed, when sides cannot agree that there is a "value" in retaining an historic building, and that is a crucial point in advocacy.
SiouxLandmark members are quick to point out that they have never "saved" a building through a purchase of restoration project. "All we can do is advocate to the owners that there are other options for that building," said Castleberry.
But, in the case of the fire station, that was enough. In the end, all sides were happy: The Mayor and members of the City Council appeared at the rededication of the building, and voiced their pleasure at being able to merge fiscal responsibility and historic preservation; The fire fighters are proud of their new building; And the members of SiouxLandmark are happy to see another piece of Sioux City's character retained.
But while this renovation project was a success, recognize this fact: Had the 3-2 vote that favored restoration over new construction swung the other way, the building would be gone today. Eventually the final pricetag for the renovation was $730,000, which included a new addition to the building.
For every win, there are losses. Since this article began, at least one building has been demolished despite the advocacy of the SiouxLandmark group. The Atherton House, a private home at 4103 Perry Way in Sioux City, listed by the Society of Architectural Historians as "one of the state's most important moderne houses" was torn down recently.
Photo courtesy Pearl Street Research Center
The Younkers-Martin Building, shown here in 1928, stood at what is now the corner of Nebraska and Fourth streets. The building's destruction is considered by Tim Orwig to be a turning point in historic preservation in Sioux City.
Thus, SiouxLandmark has another function, as well. The volunteers spend time compiling files of significant buildings in Siouxland, and applying to have them placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which maintains lists of historic buildings and sites. "It takes about six months to complete the research, and about a month to do the documentations," said Castleberry, who said that documentation must include photos and blueprints of the structure. "Then, it requires another two to three weeks to write the narratives to complete the process."
After an application is filed, it may take as long a year for the National Register to decide to accept the building. Acceptance does not protect the location or the building, but it does give the advocacy groups such as SiouxLandmark leverage when the building is facing an uncertain future, said Grace Linden, of the Pearl Street Research Center.
The result is a living record, said Castleberry. Future historians for Sioux City, or people tracing an architectural style, or a particular architect, will at least have access to the information and the pictures. Even if the application is not successful, the building's information may be retained at the Sioux City Musuem's Pearl Street Research Center.
Advocacy for historic preservation is not an easy process, nor is it a quick one, Castleberry said. The examples are important. "Lower 4th" was for many years an embarrassment to Sioux City, and in the 1980s, City Council discussions included how to bulldoze this "red light district."
"It took almost 20 years of volunteers leading tours, pointing up to the lovely terra cotta, the stone work, before the business community started to see the possibilities," said Castleberry. Today, the area is known as Historic Fourth Street, and this heart of old Sioux City is again a prominent part of the community. It also is recognized as a magnet for local shoppers and tourists and is a great example of how historic preservation can enrich a community.
While SiouxLandmark always welcomes volunteers, Castleberry cautions anyone who expresses interest. "If you don't have the heart and guts to stay in this, you won't last. For every success, you will lose some. That's just how it is." Castleberry's tone clearly conveyed a sense of someone who has seen the losses. She has been a volunteer preservationist for 20 years.
But she and others in Siouxland continue their efforts. "I think the community would expect me to say something, to at least ask the questions: 'Do we really have to tear this building down? Is it really necessary,' " said Castleberry. "This is our heritage, and it is what makes our community unique.
|The Watch List|
preservation requires patience, perseverance, and persistence. Over the past
dozen years there have been numerous victories for SiouxLandmark, and for
Siouxland. But there have also been losses. Tim Orwig complied this list of
the ten most endangered buildings in Siouxland, as well as a "watch list" of
buildings and areas at risk or in transition.
Ten Most Endangered Sioux City Buildings