Failing history

Sunday, January 30, 2005

In 1991, the Orpheum Theater, a Cape Girardeau landmark that introduced talking motion pictures to the area in 1929, was reduced to rubble after inspectors noticed major roof damage.

Three years later, Southeast Missouri State University tore down the former home of Rush H. Limbaugh Sr. -- the patriarch of the city's famous first family -- to make room for a new business building.

In 1958, the Ellis-Wathen-Ranney House, built with sandstone blocks quarried by slaves from the bluff behind the house 120 years before, was taken down for a commercial development that never happened. Now, what used to be Cape Girardeau's social center is an empty lot.

So unique and striking was this home that the American Institute of Architects recommended that it be preserved by the federal government as early as 1933. In the past, its doors have been on display at the Missouri State Museum in the Capitol Building in Jefferson City.

But it's not all ancient history. Just this month, the old Eggimann Feed & Seed building at 514 Independence St. was leveled. It dated to the early 1900s and was a place where people bought agricultural supplies for nearly six decades until the store closed 10 years ago.

For every Marquette Tower -- the downtown Cape Girardeau hotel now famously saved from the wrecking ball -- there is a litany of historic structures that weren't so lucky.

It begs the question: Who is doing something to save them?

The group that comes to most people's minds is the Cape Girardeau Historic Preservation Commission, a volunteer advisory board composed of residents charged with identifying historical sites and landmarks and encouraging their preservation.

But board members say there is little they can do when a property owner is determined to tear down a building, whether it's historically significant or not. Sometimes the board doesn't find out a building has been demolished until it's too late.

Dr. Steven J. Hoffman, a Southeast Missouri State University professor who heads the historic preservation program and works with the commission, admits the commission has little authority.

"I love them and I work closely with them," he said. "But there's not much they can do. Unless it was a local landmark or a local historic district, they're not even notified. They find out a building's gone the way the rest of us do."

The group, which meets once a month, has a landmark committee that tries to go out and identify properties. They also have an educational role, such as instituting Historic Preservation Month in May and encouraging people to renovate old structures instead of tearing them down.

But the committee doesn't have authority to approve or disapprove structural changes unless that building is a local historical landmark, said Brenda Schloss, a senior planning technician with the city and staff liaison for the commission. Cape Girardeau has identified 18 local landmarks, including Old Lorimier Cemetery, the River City Heritage Museum, the Whitelaw House on Themis Street, St. Vincent's Church, the Reynolds House and the Glenn House.

If a property is among the city's 18 local landmarks, Schloss said that alteration must go before the commission, which authorizes a certificate of appropriateness.

"You can't get a building permit unless it comes through the commission," she said.

If the property owner disagrees with the commission's ruling, an appeal can be made to the city council or even the courts.

But Schloss said that the commission usually tries to work with property owners to do the alterations in a way that doesn't disturb the home's historic integrity.

Schloss said there are no restrictions on National Register sites. But if a property owner does something to damage the building's historic significance, then they could be "kicked off" the register, Schloss said, and lose tax credits.

Commissioners say they often feel relegated to the sidelines.

"We're just an advisory commission," said Scott House, who has been on the commission a few months.

The main thing the city and the Historic Preservation Commission can do, House said, is encourage landowners to rehab historic buildings by providing them the information they need.

Commission vice chairwoman Robin Oberle said the commission doesn't have a lot of legal authority.

"Every time we try to be more forceful, we're told, 'You can't do that. That may upset people,'" she said. "I don't want to point fingers, but everybody is so careful not to ruffle feathers. Our hands are tied to a great extent. It makes it hard to function as well as we'd like to."

Not that it's the commission's role to tell people what they can do with their property, she said.

"It's America, what can we do?" she said. "I don't want anybody telling me what I can do with my home. We can't say, 'Oh no, you can't do that.'"

Volunteers take heat

Oberle said people who are tempted to blame the commission when historic buildings are lost should remember they're all volunteers.

"Most of the people have full-time jobs and families," she said. "We try to do what we can with the means we have."

So is there a case to be made that the commission is too passive?

"It's a fair criticism, but don't be too harsh," Hoffman said. "It is a volunteer commission. They care about preservation."

While there are, in fact, nationally registered districts in Cape Girardeau, Hoffman said the main thing that Cape Girardeau needs is local historic districts. That could give the commission local control of such districts. Currently, there are local landmarks for individual sites, but there are no boundaried neighborhoods that carry local historic district designation. He said that the 75 percent consensus of residents in an area needed to create a district is too high.

"Maybe 51 percent or something like that would be better," he said. "You won't get 75 percent to agree on anything. The sky is blue. Today is Monday. Even then, I wouldn't put money on it."

Meanwhile, communities across Southeast Missouri struggle with they same issue. Many have lost pieces of their history throughout the years.

"You have that anywhere," said Melinda Winchester, a historic preservation consultant from Jackson.

Winchester and others are working to start a historic district in Jackson that would include the Cape Girardeau County Courthouse and have boundaries of West High Street and Main Street from Missouri Street past the courthouse.

She said it's likely the district will be formed. For most districts, maintenance and construction restrictions are put into place once districts are formed.

In Jackson, the commission has been assured by a letter from the state's historic preservation office that the state or federal government would have no control over the district's buildings until or unless the county applied for tax credits.

In Scott City, fires have taken older structures, said Carolyn Pendergrass, chair of the city's Historical Preservation Commission. Scott City lost the Bank of Illmo, the Opera House, Martin's Bakery and a hotel, most in the 1930s and 1940s.

But they've worked to save a 150-year old, one-room school that was recently moved from an old farm to town.

But there are limitations here, too.

"It's too bad everything takes money," she said. "We've wanted a museum here for years, but money's stopped us from doing anything."

In Cape Girardeau, the commission appears to have resigned itself to a resource role -- which members say offers lots of opportunities for the community to involve themselves in historic preservation.

House said business people should know that structures with history offer authenticity -- a sense of realness and originality that don't seem to be a part of modern-day blueprints.

"The Marquette is a wonderful example," he said.

Another example's is Buckner's Brewing Co. in downtown Cape Girardeau, which used to be a department store but now is a restaurant and micro-brewery. Grace Cafe is in the old Craftsman building at 835 Broadway, a building that is more than 100 years old.

"There are a lot of structures out there that can be adapted to a lot of uses," House said. "If it's a historic building, it might qualify for tax benefits. People are attracted to a rehabbed building. The best preservation is through use."

Oberle said the commission has the ability to inform, to get people to the proper outlets to find out how to restore old structures or what the best use would be.

"We can point people in the right direction," she said. "A lot of people on the commission love history and love preserving old homes. Through this love, a lot of information has been accumulated."

Hoffman said anything that can be done should be done to save these old structures.

"These buildings are tangible links to our past," he said. "When we lose buildings like these, we lose a connection to our heritage."

335-6611, extension 137

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