Erasing history: When it comes to old buildings, preservation commission has limited power

Friday, December 9, 2011
The steeple of Trinity Lutheran Church peeks out from behind the demolition of the buildings at 501 Broadway by Sabre Excavating out of Thebes, Ill. begin Thursday morning, Dec. 8, 2011 in Cape Girardeau. Demolition of the building should be completed in a week. Trinity Lutheran Church leaders have said they intend to put in a parking lot, green space or a mixture of the two. (Laura Simon)

The Cape Girardeau Historic Preservation Commission was created in 1990 with a special purpose -- to monitor, encourage and protect buildings of special historic, aesthetic or architectural significance.

More than 25 years later, the buildings in the 500 block of Broadway earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places, which is touted as "America's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation."

On Thursday, neither of those distinctions made any difference to the crew that began demolishing a 105-year-old building at Broadway and Middle Street.

The building, in the Broadway-Middle Commercial Historic District because of its architecture, will be demolished within a week. It was recently purchased by Trinity Lutheran Church to make way for a parking lot, green space or both, church leaders have said. Some, including Mayor Harry Rediger, say the building should come down because downtown needs more parking.

Repairing the building would have been costly, such as $30,000 to fix a west wall, according to a church official. A 2009 city fire marshal report said the wall was pulling away from the main structure.

The eradication of such buildings and the endangered status of others have caused some to take the commission to task about what it has done -- or seemingly failed to do -- to prevent that from happening.

The fact of the matter, according to commissioners, city officials and local historic preservation experts is this: The commission has limited power when it comes to saving certain buildings and there was little they could have done in this or other cases.

"There's really nothing we can do, other than try to be advocates for historic preservation," commission chairman Scott House said. "In the past, I thought there was some unfair criticism from people who ought to know better."

The criticism came when there was a fear that the old Jefferson School was going to fall victim to the wrecking ball. One person publicly suggested the commission should have done more to save it.

Just this week, it was announced that the building had a new owner who hoped to renovate it as a place to relocate the Prodigy Leadership Academy.

But at a recent commission meeting, House led off discussions addressing those criticisms by reminding those in attendance what the commission can and cannot do within the city's ordinances.

For example, the only real regulatory powers the commission has is over properties that have been designated local landmarks, which is not the same thing as being on the national register.

There are 18 sites and structures listed on the local landmarks register, including the Hunze House, the Reynolds House and Hanover Lutheran Church.

Local landmarks also include the Boulevard Local Historic District, which is an area with boundaries north of Broadway, east of West End Boulevard, west of Henderson Avenue, the 300 block of North Park Avenue and properties on both sides of Highland, Hillcrest and Rockwood drives.

During his talk at the meeting, House told commissioners the city's municipal code is directed at those properties with local landmark designations and it doesn't give them any jurisdiction over a property simply because it's on the national register.

By contrast, 20 sites on the national register are not on the local register, which includes the building at 501 Broadway, the Esquire Theater and Kage School. There are also eight National Register Historic Districts that are not local landmarks.

"The key is the word 'local,'" House said. "If it's not been designated a local landmark, we don't have any control over it when the owners want to change them or tear them down."

The only thing the commission can do to a national-register building is ask that it be removed from the national register if the building loses its "historic qualities," House said.

If a building is a local landmark, then the commission reviews plans for the building's renovation and issues a certificate of appropriateness if the plans don't disturb the building's historic integrity.

Other than that, the commission's role is largely to serve as an advocate, said Steven Hoffman, coordinator of the historic preservation program at Southeast Missouri State University and the commission's unofficial adviser.

Hoffman particularly likes one idea that the commission is bandying around -- the creation of a local endangered buildings list. The commission intends to discuss the idea further at its meeting later this month.

Such a list would call people's attention to buildings that could be facing the wrecking ball or that are simply being left to stand derelict, Hoffman said.

"Its intention would be to energize a community," Hoffman said. "A lot of times people don't even really know that a building is threatened. By the time they do, it's too late. Endangered lists can really help shine a light on properties in danger."

Hoffman noted that properties that have been on the state's endangered list locally include the old Jefferson School, the Reynolds House and the old Marquette Hotel. Those buildings are all still standing, he said.

"If we could have anywhere near that kind of success at a local level, it would be awesome," Hoffman said.

Hoffman agreed that blaming the commission for buildings that are lost misses the point. The community has to change, he said. A greater awareness and appreciation of preservation has to be cultivated, he said.

"But I think we're on the right track," Hoffman said.


Pertinent address:

501 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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