Tag Archives: past to present

When You Can’t Save Everything

Where is the highest current shadow inventory? The largest concentration of vacant, abandoned, foreclosed or soon to be foreclosed properties? Not likely in a suburban cul-de-sac. We’re talking about the economically heaviest hit parts of America…in and around the urban core. No one city knows how bad it can get than Detroit, Michigan, because no one city experienced the wrath of the Great Recession with as much devastation. Now, today…no one city has pulled itself out of the ashes with as much progress, creativity, and potential. The rest of the country should be learning. It’s like a gift of prevention. It is also one that comes with making some tough and often difficult and unpopular decisions.

It’s big picture time. And unfortunately we can’t save everything. Which starts getting really hard to decide what to save and what not to save when pretty much every building in your core is of historic age. Options?

  1. Restore (within recommendations from the National Trust for Historic Preservation). This method ensures the visual representation of the building will continue to tell its historically significant story for generations to come.
  2. Rehab- Make it livable by creating investor opportunities, which often comes with the loss of some of a property’s historic attributes.
  3. Reuse- Imagine an old gas station transformed into an ice cream shop. An old Queen Anne Victorian painted in pink and purple stripes on the outside and gutted on the inside to become a dance studio for kids.
  4. Demolition

Number four is what everyone should want to avoid.  When you look at the big picture…versus demolition, the pink and purple house doesn’t sound so bad.


So how can anyone determine which gems in the giant jewelry box need to be fully protected? Here’s where we can really learn something from our friends in Detroit. I was fortunate to have the opportunity last month to go to a presentation by Emilie Evans, Detroit’s Preservation Specialist at Michigan Historic Preservation Network. Evans taught us through her own experiences, that creating an informative inventory is everything. Using trained volunteers and smart phone data collection, their network was able to determine the homes most in need of historic preservation, the rest marked for rehabilitation or reuse. Here is her article entitled “Rightsizing Conversation.”

By using proven programs such as the one Evans created, adding a dash of community support and a pinch of creativity, our country can continue on its progression towards recovery without hastily (or greedily) destroying some of the most significant examples of history and historic architecture that stands within and around our urban cores.

The Federal “Hardest Hit Fund” was created in 2010 for the purpose of using $7.6 billion in federal funds to help people in the 18 hardest hit states in the nation stay in their homes. Since that didn’t work out so well the funds are now being used to pay for demolishing homes in blighted areas.

So why are so many organizations and city leaders heralding the use of Hardest Hit Fund monies for demolition? The answer is in the potential for more money. Many areas are literally out of room to develop. In some cities these fund are being used to go beyond the removal of vacant or dangerous blight to all out eminent domain. Here’s just one story out of Charlestown, Indiana.

An emptied lot is grounds for new construction and profit. Back in the 1950s demolition, new construction, and large scale development was believed to indicate progress. This is also the same era that touted that DDT was so safe you could eat it. We’re smarter now, right?

The last and final argument in avoiding demolition – natural resources. If a building is feasibly salvageable, why destroy the natural resources already put in place then turn around and consume more natural resources to build something new? We take the time to recycle a wad of tinfoil but still don’t get it when it comes to recycling buildings.

When all options have been exhausted, sometimes a dangerous building is going to have to come down. That lot can be used for recreation, a community garden, or something else of benefit to the community. At that point – when we are taking care of the infrastructure already put in place – then, we can build more.

Past to Present Research LLC

Audrey L Elder

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Posted by on November 17, 2014 in Historic Preservation


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Rural Urbanism?

In the last several years, my travels have taken me to Denver Colorado, Washington D.C., Dallas Texas, Chicago Illinois, Detroit Michigan, and Phoenix Arizona. Not to mention the dozens and dozens of towns I have visited with my husband in a quest to have seen every town in the state of Missouri.

There is an excitement that used to exist in the thrill of experiencing something new. To visually see the culture of someplace I had never seen before. From the airport to the city destination, a ride through the suburbs typically introduces the landscape of the region. City after city, town after town, highway after by-way….they all look the same.

CVS, Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Home Depot, McDonalds, Bed Bath and Beyond. You get the point. The same buildings, the same businesses, the same colors. The only differences are Oak trees vs. Palm Trees. Mountains vs. Plains. There is nothing unique about anywhere in America until you find its old downtown core, if it is still standing. Adventure St. Charles

It might only be one block long, or four blocks squared, however it is artwork in a world where every canvas has the same painting. This, my fellow Americans, is where the future wants to be, and if your suburb or your rural historic downtown has even a thread of salvage-ability to it, it is time to start investing.

This is about generations, and the cultures that go with them. These are the places that get visited, lived in, and most of all where wallets open up. Almost every town has an historic downtown. Provide the benefits people are looking for (especially the Millenials) and like a perfect garden…watch it grow. Not only do unique retail and dining establishments thrive in these areas, they are wanted! These are the type of establishments that can naturally survive the big box chains. Even more with the growing trend of conscious consumerism, these are the places those purchases are likely to be found. If you need any more convincing, designated commercial buildings can use Federal Historic Tax Credits for restoration (which is the greenest –Extreme Green Campaign– choice available).
Here in Missouri, we still have State Historic Tax Credits, and quite honestly these tax credits are often the only way some downtown’s can be revived, increasing commerce, homeownership, and decreasing crime.

In regards to this topic, 2013 Target Market Visitors to the State of Missouri participated in the following:
48% Shopping
39% Dining at Unique Local Restaurants
18% Visiting a Historic Site
17% Visiting Quaint Attractions/Small Towns
8% Wineries
6% Breweries
Data provided by SMARI Ad/PR Effectiveness Study-CY13

If you already have a growing downtown keep it going! And by the way…keep it open. 70% of all purchases in downtown areas happen after 6pm Roger Brooks International.

Here’s to Happy Historic Sustainability!

Audrey L. Elder
Past to Present Research LLC
Research, Consulting and Education

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Posted by on August 14, 2014 in Uncategorized


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Why A Plaque Doesn’t Always Mean Designation

PlaqueIn a neighborhood I once lived, there were two houses nearby with matching black plaques at the front of their yards marking them as historic homes. Only one of these houses, though, is on the National Register of Historic Places. How can that be?

Just because a historic home or building has a plaque doesn’t mean that it’s listed on the National Register. You can put a plaque on anything for any reason, really. I once even saw a plaque that read, “On this site in 1897, nothing happened.” But in all seriousness a plaque typically denotes significance, just not always designation. Cities may deem a property as a local landmark, or a local historical society like the Native Sons and Daughters of Greater Kansas City might recognize special properties or places that tell a story. Such is the case with the two matching plaques previously mentioned.

One of many plaques YOU could have at your property. Available for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

One of many plaques YOU could have at your property. Available for properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Listing a property on the National Register is just another way of recognizing its significance. And by “significance,” I don’t necessarily mean that someone famous slept there or died there. Sure, people associated with the property could give it enough credence to designate it as a historic property, but it could also be considered for the architecture, the architect, the era in which it was built, and, in the cases of historic districts, the surrounding properties that give context to a larger story. Having one or more of these qualities might just make your property eligible. This is applicable not only to homes, but also to commercial buildings, schools, barns and farmsteads, bridges, etc. If you’d like to know if your property is eligible, inquire with the State Historic Preservation Office.

But the layperson usually can’t describe what it means to be designated without rattling off one of numerous misconceptions. The most widely accepted myth is that a designated National Register property will be subject to all sorts of government regulations, and you won’t be able to do anything to improve your property without being penalized. This is far from the truth. In reality, this designation puts no restrictions on the property unless federal preservation tax credits have been used to fund projects. In fact, listing your property could make you eligible to use those tax credits to knock things off of your “honey do” list.

Here’s the thing. A house, a building, is actually a living thing. We don’t expect it to be stagnant and non-functional. By design, our homes are meant to be functional and assist us in the lives we live. Feel free to update that kitchen or bath without fear of being shunned or stripped of your historic designation. You don’t have to choose between historic and functional — you can have both! Even a plaque, if you want it.

For further clarification on all of your pressing questions about the National Register, read this article from the Preservation Nation Blog that goes into detail about all of those facts and fallacies.


Liana Twente

Past to Present Research, LLC

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Posted by on November 13, 2013 in Historic Preservation


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Urban Legends

We huddled around the tiny screen of a friend’s smart phone as the buffering circle spun to load the anticipated You Tube video.  Garbled sound and low light came into place to reveal a local reporter dressed like Robert Stack from Unsolved Mysteries, standing in front of the grand three-story Second Italian Renaissance Revival mansion.

I’d heard the legend.  Anyone who knew of the house had.  This was our latest research project.  The reporter quickly made his way through the first floor and into…the BASEMENT!  Scared yet?  Yeah, I wasn’t either.  He moves through the tunnel to the large vault like door…Ahhhh!!!  A wall!!!  A wall covered in flat thin metal sheets, and behind that wall?  Al Capone’s hits, of course.

The homeowner gave us a tour as well.  The non-creepy version.  We walked through the tunnel, which leads to a stairway into the carriage house, through the door and all stood gathered at the famous tunnel’s end.  I had to pipe up.  I lived outside of Chicago for a couple of years.  “There’s a river right over there.  They would have got a brick and some rope and…” Everyone got the picture.

So maybe Al Capone had been in that house.  The original homeowner had ties to Chicago.  He was also a Doctor of “Special Medicine” and Capone could have used his services.  Beyond that, it’s simply an Urban Legend until fully, and I mean fully verified.

There’s the home that claims to be part of the Underground Railroad, the many that claim Jesse James hid here or President Truman played cards there.  We include these legends in the final book, we just blatantly disclaim they are unproven.  Sometimes we can verify a story, which is quite an exciting event giving faith to orally shared history throughout the generations.

As for what is behind the wall at the end of the tunnel?  I don’t know.  The homeowner got behind a small portion of it once only to have several wheel barrels full of garbage and debris to haul out.   If I had to guess of anything spectacular in there I’d pick some bootlegged whisky.  However, that’s my personal guess and the legend is plenty mysterious enough without me adding to it.

Audrey L. Elder

Past to Present Research



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