An abandoned public housing complex in New York. A collection of old buildings in Dallas. Rhode Island’s iconic skyscraper, which hasn’t had a tenant for six years.
To the untrained eye, these dilapidated buildings and neighborhoods seem to be well past their prime and ready to be torn down, but they’re actually critical links to America’s past — national treasures that must be protected, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit that works to save America’s historic places.
“All old places, they have incredible power to bring people together and to provide us with continuity in the stories of who we are and where we want to go,” says Katherine Malone-France, the National Trust’s interim chief preservation officer. “They help communities thrive…Making sure that they stay in active use helps to make their larger communities thrive.”
The story of Willert Park Courts in Buffalo, New York, is that it was the first housing project in the state to be built specifically for African Americans.
This unique history, along with a structure the National Trust says is an example of early modernism, with moldings that depict scenes from everyday life, is a reason to save the site rather than demolish it as has been proposed.
The desire to preserve Dallas’ Tenth Street Historic District is rooted in the fact that the buildings there, which date from the late 19th to early 20th century, were mostly settled by formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. At least 70 of the district’s 260 homes have already been demolished.
The future of Rhode Island’s so-called “Superman” building, constructed in 1928, is also uncertain.
The art deco structure once housed the Industrial Trust Company, one of the largest and most powerful banks in New England, that was eventually absorbed by the Bank of America. Once a symbol of the state’s thriving industrial production, the building has been vacant since Bank of America moved out six years ago.
The three are among 11 sites the National Trust has put on its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2019.
Other places on the list include one of Puerto Rico’s last historic coffee plantation houses, ancestral places in Utah, a rail bridge in North Dakota, North Carolina’s Excelsior Club, a renowned African American social club that once hosted greats like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, and Nashville’s Music Row.
A place like Music Row isn’t just about saving individual buildings — a combination of late 19th century residential and 20th century small-scale commercial and residential buildings — but also the landscape to which they are connected.
“A sort-of cultural district,” Malone-France says. “And what we have to do is protect both the function of Music Row, as well as the fabric of Music Row. Those two things together, the function and the sort-of alchemy of this place, that’s what creates Music Row. That’s what has changed and influenced American music across the long arc of its existence.”
The National Trust’s goal is not only to make certain that places like Music Row remain intact, but also to find a way to keep the sites in active use serving the surrounding community while also maintaining their identity and vitality.
Losing these places would deprive Americans of a tangible connection to the past and to the places where our history happened, according to Malone-France.
“They’re important to individuals, and they’re important to their local communities, but also they are each in them representative of stories that are important parts of our larger American story and places help tell those stories,” she says. “We all need places to help us thrive, to tell us who we are, who we were and together, who we want to be.”