Examining the role of economic downturns in Heritage Districts
I’ve noticed a common theme in heritage districts I’ve visited in the United States and Canada. In many cases, the architecture wouldn’t exist today if the area had not gone through a period of depression.
Port Townsend, Washington has many beautiful examples of Victorian architecture. It is one of three Victorian seaports listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The city, founded in 1851, was an important port and boomed during the 1880s. By the end of the nineteenth century, the boom was over. It was a time of economic depression and planned railway extensions into the town did not occur. Many people left the area. Revival began in the 1970s with an influx of people looking for affordable housing in a laid-back atmosphere. Today Port Townsend is a scenic and chic maritime city with a vibrant artist community. Many of the old Victorian buildings have been restored. But it is very likely these buildings would not exist today if it had not been for the hard times the city experienced. A store clerk told me the city didn’t have enough money to bulldoze the buildings.
The Exchange District in my home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba is a Canadian National Historic Site. The twenty block area contains over 150 buildings dating to the late 1800s and early 1900s. Winnipeg was booming at that time. It was the Gateway to the West and a railway, banking, agricultural and manufacturing centre. The boom ended after World War I. The opening of the Panama Canal lessened the importance of the railway in getting goods to the west. Other western Canadian cities were growing and no longer relied as heavily on Winnipeg-supplied goods. When Winnipeg’s economy picked up again, businesses focused new building a few blocks south-west. The buildings in the Exchange were left alone. The area began a slow decline and became seedy. Today, the Exchange District is revitalized. It contains boutiques, restaurants, nightclubs, performance spaces, a thriving arts scene, businesses, residences and schools. If the area hadn’t gone through a decline or if the area had remained the business centre when the economy rebounded, many of these buildings may have been torn down to make way for something newer.
The King William Historic District in San Antonio, Texas has Greek Revival, Victorian and Italianate-styled homes dating to the 19th century. The area went into decline after World War II and fell into disrepair until preservationists began to restore homes later in the 1950s.
Pioneer Square is Seattle’s original neighbourhood, built in the second half of the 19th century. The area thrived as Seattle boomed. It went into decline after World War I. The Great Depression was particularly hard on this area. It became derelict and seedy. By the early 1960s, the business centre of Seattle had moved a few blocks north and a plan was formed to turn the area into a series of parking garages. The demolition of the Hotel Seattle in 1962 to create a parking garage nicknamed “the sinking ship” mobilized a historic preservation society. By 1970, Pioneer Square was Seattle’s first Historic District.
Today there is more of a focus on preserving heritage buildings and it can be hard to understand why they might have been destroyed. Historic buildings in Canada and the United States are young in comparison to the ages of buildings in many other parts of the world. Perhaps the relative newness lessened respect for a building’s heritage and made people more willing to replace it with something even newer. Abundance of land and space made it easy to expand or move to other locations.
Red River College’s Exchange District campus is an interesting example of keeping the old and blending it with the new. The facades of several adjoining historic buildings in Winnipeg’s Exchange District have been preserved as the exterior of a new building which takes up the entire block. Other features of the original buildings are retained on the inside. Former brick exterior walls are now interior walls. Oak wainscotting, a quarry tile floor and an original tin ceiling have been retained in a vestibule entrance. Other original features in this modern campus include old stenciled vault doors, radiators and hardware.
It is hard to predict what these heritage districts would look like now if depressions and economic downturns had not been part of their history. I wonder if something similar applies to our human lives. Have tough times helped preserve our own beauty and character?
I also wonder about newer buildings. What should we work to preserve?
The history of an area always interests me. But I now pay special attention to that of heritage districts. I am not surprised to learn the area went through a depressed time, a time when you wouldn’t have wanted to visit.
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