America’s 11 most endangered historic places: Are they worth saving?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation released its annual list of the most endangered historic sites in the United States on Wednesday. Preservationists say that, as individuals gravitate back towards urban centers, preservation is increasingly in the public eye. 

Steve Helber/AP/File
In this June photo, a batteau participating in the James River Batteau festival makes a turn after crossing a small set of rapids on the James River near Bremo Bluff, Va. The James River, James City County, Va., made The National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2016 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, an annual list that spotlights important examples of the nation’s architectural and cultural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation released its annual list of the most endangered architectural and cultural sites in the United States on Wednesday, showcasing such diverse sites as San Francisco’s Embarcadero District and the nearly 2-million-acre cultural landscape called Bears Ears in Utah.

Preservationists say that with populations shifting back toward urban centers, preserving and revitalizing critical parts of America's cultural heritage can be key to building its future. The Millennial generation, in particular, seems to agree.

As young people shows increasing interest in historic buildings and the environmental and human benefits of reusing historic structures, communities stand to benefit, Boston University Preservation Studies program director Daniel Bluestone tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. Reusing older buildings not only increases individual connections to a local identity, but it can also decrease dependence on dwindling natural resources.

“Old buildings help us to think more deeply about our own citizenship, and our own relationship to our world and resources,” says Dr. Bluestone. “There is incredibly important social capital generated around cultural resources such as heritage sites.”

Among the 11 most endangered places on the National Trust’s 2016 list are two neighborhoods in El Paso, Texas; a building on the campus of the first degree-granting university for African-Americans; and the Milwaukee Domes, space-race era structures that preserve different habitats for community enjoyment.

The buildings, sites, and neighborhoods on the list reflect what William DuPont, the director of the Center for Cultural Sustainability at the University of Texas, San Antonio, tells the Monitor is a trend toward cultural inclusivity.

Mr. DuPont says the list showcases sites that are relevant to a variety of people and represent more than simply walls and windows. Instead, the buildings and sites are culturally relevant and are tied to the identity, past, and social customs of the communities that surround them.

The Embarcadero District in San Francisco, for example, once served as a bustling trade port, and remains part of the city’s commercial life. In Austin, Texas, the Austin’s Lions Municipal Golf Course preserves the first desegregated municipal golf course in the South, but is under development pressure that threatens its survival.

“There’s a richness and variety and diversity in historic buildings that we can’t quite reproduce,” San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission president Andrew Wolfram tells the Monitor.

As Americans, and particularly young Americans, move back to the nation’s cities in droves, preservationists say that shifting attitudes toward cultural preservation have a multitude of benefits.

“Research shows that older buildings support more small and women/minority owned businesses, can accommodate more people, and have environmental benefits,” says National Trust for Historic Preservation president Stephanie Meeks, the author of a book called “The Past and Future City” about the effect of preservation on urban revitalization.

More than 80 percent of Americans now live in cities, Ms. Meeks said in a National Trust press release, where many of them are choosing to live in historic buildings and districts, which tend to not only be more aesthetically attractive but are also walkable and accessible.

Millennials, in particular, are interested in historic buildings, according to Meeks, who tells the Monitor that growing numbers of “preservation allies” on social media have energized the preservation movement. The market is responding to that interest, she says, with youth-engaged companies such as Amazon and Google located in historic buildings, and demand for renovated lofts on the rise.

The central importance of the National Trust’s list, however, is galvanizing real support for preservation, something that Millennials have not yet fully engaged in, according to experts.

While rising interest is encouraging, Meeks says, “we hope that this list will remind people that somebody out there fought for the preservation of the buildings that they enjoy.”

These particular buildings and sites were chosen because, without an upswing in support for their preservation, they are likley to succumb to the pressures that landed them in their not-so-coveted position on the eleven most threatened list.

“The biggest challenge for preservationists is the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” Bluestone says, referring to a principle in physics that the entropy of a system tends to increase over time. “We need to find and invest resources to keep these structures around.”

For Millennials and others interested in environmental sustainability, experts say that older buildings are surprisingly eco-friendly. According to a National Trust report published in 2011, the greenest building is the one already built.

It can take between 10 and 40 years for the environment to recover the costs of building the most sustainable structure, Meeks says.

And in the end, buildings are the foundation of a community, preservationists say, and can feed the soul in a globalized, modern world.

“Anyone who dismisses a building simply because it is old is missing what is going on in our increasingly homogenous world culture, which is that people are seeking out places that have some connection to regional distinctions,” Bluestone says.

Meeks agrees.

“Historic buildings make our towns somewhere, rather than anywhere,” she says.

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