Lake Champlain Bridge

The Lake Champlain Bridge is a continuous steel truss bridge that opened in 1929, linking Chimney Point, VT and Crown Point, NY, serving as the gateway to New England or to the Adirondacks. The engineers Fay, Spofford, and Thorndike set the location in an especially scenic and historic pass over the water and the land. For the past 80 years the bridge has connected the livelihoods of many New Yorkers and Vermonters, has served tourism, and has provided a beautiful, landmark example of engineering.

In July 2009 the bridge was shut down to one lane of traffic at a time as repairs were conducted on the other side. On October 16, 2009 the bridge was closed indefinitely. On November 9, 2009, the engineering report suggested the bridge be demolished.  Why? In a nutshell, the engineers found the deterioration of concrete piers to be unpredictable and potentially disastrous. Rehabilitation would be more expensive than replacement. For the long version of this see the news and reports from NYSDOT’s Lake Champlain Bridge webpage.

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Ground level view of the bridge from Chimney Point, VT. November 8, 2009.

However, ethically and legally there is more to the issue than just an engineering report. This bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places and has a National Historic Landmark nomination on the table. Take in the federal laws of Section 106, 110, and 4(f) and all options must be analyzed and exhausted; because a historic resource is involved a bridge cannot just be slapped in place. This gives the pro-rehabilitation candidates more weight than just passion. (I won’t get into the preservation laws at this point, but this issue is a topic for my preservation policy class, so I will at a later date.)

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The bridge is impressive and immense - note the gentleman in the photograph. November 8, 2009.

What is the fate of the bridge? We don’t know yet. It is more complicated than other bridges because it is jointly owned by New York and Vermont. The communities on either side have had to rely on ferry service across the lake, which will last only as long as the unusually warm weather remains. Lives are inconvenienced and businesses are shutting down as a result of the loss of this main thoroughfare. This has been in the Vermont/upstate New York news for months now, and there is no shortage of articles and opinions.

Stay tuned for more information and discussion. Any if you’re familiar with the old General Sullivan Bridge in New Hampshire, it is the twin of this bridge. It has been closed since the mid 1980s. That itself adds additional levels pf conversation, huh?

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Bridge closed. November 8, 2009.

Gut it? No Way.

Do you ever browse the New York Times real estate section slide shows? I find them endlessly entertaining, whether it’s for the purpose of gazing at beautiful houses I’ll never afford, gawking at monstrosities that I would never want to afford or own, loving historic, rehabilitated or renovated houses in neighborhoods across the country, or just feeding general curiosity of what homes look like on the inside. So when a slide show entitled “In Need of Some Work” appeared for apartments in New York, it sounded interesting. There is an accompanying article, “For the Right Price, the Right Fixer-Upper” by Elizabeth A. Harris (1o.30.2009).

As I’m reading the captions and looking at the photographs I saw some less-than contemporary improvements like wall-to-wall carpeting and wood accordion doors. There were some wonderful features like 1930s sinks and tile bathroom floors. Classic. But, wait – those captions kept referring to the kitchens and bathrooms needed to be gutted. What!? Sure, the kitchens needed to be upgraded in terms of appliances, but why get rid of a sink full of historic character and definition? Take this statement from slide 24, “The kitchen, which also looks “prewar,” needs a total overhaul.” Excuse me? Why is “prewar” given the connotation of something horribly out of style? Some people like that look. I would love a prewar kitchen.

And I’m not saying that everyone has to love that. Maybe some people like those accordion doors, too. That’s great because we all have different tastes. But why is there this judgment on everything just because it’s old? Call it a fixer-upper, but don’t assume that everyone will want to toss away the prewar kitchen or the bathroom floor. See, how cool is that prewar kitchen? Check it out at Levittown, PA: Building the Suburban Dream.

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The "Prewar" Kitchen

Community Restoration and Revitalization Act

The Community Restoration and Revitalization Act has been all over the preservation blogs and news lately, but it’s such an important issue that it can stand to be discussed in as many places as possible. Many people have at least heard of tax credits (20%) for restoring a historic building. The fine print is that the building is a “certified” (i.e. significant) historic and it must be an incoming producing building and in compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. In other words, no one can restore their own home and receive tax credits.

However, this Community Revitalization and Restoration Act consists of eight proposed amendments to the Federal Tax rehabilitation Tax Credit could change all of that. These proposed amendments would encourage greater use and rehabilitation of historic buildings by qualifying owner occupied residences (rather than just downtown rentals), allow for tax credits for energy efficiency, allow for an increased credit for smaller rehabilitation projects (re: size and cost), specify that tax credits are not federal income, among other aspects. The abbreviated list, from the National Trust, is this:

1. Increase the federal historic tax credit from 20% to 30% for “small projects” with $5 million or less in qualified rehabilitation expenditures.

2. Permit the 10% non-historic credit for older buildings to be used for rehabilitating residential rental property.

3. Use the common definition of an older building as one that is at least 50 years old in determining eligibility for the 10% non-historic rehabilitation credit.

4. Allow for certain leasing arrangements with non-profits and other tax-exempt entities that are now precluded.

5. Encourage building owners who are rehabilitating historic buildings to achieve substantial energy savings and allow graduated increases in the credit based on the scale of energy efficiencies achieved.

6. Allow for the transfer of historic tax credits to another taxpayer for projects under $5 million in qualified rehabilitation costs.

7. Allow for moderate rehabilitation by reducing by half the substantial rehabilitation requirements.

8. Specify that state historic tax credits should not be considered federal income for tax purposes.

source: PreservationNation

For the entire list explained, check out he National Trust blog post.  Or read this document from the National Trust in which the eight amendments are explained a bit more in depth (it’s only three pages, don’t panic).

And once you’ve read all about it, encourage your local representatives to support this amendment. The National Trust also has a page where you can look up who is supporting it so far and the Trust has a letter example that you can personalize and email to your representatives. Also, you can send a thank you letter.

Those of us who dream of restoring our own home someday, this will be incredibly beneficial to us. Really anyone who works with historic buildings serves to gain something from these proposals.

Suburbia & Dead Malls

Who would expect suburbia to be showcased at an art museum? All of a sudden people are looking at suburbia with fresh eyes and examining its idiosyncrasies and theorizing about what it will become.  Such is the case at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History (though suburbia appears at the art museum, the two museums connect.)  While art museums are not my typical outing as a tourist, I was up for a new adventure (knowing the admission fee covered both museums) and agreed to visit the museums with my colleague.  My favorite exhibit at the museum is located in the Heinz Architectural Center: Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes.

Worlds Away addresses suburbia and its changes through the decades in the form of photographs, interpretive drawings, and a 19 minute “video” that I almost ignored, but then decided to watch. This video was created by the New York urban design and architecture firm, Interboro, a firm founded by four 2002 Harvard graduates (according to the website.)  It is called In the Meantime, Life with Landbanking and was Interboro’s entry into the LA Forum for Architecture’s “Dead Malls” Competition.  Interboro chose the Dutchess Mall of Fishkill, New York.

The project/video was displayed on a platform on the floor. The platform, perhaps made of foam core, had a 3D model of a strip mall built on it. The movie began with a 1st person voice, which turns out to be that of the Dutchess Mall, now designated a “dead mall” because it was officially closed ca. 2003.  However, the voice of the mall explains how it cannot be “dead” because there is always activity going on, even with just a handful of businesses in operation. The local bus route still stops at the mall, there is a flea market every Saturday, truck drivers pull into the parking lot for an impromptu rest stop and a man sells hot dogs from his truck, someone practices golf, and many other random activities occur.

I have an aversion to strip malls, but for some reason I kept watching, perhaps because the building was talking to me and sounding like it needed a hug.  Part 2 used a “ghost narrator” to explain the history of the mall and possible future uses, since it was still in a developing area.  Even though the mall was empty, the owner did not want to sell.  The ghost narrator explained an interesting idea – to plan temporary adaptive reuse if an owner does not want to do anything to the property. There is not a true outcome to this story, since the artists could not predict the future, however they envisioned what was possible and the variety of businesses that could serve the community together.

Different internet searches give the impression that the Dutchess Mall has been demolished, but I cannot find concrete evidence. However, I am amazed at the conversation on the internet about “dead malls” and what to do with them. Of course, a discussion that goes along with that, is what did the mall take the place of originally? Often, it was a historic site.

Despite opinions and the fate of the Dutchess Mall, it is fair to say that there are many modern but abandoned commercial buildings in this country and devising ways to revitalize them rather than demolish them only to build again, is preferable. Perhaps it will be a conversation more in vogue in the near future. If you have the chance, watch the video on the Interboro website* or see it in person on one of the traveling exhitions (see schedule there.)

Two books that were on the reading table near the exhibit that seemed interesting: Borderland by John R. Stilgoe (Yale University Press, 1990) and Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen (Basic Books, 2000). I think these are going on my “must read before grad school” list.

*Quicktime required.

You Slept Where?

What do a tee-pee, a school house, a lighthouse, a library, and train cars have in common?  All across the country, properties such as those are being rehabilitated into unique inns.  Properties that may have suffered a terrible fate are saved and shared with the public while making a profit! It certainly seems better than turning it into a static historic site museum, huh?  Without further research, I am not able to verify a property’s historic integrity or if it meets the Secretary of Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, but I still think it’s fascinating. 

A friend’s parents recently visited the Grassy Creek Cabooses & Depot in Fancy Gap, VA, which has inspired me to look up similar places. The cabooses were transported to the site, so integrity can be questioned; however, check out the moving pictures on the site.  If the owners of Grassy Creek had not bought these cabooses, then they’d probably be long gone! It turns out that you can rent a train car in many states.  I’ve known about lighthouse inns, but none of the others.  

Rehabilitating a school house into an inn seems like a very environmentally friendly idea.  Many historic school houses face neglect and demolition because they are deemed to small to suit a district’s needs or not up to fire code.  After all, there can only be a certain number of viable historic school house museums. School houses have rooms and probably enough space for a reception area. In similar fashion, many school houses are being converted to apartments or lofts.  School houses are typically in a downtown setting, therefore nearby many tourist friendly activities.  And historic school houses are typically beautiful and visible.  Check out this one in Lava Hot Springs, ID and this one in Bisbee, AZ

Lighthouses must be wonderful places to spend a few nights as well. After all, they’re small, solitary, on the water, romantic, gorgeous…and sadly out of use in the nautical world (the historic ones that is).  Lighthouse inns are easy to find, but this one in California is beautiful. 

The website, Unusual Hotels of the World, lists many in the United States (disclaimer: not all are historic) including a library in New York City, the Route 66 Wigwam Hotel, more lighthouses and more trains.  And of course, you should check out the National Trust’s Historic Hotels of America.

In regards to all of these historic properties, mentioned and unmentioned: there is nothing more satisfying than seeing that property finds new use once it has fallen out of favor with its old use.  We live in a society that needs to recycle buildings and sites and bring the past with us to the future.  A misconception is that historic hotels or unique inns are much more expensive than the chain hotels, when in fact it is often not true. A solution? Branch out from your usual lodging on trips. Those privately owned motels are not necessarily better or worse than the chain hotels.  And share the love – where have you stayed or where do you want to stay?  Do your preservation tendencies influence your lodging choices? If not yet, do you want them to influence your decisions?