Thursday, May 20, 2010

Explaining Greene Memorial's Bulldozer Award

This is the new view of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church as you turn from Franklin Road onto Second Street. The rubble will be gone shortly, but the view won't improve much.^

The steel in the demolished building was impressive. The concrete walls were as much as a foot thick, as well.^

A story on the Roanoke Valley Preservation Foundation's annual awards in a Roanoke daily newspaper this morning gave a too-short explanation to the reasons behind the selection of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church for the Bulldozer Award, which goes to an organization that has failed to live up to the preservation ideal the foundation hopes to spread.

The selection was not unanimous and it was argued vigorously within the committee. Those arguing against the selection pointed out that Greene Memorial has a good preservation record in taking care of its own historic building and that an investment in the building would have been significant with little potential for return. The opposite side countered that the building that was destroyed--the Old Roanoke Photo/Downtown Learning Center building next door--is one of the last of its kind in the Roanoke Valley, that it was built like a tank and that potential buyers had expressed an interest in purchasing it.

The young reporter posed several questions to Preservation Foundation President Michael Kennedy (a former newspaper columnist and a newly-minted architect) via e-mail and I have a copy of Mike's answers, which I will share with you in full on this particular point, because it is important. This was not an insensitive or thoughtless selection. It received a full airing from some intelligent and knowledgeable people before the decision was made. The goal of the Preservation Foundation is to promote the reuse of as many good, old buildings as possible--a form of recycling that has few parallels--but we (and I'm on the board) know some will be lost. The Roanoke Photo/Downtown Learning Center building was one that's gone.

At last night's awards presentation (the local daily was not present), one notable, who didn't want to be quoted said, "Churches are among the worst offenders when it comes to preservation. They are often more concerned with other issues and don't even consider preserving buildings that aren't the church itself."

Here's what the building in question looked like last week before the bulldozers struck. (The list of winners in the initial post about the awards can be found here.)

Following are the questions Mike was asked by the young newspaper reporter and Mike's answers:

Why was Downtown Learning Center chosen for the bulldozer award?

I nominated it and other people voted for it, though it wasn’t unanimous. I used to serve on the board of the Downtown Learning Center, which was its last occupant. While I am very happy the DLC has found new digs in another old building, The Jefferson Center, I think the old camera shop could have been rehabbed to serve any number of purposes. It needed to be gutted. And it needed plumbing, electrical and roof work. What old building doesn’t? But it has just one hell of a structure.

You should see the steel beams they’re pulling out of it. It’s got masonry walls a foot or more thick. It was a very adaptable building. I sort of get tired of owners who’ve had a building a long time say they have to tear the building down because it’s in bad shape. Who owned the building while it was falling into disrepair?

We’ve had some enlightened developers in town who have done wonderful things with buildings that were in far worse shape and far less well located. Aside from that, it was of a style we have few, if any, remaining examples of here. It was a building in the Streamline Moderne style, a variant of Art Deco. Now that it’s gone, all you’ll see when you turn from Franklin onto Second is the painted-concrete-block-and-fire-escape side of Greene Memorial United Methodist Church. Every building has a backside and Greene Memorial has hung its out for all the world to see.

Long after the demolished building is buried under pavement, it will be obvious to anyone that something is missing from the streetscape. I spoke with the Rev. Gary Robbins, pastor of Greene Memorial, some months back when we were putting the DLC on the Endangered Sites list. I’d love to say he’s greedy and thoughtless, but he’s not. He’s concerned about his church and he sees the building as an albatross around the neck of his congregation that endangered an older, more significant building, his church. So I promised him I wouldn’t demonize him.

That was an easier promise to make when the building’s demolition was an abstraction. Now that the guts and sinew of a fine building are strewn all over the parking lot, it’s harder to maintain detachment. One of our board members told me she tried to work with the church last fall when a group, which included a parishioner and some people from the city government, tried to get the church to allow someone else to develop it. Apparently they had some developers interested.

What do you hope to gain from this year's awards?

The same thing as every year: to get people to appreciate our natural and built heritage and to recognize those who already to appreciate it. I have focused too much on the negative. The really good thing is how many building owners get it. Folks like Anstey Hodge, Interactive Design and our other award winners, developers such as Ed Walker and Bill Chapman, and neighborhood activists like Florine Thornhill have made Roanoke a much better place to live.

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