Mediating Standoffs Between Preservationists and Property Owners

By Ted Reiff

The July 18 issue of The New York Times contains the enlightening article, “Architecture: Pre-emptive Moves, Predemolition,” by Christopher Gray. It’s about the practice of stripping buildings of decoration to avoid last minute obstacles to demolition. You can access the entire article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/realestate/architecture-pre-emptive-mo...
 
I was slightly aware of this practice, but did not know it was so pervasive. Removing key elements from a building to render the building unworthy of preservation is, to my mind, nothing short of desecration. 
 
The “pre-emptive moves” go something like this: An individual or developer purchases a noteworthy building that has not been listed on any historic register. The owner then removes key architectural elements, often from the façade (columns, carvings, trim, statuary), which leaves the building looking scarred and abandoned, begging to be torn down and replaced.
 
Another strategy (besides stripping), is to apply for a renovation permit and, in the process of renovating, “destroy” some of the historic features. Then, when there is little left to preserve, simply reapply for the demolition permit. 
 
I first encountered these practices while reading about property in Woodside, California, owned by Steve Jobs. The classic 14-bedroom Spanish Revival mansion was designed for copper magnate Daniel Jackling by noted architect George Washington Smith and built in 1925. Jobs purchased the home in 1984, lived in it for a decade as a bachelor, rented the house out for a time, and finally vacated it completely in 2000. 
 
Jobs’ intent from the beginning was to demolish the house and replace it with a smaller home for his family. However, both California’s Register of Historical Resources and the National Trust for Historic Places found the home worthy of preservation. For almost two decades, they and various other entities succeeded in blocking demolition.
 
Jobs’ response was to vacate the property and allow it to fall into disrepair. Doors and windows were removed and the interior gradually decayed from exposure to the elements. To be fair, Jobs early on offered to give the house to anyone willing to move it off the property. At least three offers were received but failed to materialize, possibly because some level of financing was required of Jobs himself.
 
Anyway, the mansion was finally demolished in February, 2011. An article in the April, 2011, issue of Architectural Record states that “most of the interior fittings were salvaged,” including Victorian marble sinks. The house also contained thousands of handmade ceramic tiles, an Aolian pipe organ, and custom hardware and chandeliers. I don’t know which, if any, of these elements were salvaged, but am pretty certain that structural materials like old-growth lumber, ceiling beams and the wide-plank white oak flooring ended up in the landfill.
 
During the course of the legal dispute, TRP made several attempts to contact Jobs through his attorney and business manager, to offer deconstruction services. We never received a return call. 
 
The author of The New York Times article is not sure who to blame for these practices. Is it the fault of owners, developers, historic commissions, preservation organizations or individual preservationists?
 
While I have a problem with any person, court, commission or governmental entity deciding what an individual can or cannot do with their property, I also believe that everyone benefits when we preserve historical buildings, vehicles, documents, art and other examples of human drive and ingenuity.
 
Several years ago, in an e-letter article, I proposed that TRP and its certified deconstruction contractors form a “Rapid Deconstruction Strike Team,” that would immediately prepare low or no-cost bids when preservation issues arose in geographical locales where we had a presence. All of the salvaged materials would be TRP’s to distribute, possibly through (or in cooperation with) local historic commissions, which would receive a portion of the proceeds. I still think it’s a good idea. 
 
TRP already plays an important role by offering deconstruction as a responsible alternative to demolition, but we could do more.

Deadline Extended for 2013 National Reuse Contest

The deadline for entries to the TRP-sponsored 2013 National Reuse Contest has been extended to September 30. You still have time to enter!

Not only could you win a prize at the local level, in addition TRP is awarding prizes worth $1,000, $500 and $250 to the top three national winners.

Remember, September 30 is the last day to submit your entry to one of our participating reuse stores. You’ll find a list on our website. Go to http://thereusepeople.org/reusecontest for complete information on this year’s contest.

Special Events Reminders

November 23: Congratulations to TRP on the 20th anniversary of its founding!

Specials of the Month

At the Oakland warehouse we are featuring interior doors. Receive 25% off the price of any interior door in the warehouse through September 30.
The ReUse People Specials
The Los Angeles warehouse is featuring its entire inventory of doors, both interior and exterior. Receive 50% off the price of any door through September 30.
The ReUse People Specials

New Inventory

The Oakland warehouse has received a substantial shipment of 3/4-inch T&G oak flooring. This could be your opportunity to make the switch from carpeting to hardwood.

Deconstruction & New Materials Update

Visit the TRP website for a complete list of current deconstruction projects and inventories. Just click on “Retail Sales” and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Location and Contact Information

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Please visit our partnering warehouses:
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(714) 590-8729
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(816) 231-6889
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800 Taylor Street
Durham, NC 27701
(919) 219-4913
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Second Chance Building Materials Center
1423 West Grove Street
Boise, ID 83702
(208) 331-2707
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Habitat for Humanity ReStore, Salt Lake Valley,
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Salt Lake City, UT 84101
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