By Bill Robinson
No one loves history more than I, just as no one hates to see historic structures demolished.
As more buildings that have helped define Richmond for a century are coming to a crossroads, our community needs to ask itself which ones are worth saving.
After we determine which buildings we’d like to save, we have another big question to ask. How much are we willing to pay for their restoration and upkeep?
Historic restoration is not cheap. Often, the cost of demolishing an historic building and then replicating it is greater than the cost of restoring.
Historic buildings that were designed in part as monuments or objects of art often are not easily converted to contemporary uses. People no longer walk to where they want to go or arrive in carriages as they did when most historic buildings were designed. Today they usually arrive in their own automobiles. That often means more space is needed for parking than in the buildings that parking lots serve.
Two privately owned downtown Richmond homes more than a century old were demolished in 2012. The fiscal court now owns three historic brick buildings on the courthouse square, including the recently purchased “Old Creamery” at the corner of Irvine and First streets. The others are the Miller Building, for many years Richmond’s City Hall, also at First and Irvine; and the old Family Court Building, also known as the Farris Parks Annex, at the corner of First and Main.
Preservationists say the Miller Building and the Old Creamery could be restored for public use, with a local history museum housed in one of them. The detention center next to the Miller Building will need to be expanded before long, but county officials have said it would not lend itself to solving the jail’s overcrowding. A compromise of incorporating the Miller Building's front facade into a jail annex has not found favor with preservationists.
While the economy is no longer in free fall, it is still just limping along. Even if regular federal payroll taxes did not go up on Jan. 1, Social Security taxes did. That sound you've been hearing is the moans of taxpayers who just got their first pay stubs of the year.
If you know an elected official who will vote for a massive appropriation to tax dollars to restore historic buildings or subsidize restoration of private buildings, then you know someone who's not planning on re-election.
Prohibiting private owners from demolishing their historic buildings probably isn't a solution for preserving those structures as it would lead to their abandonment. Then the taxpayers would end up owning them.
While preservation grants from public and private sources should be sought, everyone knows both the state and federal governments have money troubles of their own. With public funds drying up, more and more projects are pursuing fewer and fewer private grants.
White Hall State Historic House, Irvinton House in Irvine-McDowell Park and the Rogers House, now the Battle of Richmond Visitors Center, are three examples of historic preservation that continue to serve useful purposes. A recent grant through the U.S Park Service will help restore Pleasant View in the county’s Battlefield Park.
However, these projects were done in different economic and political climates. And they also show that Madison County has already been the recipient of preservationist generosity.A few years ago, the county demolished the old Odd Fellows Lodge at the corner of Irvine and Second streets and replaced it with a handsome structure with a design that echoes historic styles. Most of the old buildings in the 100 block of South First Street were demolished and rebuilt with facades that replicated their predecessors to house the new Family Court Building.
One of those models may work for the Miller Building or the Old Creamery. But, like most public policy dilemmas, this one may not lend itself to easy resolution.
However, I think we should address this issue head-on and not let old buildings sit until they are beyond repair. Letting nature take its course would be a cowardly path to take, plus we would have to look at eyesores until they fall down and then deal with our regret when they do.