by Michael R. Allen
On June 22, 2009, the Preservation Board voted 3-2 to grant preliminary approval to demolition of a landmark work of non-residential modern architecture designed by a renowned architect with a national practice, located in the Central West End Local Historic District. Readers with memories long and short will know that this building was the DeVille Motor Hotel (later San Luis Apartments) at the northeast corner of Lindell and Taylor avenues, completed in 1963 and designed by Charles Colbert, partner in the firm of Colbert Hess Lowery & Boudreaux. Some of the same number will know the arduous struggle by preservationists to get the Archdiocese to reconsider demolishing the curvaceous former motel, which ended up in a lengthy Preservation Board meeting.
The Preservation Board vote was framed by a recommendation from then-Cultural Resources Office Director Kate Shea that was ambiguous at best. Shea invoked the city’s preservation ordinance to evaluate the application, ignoring the standards of the Central West End Local Historic District. Yet Shea’s evaluation hinged on National Register of Historic Places eligibility: “It is unclear if the structure is actually eligible for listing in the National Register, and eligibility aside, listing the property would have no benefit for the owner, as the Archdiocese could
not take advantage of the Tax Credit for Historic Preservation Programs to aid in the substantial
rehabilitation the building’ reuse would require,” read Shea’s report to the Preservation Board. Shea oddly did not evaluate whether the building was Merit or High Merit (or Noncontributing) under the preservation ordinance’s established rankings.
Shea’s report questioned whether the Archdiocese’s proposed parking lot replacement was the “highest and best use” but ultimately avoided any recommendation on demolition whatsoever. The ambivalent report opened discussion at the Preservation Board to what standards were even being enforced. Preservation Board Member David Richardson forcefully argued that the Central West End Local Historic District standards, as specific regulations for the district enabled by the preservation ordinance, should be the prevailing law. As I testified at the time, that assertion was open to debate too.
Still, Richardson’s use of the Central West End Local Historic District standards problematized the issue of preservation. The Central West End Local Historic District’s demolition standards were unclear, and the 1979 certification of the district assigned buildings the status of contributing or non-contributing under the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, the 16-year-old DeVille and many other Modern buildings were not anywhere near eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, so they were all considered non-contributing. Eventually one building would get individual demolition protection under city ordinance: the Bel Air Motor Hotel at 4630 Lindell Boulevard (1957; Wilburn McCormack) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Still, the 1999 city preservation ordinance afforded all buildings in preservation review districts demolition protection should the Cultural Resources Office deem them Merit or High Merit structures — regardless of age.
Yet under the Central West End Local Historic District standards, the demolition protection could be construed as applying only to the buildings that were contributing to the national certification of the district (done primarily to make buildings eligible for federal historic tax credits). David Richardson argued that the DeVille Motor Hotel had no protection under the existing standards, and that preservationists needed to amend that ordinance to legally protect the DeVille and other Central West End mid-century modern buildings. Board members Melanie Fathman and Anthony Robinson, the dissenters in the decision, voiced disagreement with Richardson. Still, the DeVille decision and the ambivalent Cultural Resources Office report reminded preservationists that the Central West End Local Historic District (and other older local historic district ordinances) did not clearly protect buildings that are historic in the current age.
The solution is now at hand. The Central West End Association, with leadership from Jim Dwyer, Bill Seibert, John McPheeters and others, has worked to remedy this ambiguous protection in the new draft standards for the Central West End Historic District. The multi-year effort started before the DeVille situation, and was greatly informed by its complicated legalese. The new standards’ section on demolition specifically addresses the inadequacy of relying on the certification map:
Buildings identified as contributing properties in the Central West End Certified Local Historic District are considered historically significant to the character and integrity of the historic district. However, construction continued after the period of significance identified for the district and those buildings may also be architecturally significant, having become part of the historic character of the Central West End. Any of these buildings determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Officer or that are determined by the Cultural Resources Office to be Merit or High Merit properties are also historically significant. All architecturally and historically significant buildings are an irreplaceable asset, and as such their demolition is not allowed without a specific recommendation for demolition from the Cultural Resources Office, a full hearing by the Preservation Board, and approval by that Board.
The new standards allow the Cultural Resources Office the authority to recommend denial of demolition of buildings built since 1949, the arbitrary 50-year date used in 1979 to determine which buildings were protected. The language not only protects modernist buildings, but it protects buildings recently built or not yet built. Essentially, the new standards embody the futurism that former TrustModern director and preservation expert Christine Madrid French has advocated preservationists embrace in reconsidering the recent past. Rather than just skip ahead to a new 50-year cutoff, the Central West End standards offer a flexible and perpetual mechanism for evaluating the impact of demolition within the historic district.
Over three years after the DeVille Motor Hotel decision, the Preservation Board unanimously recommended the new Central West End Historic District standards at its meeting this Monday (despite apparent concerns with other parts of the draft). The next stop is review at the Planning Commission. The standards will have to be approved by the Board of Aldermen by ordinance, and signed by the mayor, but opposition is very unlikely with wide neighborhood support. Preservationists who shed blood, sweat and tears over the DeVille Motor Hotel can now celebrate. Should the Archdiocese contemplate demolition of W.A. Sarmineto’s brilliant round Chancery (1961) at 4445 Lindell, or Murphy & Mackey’s strong, elegant Cathedral School on Maryland Avenue (1965; Murphy & Mackey) — and there is reason to believe that demolishing the DeVille was just the first part of reconfiguring the Cathedral “campus” — the buildings will have clear protection under the local historic district standards. Then, preservationists and the prevailing preservation law won’t be at odds.