Historic Sites at Risk Include Some with Racial and Ethnic Meaning

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June 6, 2012; Source: Architectural Record

There are some things done in our society that one automatically gets are due to the nonprofit sector. That is, if it weren’t for a nonprofit’s intervention and action, something really important in our society would be lost or sacrificed. This year is the 25th anniversary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered sites, places or buildings. These are venues that are in danger of significant damage or loss due to development, neglect, or other factors. The 11 endangered sites on the 2012 list are:

  • The bridges of Yosemite Valley, Calif.
  • The Ellis Island hospital complex in New York Harbor, N.Y. and N.J.
  • Historic U.S. post office buildings
  • Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philadelphia, Pa.
  • The Malcolm X-Ella Little-Collins House in Boston, Mass.
  • The Princeton Battlefield in Princeton, N.J.
  • The Sweet Auburn Historic District in Atlanta, Ga.
  • Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles, Calif.
  • Texas courthouses
  • Elkhorn Ranch in Billings County, N.D.
  • The village of Zoar, Ohio

Worth noting is the inclusion of several sites on the list with significant racial and ethnic meaning, including boxing champion Joe Frazier’s gym on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, now a furniture store and up for sale, the boyhood home of Malcolm X, the Sweet Auburn area where Martin Luther King Jr. was raised, and Terminal Island in Los Angeles, from which thousands of Japanese-American families were deported during World War II.

The inclusion of Joe Frazier’s gym is due to the efforts of a Temple University architectural preservation class, whose professor noticed the building on sale without any historic protections. The class researched the building and the life of “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier (who died not long ago at the age of 67) to bring the building to the attention of the Trust.

The problem facing the Sweet Auburn neighborhood is that a great deal of the commercial corridor is vacant, including buildings that once housed the Atlanta Daily World, Atlanta Life Insurance, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The vacancies could make it susceptible to new and likely non-historic redevelopment, according to Mtamanika Youngblood, president of the neighborhood’s Sustainable Development Strategies. Once called “the richest Negro street in the world” by Fortune Magazine, the potential loss of Sweet Auburn (where the King Center is also located) would be a sad statement for this nation’s civil rights history.

No less distressing is the danger to the vacant hospital buildings at Ellis Island. While the Ellis Island registry room is now the Ellis Island Museum, the hospitals are no less important. The Trust advocates not only saving the buildings from further deterioration, but also restoring and opening them to the public.

Note that in many instances, the places on the Trust’s list are not architectural marvels, but they are physical keystones in our nation’s history. To lose the ability to see, touch, and experience these places would add to an irreparable diminution of our nation’s dwindling awareness of its own history.—Rick Cohen