“Historic” Historic Preservation

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I’m a big fan of architectural historic preservation and restoration, and have involved myself and my studio in the saving of three structures that faced imminent destruction. These include railway stations in Skokie, Il, and Scarsdale, NY, as well as our studio’s White Plains, NY, home in the 1926 Bar Building. It’s truly as gratifying an experience as I’ve ever had the joy of participating in. I’m convinced that my Chicago roots are greatly responsible for instilling a respect for architectural heritage in my DNA.

My Dad also used to take me around to visit various vintage structures—especially the old railway palaces—when it was announced that they’d soon be razed. The concept of “adaptive reuse” has fortunately taken hold like never before and it has thankfully given a new life to endangered buildings. But until I found “Modernizing Buildings For Profit,” published in 1935, I had no idea how prevalent an approach saving and transforming existing structures was.

Although this book takes a pragmatic approach to presenting practical options for extending a building’s life, it now also exists as a historical testament by documenting the transformation of worn and somewhat obsolete structures into rejuvenated establishments resurrected for a new life. It’s made me realize that an older building might be in its second or even third reincarnation! The case studies of “modernization” chosen for inclusion in the book are sometimes so extensive that some of the original structures are comparatively unrecognizable. I can’t say that each and every renovation is an improvement in terms of design, but I do find it all fascinating from a historic standpoint. Check out the following “before & after” examples.

(“Tooting One’s Own Horn” notice: At the end of the post I’ve added some info about the various preservation/restoration projects we’ve dedicated our support to.)

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The Dempster Street Terminal of the Chicago Rapid Transit/Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee railway – April 13. 1925.

While growing up in Chicago and Evanston, IL, I became aware of a commuter railway station in the nearby suburb of Skokie. It was built in the mid 1920s and was the structure that actually served as the catalyst to residential and commercial development in the area—the surrounding region was simply prairie farmland before that. By the late 1990s the original railway had ceased operations and the structure had become so “remuddled” that its original design and purpose had all but disappeared, but it seemed criminal that its significance was in danger of being lost and forgotten.

A group of us got together and successfully campaigned to get it on the National Register of Historic Places. A local developer agreed to take on the restoration and hired the esteemed firm of Antunovich Associates to not only restore the terminal to its original splendor, but also move the building 150 feet to the east as a legal requirement for its preservation. I had amassed a comprehensive collection of reference material on the structure and happily shared the information with the architect to insure a faithful restoration. It now houses a Starbucks (like many train station do these days) and a bank, and has once again become an epicenter of re-development. This page shows before/after views.

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The Bar Building in White Plains NY – 1946. Home office of J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, Inc. since 1990.

Our animation design studio has been in the Bar Building (above) since 1990. White Plains was then a “sleepy” (I’m being kind) county seat city with several interesting older buildings. When the ten-story Bar Building was built in 1926, it was the tallest office building between Manhattan and Albany and housed the modest “City Club” in its penthouse that catered to the legal profession. After all, the original courthouse was across from the building on Main Street.

By the early 2000s, White Plains was undergoing a renaissance of sorts and the city attempted to demolish The Bar Building by first acquiring the property through eminent domain. Once again, we were successful in getting National Register of Historic Places status for an endangered building and it survives to this day nestled in the corner of the 44 story Ritz-Carlton towers. Here’s a profile of The Bar Building.

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The Heathcote station of the New York Westchester & Boston Railway – 1912.

Finally, the New York Westchester & Boston Railway was a short lived commuter line that ran from the Bronx up through Westchester County, NY, with terminals in Port Chester and White Plains. It discontinued service in 1937 but many of its original stations have remained and have been converted for use as both residential and commercial properties.

The original “Heathcote” station stop in Scarsdale, NY, had been used as a volunteer ambulance/fire corps location for many years, but when the fire department moved out in 2008 the building’s eccentric location resulted in it becoming in danger of demolition. Once again, JJSP helped in a campaign to educate a community about the significance of a structure in its midst. The small but thriving commercial area surrounding the vintage building would not exist had this station never been built. Not only was the campaign in saving the building successful, but the structure was restored to its original 1912 condition by removing additions and inconsistencies installed by the fire department. You can find more details and pictures here.


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