Places In Peril: 2011's Most endangered historic sites

June 15, 2011

Cheryl Corley

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Isaac Manchester Farm in Avella, Pa.
When it was completed in 1881, the Pillsbury "A" Mill Complex in Minneapolis was the largest and most advanced facility of its kind. Today, it stands vacant.
Outdoor activities at Belmead-on-the-James, a plantation turned educational institution in Powhatan County, Va. The campus once boasted 40-plus buildings; today, only three major historic structures remain standing.
(Flickr/TheeErin)
Designed by the late architect Bertrand Goldberg, Prentice Women's Hospital reflects his classic curvilinear forms.

This week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released its latest list of places the trust considers the most endangered in the country. The list of 11 includes a Chicago hospital; a jazz musician's home; and a plant in Minneapolis that was once the world's most advanced flour mill.

There are sites in every region of the country on this list, but the Old Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago is in the most imminent danger of being torn down. Preservationists rallied at the hospital Wednesday, chanting for landmark status as the building's concrete, cloverleaf-shaped tower loomed in the background. Jonathan Fine, the executive director of Preservation Chicago, says the old hospital — designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg in the 1970s — is a modern masterpiece.

In a city renowned internationally for architecture, Fine says, destroying such a structure would be a travesty: "It's not what great cities do or culturally literate cities do. We don't destroy works of art."

The preservationists say the hospital is a prime candidate for reuse. It's owned by Northwestern University; spokesperson Alan Cubbage says the school needs a research facility and the old hospital can't be retrofitted. "It is not a landmark," he says. "And the university — our core missions are education and research."

While the battle continues, Alison Fisher, assistant curator of architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, says the museum will soon present the first American retrospective of Goldberg's work. "He was an incredibly prolific architect," says Fisher, "and hospitals, for the mature part of his career, were his primary foci."

Joining the Prentice Hospital on the National Trust list is jazz musician John Coltrane's home on Long Island. It's suffering from mold and neglect despite the efforts of a local group to restore it. Coltrane had turned one of the bedrooms into a music studio and wrote many songs, including his masterpiece, "A Love Supreme," there.

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust, says the house where Coltrane lived is not architecturally significant — but its cultural heritage makes it worth saving.

"What it represents is that important moments of American history can happen in our neighborhoods," Meeks points out, "and there's an opportunity for preservation around every corner."

Deferred maintenance, neglect and vacancy are some of the typical reasons places like the Coltrane home; China Alley in the San Joaquin Valley; and Belmead-on-the-James — an African-American heritage site in Virginia — are on the verge of collapse or losing their rehab potential.

The National Trust has also started a new endangered "watch list," and the entire city of Charleston, S.C., is on it. Meeks recognizes the work Charleston has done to preserve its heritage while balancing a huge demand of heritage tourism. "But at the same time, the watch list is an attempt to signal our concern about the impacts of cruise ship tourism on that city and the National Historic Landmark district," says Meeks.

Meeks adds that the goal of the endangered list is to garner attention for the country's historical places. She says that out of a list of more than 200 places the National Trust for Historic Preservation has identified in the past as endangered, only eight have been lost.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio.
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