Copper Boom Takes its Toll on Historic Buildings

Posted on: January 11th, 2008 by Preservation magazine 1 Comment

Waterbury City HallIt's an all-too-common predicament for historic structures: widespread vandalism, which can derail an already-tenuous preservation plan. In Camden, N.J., an 80-year-old Greek revival Sears, Roebuck & Co. building is facing demolition this year. Abandoned for several years, the building has been broken into several times, much of its copper piping stripped away and many of its rooms now pockmarked, exposed to the elements.

Likewise, the city hall of Waterbury, Conn., has long been at the receiving-end of theft and trespassing. Three years ago, vandals entered the 90,000-square-foot building—designed by Cass Gilbert, the architect behind the Supreme Court headquarters in Washington, D.C.—and opened a water valve on its fourth floor, flooding the structure thoroughly and rendering it uninhabitable. Last year thieves removed a six-foot-long piece of copper pipe, causing significant water damage to the basement and complicating the city's proposed renovation.

It's a disturbing trend, one that thwarts the aims of preservation: Uninhabited historic structures, caught in a limbo-like state amid the preservation vs. demolition debate, are increasingly vulnerable to disrepair and theft, particularly in the light of a booming metal-scrap market.

Money Talks

In recent years, the demand for copper has substantially increased, largely from tech-centric importers like China and India, and scrap metal is now one of America's most lucrative exports. While copper is neither a precious metal nor an energy source, its conductivity makes it ideal for myriad technological and industrial uses. Smelted-down copper fixtures can be formed into wires and rods, key components of most electrical items. Scrap dealers typically pay between $3.30 and $3.80 per pound, or more than $8,000 per metric ton for the metal. The large, heavy copper pipes found in public buildings, such as civic or commercial structures, draw a high price from both legitimate and black-market metal dealers.

Vandals have been known to target buildings that are uninhabited, undergoing renovation, or mid-construction, in search of copper fixtures. Pipes, exterior rainspouts, and electrical wires are the most frequently stolen (several criminals have been electrocuted while attempting to pull copper-containing wire from walls or ceilings). The effect: flooding and resulting mold, fires, or structural damage. Often, building owners spend far more to replace or repair fixtures than the scrap-market value of the fixtures themselves.

For Camden's National Register-listed Sears building, shuttered since 1971, the stripping of copper pipes has been yet another setback to preservationists, who have promoted an adaptive-reuse idea since the building first came under consideration for demolition. This July, despite the building's landmark status, the state historic preservation office approved a demolition plan for Campbell's Soup Company—which had proposed expanding its facilities on the property—citing excessive water damage and unsafe interior conditions, and offering a $26 million subsidy for the project. At the same time, the city of Camden began pushing to have the building condemned. Campbell's drew up a plan that entailed replacing the 1927 structure with a 110-acre office park, saying it was too expensive to incorporate the Sears building into the new complex.

"It would cost $6 million simply to remediate the mold and repair the roof," Campbell's spokesman Anthony Sanzio told Preservation Online in July. "There's no copper plumbing left because it's been vandalized."

In late October, a new potential buyer stepped in, seemingly sidelining the Campbell's plan—Dr. Denim, a Philadelphia-based jeans company, has a contract to purchase the structure for $2.75 million, stating that it would move its factory and warehouse facilities there and open a retail outlet on the ground floor. But demolition, while perhaps less imminent, remains a possibility; Campbell's is still awaiting state and local approvals for its initial office-park concept, which could usurp the recent acquisition by Dr. Denim. Preservationists are wary.

"The final decision is still up in the air," says Ron Emrich, director of Preservation New Jersey. "Given the state of things, legally speaking, and all of the damage that the building has sustained, we don't really know what will happen."

Against All Odds

There's good news for the Waterbury City Hall, however, despite the effects of vandalism: the building will be restored. After the 2005 flooding, all but one city-government office was vacated from the building, and mold proliferated inside, especially on its upper floors. In 2006, the city's board of aldermen drafted a $48 million restoration proposal, but voters rejected the costly plan. After the theft this January, engineering inspections revealed more problems: vegetation-growth inside and out, and various leaks in the roof and walls, further weakening the building's interior.

The Connecticut Community Foundation, a local philanthropic and education-promoting nonprofit, was taken aback by what they saw happening to the city's historic governmental hub. In April, the group spearheaded a tour of the blighted building and a series of lectures by architects and authors, touting the benefits of preservation.

"We knew that we, ourselves, couldn't raise the money to directly help the building, but we needed to get the word out," says Ingrid Manning, CEO of the foundation. "This is such an important part of the city, designed by such a renowned architect, and something had to be done."

The well-attended tour and conference did, indeed, help prompt increased interest from citizens and local officials. In May, the board of aldermen outlined and approved a new, $36 million design alternative, which would re-integrate the fire department offices into the city hall, move all of the vacated offices back in, and wholly restore the damaged interior. Voters approved this measure, and the Waterbury Development Corporation, a public-private economic-development partnership, was taken on to oversee the project. DeCarlo and Doll, Inc., an architectural firm centered in Hamden, Conn., will begin the project next year, says Kevin Taylor, director of the Neighborhood Re-Investment Group at the Waterbury Development Corporation.

"We'd like to restore it as close to its original appearance as we can, and there's been a lot of damage. A lot of the mortar is basically gone, masonry and brickwork needs to be replaced, weeds have grown on the exterior, an outside fountain is no longer functioning. There have been many years of neglect, but it's certainly rectifiable," Taylor says. "It seems like there was little that could be done to protect the building while it was abandoned, and now we're dealing with that."

For the Sears building, still abandoned and awaiting a definite future, theft and deliberate destruction have been yet another blow. "The vandalism was the last thing [the building] needed," says Preservation New Jersey's Emrich. "We just have to wait and see."

Rachel Adams is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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One Response

  1. Arin Streeter

    February 2, 2008

    I’m curious whether there’s a legal precedent for classifying copper losses such as this as “vandalism” rather than “theft.” I experienced a similar loss recently on a building under renovation. The insurance covered “vandalism” but not “theft.” I argued in my claim that the damage done to the structure from the destructive removal of the copper wiring was more by around a factor of 100 than the value of the burned copper as scrap; i.e. that the theft value was incidental to the vandalism repair cost. The insurance company denied the claim on the basis of “proximal cause” — that the building would not have been damaged at all had the perpetrators not wanted to steal the copper, so relative costs were irrelevant.
    I notice in this article, the losses are consistently referred to as “vandalism.” Is this based on actual loss claims, insurance assessments or settlements, or legal definition?