What We Lost, and Gained, in the Fire

Posted on: April 15th, 2009 by Guest Writer 14 Comments


Written by Justin D. Sanders

At 8:45pm last Wednesday I geared up for my favorite guilty pleasure—American Idol. I sat down on the sofa and noticed a missed call on my cell phone from Lori Ann, a local high school teacher with whom I’d been working on a restoration project. I found this odd as we had spoken a few hours earlier. I was still excited from the news she had shared with me earlier that evening.

Our first visit to the site in April 2008.

Our first visit to the site in April 2008.

I’ve been working with Lori Ann, and fellow teacher Amy, for a little over a year. Some of their students had discovered a lost treasure in the old Erwin (Tennessee) Municipal Building. A performance theater filled the second floor of this 1923 building; and while time and neglect had shadowed its former beauty, the essence of the place was still there. Amy’s Key Club students felt it only right to attempt to restore this piece of town history. Others joined from the Unicoi County High School’s theater program and the library’s Teen Advisory Group. The students quickly gained support of the school board, local government, and members of the community. The group and the project were reaching critical mass, planning fundraisers and community events, and recently beginning an oral history project to raise awareness of the building’s rich history.

So it was no surprise that I was still ecstatic when she called earlier that evening to tell me another group of students had adopted the Theater Restoration Project as its focus for the community Earth Day celebration. The students, who recognized the importance of reusing historic buildings, wanted to highlight what they called “recycling on the largest scale,” with proceeds from admissions to go to the restoration effort. I assumed she had more information, so I quickly returned her phone call.

Flames ravage the historic 1923 building.

Flames ravage the historic 1923 building.

Then, everything changed. I learned that a fire had started in the municipal building and was quickly spreading. I rushed out of my apartment and made my way towards Erwin. The calls from teachers, friends, and others started flooding my phone. At this point, the story had made it to the news media, and the images were bad. When I crested a hill entering the downtown historic district, the sight I was greeted with made my jaw drop. Flames had reached the roof of the four-story building and were at least another 15 feet in the air.

I rushed to find Amy and Lori Ann, and was met with a sea of people—mostly students, with tears in their eyes watching this project which they were so passionate about light up the sky. At that moment, the tears came for me as well. I watched the walls crumble as fire crews fought the blaze, and was told I had just missed the sound of the heavy balcony falling.

In that moment, it was easy to think that all of the past year’s work was lost. What I learned, however, is that you should never count out the determination of teenagers with a passion. Students came up to us saying that the project was bigger than one building. One student had tracked down the town mayor and asked him what other vacant building in downtown they could restore for use as a performing arts space. And another student added that “we’ll come back even bigger and better than before.”

The community of Erwin lost a venue rich with history, where music performances, countless dramas, and graduations were held. They lost a physical representation of a community rallying for a cause. But my hope is that what was gained, defiance and a resolve to move forward, will far outweigh that loss.

Justin D. Sanders is the Preservation Field Services Representative for Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia

News reports on the fire:


Learn more about our Statewide & Local Partners program.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

PiP, PiP, Hooray!

Posted on: April 14th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Written by Alissa Anderson

Go back in time with me now: it’s 2 a.m. on Christmas Eve and you’re five years old. You’re lying wide awake in your bed wearing snowman footie pajamas--so excited for Santa’s arrival (and hyper from stuffing yourself with cookies) that you can’t even close your eyes, let alone think of actually sleeping.

Now go forward in time to last night, and replace that five-year-old on Christmas Eve with me (a 22 year-old intern at National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast Office in Boston), subtract the snowman footie pajamas (er…but not the cookies), and you’ll have a near perfect idea of how I spent the short night before this morning’s Greater Boston Partners in Preservation launch.

Why was I so excited? Because today’s press conference and opening celebration was the culmination of six months of hard, hard work that our Partners in Preservation team (made up of members of our office and our headquarters in D.C., American Express, and the PR firm Conventures) has put in, largely in secret. While it has been fun telling everyone that what I’ve been doing at work is “highly confidential,” I couldn’t wait to finally reveal our chosen 25 historic places to the public!

Even before I arrived at the office today, Partners in Preservation (we call it “PiP” for short) was already surrounding me--literally: everyone in my T car seemed to have the Metro newspaper open to our ad. I surreptitiously snapped the photo (right) of the paper next to me. The best omen of the morning, however, happened at 8 a.m. as Alicia Leuba (the Director of Programs here at the Northeast Office, and my boss) and I were walking into Boston City Hall to set up for the Advisory Committee meeting. Just as we were nearing the building, the giant PiP banner suddenly unfurled from a top floor. Majestic! I felt so proud to be a part of such a wonderful program—and that pride only increased as the morning went on.

Even before the press conference in Faneuil Hall began at 10:30, representatives from some of the 25 sites had already gathered outside the building’s entrance, trying to stir up votes. Lowell’s Boat Shop reps were waving a set of oars in the air that together spelled out “LOWELLS” and “VOTE FOR LBS.” Other sites had brought costumed characters: Rachel Revere (Paul Revere’s second wife), a Civil War soldier and Victorian librarian from Edgell Memorial Library, and Faith (the central figure of Plymouth’s National Monument to the Forefathers) all made an appearance. The contingency from the Museum of African American History arrived in matching red t-shirts and hard hats.

When everyone was seated in the Great Hall and the press conference began, the excitement seemed to reach a fever pitch. Both Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino gave wonderful, supportive speeches, and as Northeast Director Wendy Nicholas introduced the 25 chosen historic sites, I found myself suddenly feeling as if I were learning about them for the first time. What an incredible collection of places we’ve assembled! How exciting to begin to hear the public’s stories about them—and to watch the votes add up! All steam ahead and PiP PiP Hooray!

To read more about our 25 Greater Boston places, and to VOTE for your favorites, don’t walk—run!—to www.PartnersinPreservation.com.

Alissa Anderson is intern at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast Office in Boston.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Vote Early, Vote Often

Posted on: April 14th, 2009 by Sarah Heffern


Voting opened today for our annual Partners in Preservation program with American Express. This year, 25 sites in Greater Boston are competing for grant money. You can vote every day between now and May 17... That's right, every single day. The winner of the popular vote is guaranteed to win a grant, so getting involved can really make a difference.

We'll have an update from today's big announcement in Boston later today, but while you're waiting, visit the Partners in Preservation site and take a look at the contenders, pick your place, and cast your first vote.

Oh, and while you're online you can also invite a friend to vote and  become a fan of Partners in Preservation on Facebook!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the social media strategist for the National Trust’s Public Affairs team. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class. Follow her on Twitter at @smheffern.


"The Onion" Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society building. [LA Times

LA Historic Building Survey: "In a city long derided for haphazard planning, a lack of appreciation for its own history and occasional dead-of-night demolitions, the survey aims to understand what remains on the ground, what has been lost and what might be worth saving from the wrecking ball." [LATimes]

Mass. Towns May Cut Property Tax Surcharge and Preservation Funds: "Under the Community Preservation Act, a surcharge of up to 3 percent is added to annual real estate tax bills. Participating towns then get a match from the state for the contributions.But some residents in the three towns are saying this money should remain in the pockets of taxpayers during tough financial times, or should be used to bolster community infrastructure." [Boston Globe]

The Street of the Future is a Livable Street: GOOD magazine provides visual examples to what makes an effective pedestrian street. Cool interactive photo provided. [GOOD]

101 Uses for a Deserted Malls: A panel of experts discusses new ideas for malls that have been hit hard due to the slumping retail industry. [New York Times]


Costan Rican Airplane Hotel Takes Flight: The Costa Verde Resort now features a hotel suite constructed in an around a 1965 Boeing 727. [Inhabitat] And for the backpacker or traveller on a budget, don't forget about the Jumbo Hostel in Stockholm.

The Preservation of Darkness: France is looking to establish an "anti-light-pollution reserve" surrounding a historic observatory in the Pyrenees. "The goal is to establish a zone with a radius of six to nine miles around the 130-year-old Pic du Midi mountain observatory so that views of the cosmos are not spoiled by intrusive light on the ground." [Discovery News]

A Weekly Dose of Architecture: Design for the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle, a renovation of a 1910 Chinatown building originally used as a home for Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants. [archidose]

The Putting Lot: "The Putting Lot examines the relevance of empty space in the city. Located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, this miniature golf course occupies what was once a vacant lot. Unused, underutilized, and otherwise empty spaces are abundant in the industrial area around The Putting Lot." Sounds like it might be tough to make a shot with the pressure of an urban landscaping looming over you...maybe Kenny Perry should get some practice in here. [ThePuttingLot]

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

The Other Side of Climate Change – Staying Healthy

Posted on: April 9th, 2009 by Barbara Campagna 2 Comments


Are walkable neighborhoods like the historic squares in Savannah, GA really good for our health?  How do we measure it?

Are walkable neighborhoods like the historic squares in Savannah, GA really good for our health? How do we measure it?

It’s always a pleasant surprise when you go to a lecture only because someone invited you, and you have the expectation of being bored, to instead discover a humorous, brilliant speaker who makes you think in ways you haven’t thought before. That’s what happened last Thursday night when I dragged myself to the National Building Museum to hear Dr. Howard Frumkin from the Centers of Disease Control speak about the impact of green building on health - How Do We Know What Makes Places Healthy? Here is a man with more degrees than my whole department (and we’re a well educated group) who was as entertaining as he was thought-provoking. His basic premise was: Are walkable, traditional neighborhoods really as healthy as they seem or do they just draw people who would be predisposed to walking anyhow?

Our Drive-Thru Lives

"The Drive-Thru Tree" in northern California Redwood country.  Are we so lazy we even have to drive through our trees?!

"The Drive-Thru Tree" in northern California Redwood country. Are we so lazy we even have to drive through our trees?!

The amazing inventions which culminated in the twentieth century engineered physical activities out of our routines and our lives. As a result we expect everything instantly and immediately. Why walk around the corner to pick up your dry cleaning if you can pull up to the front window in your car and get it instead? Indeed, why even walk around a redwood tree if you can drive through it?! (His jest not mine!) Suburban and even urban developments post-WWII were designed to move traffic, not pedestrians. We need to go back to our traditional neighborhoods and urban cores to remember the pedestrian.

Even with this though, the statistics to prove that walkable neighborhoods are better for our health are more anecdotal than actual. Architects and planners are not used to evaluating our designs and constructions empirically. Scientists at agencies like the CDC and at universities need to be working hand-in-hand with practitioners if we want to truly understand if and how good “walkable neighborhoods” are for the planet and our health.

Community Design’s Effects on Health and Well-Being

One of our basic human needs seems to be met by walking and talking in places like historic Savannah.

One of our basic human needs seems to be met by walking and talking in places like historic Savannah.

But then, at the same time, sometimes common sense is all you need to realize how healthy a walkable neighborhood is or should be. How do we balance common sense with empirical research and which is more real? Are you shaking your head right now? If you are it’s because this is the problem with almost everything related to climate change today. We all want to do what’s best, but the science is so young and evolving so quickly that what we believe for sure now, we may think silly in a year. Arrrrggghhhh. So what do we do? Well, we err on the side of what seems to make sense and move on. Dr. Frumkin mentioned eight criteria which, to him, indicate when a community is good design, healthy, and green. These were:

1. Provides many opportunities for physical activity.
2. Prevents air pollution.
3. Minimizes traffic injuries.
4. Doesn’t make climate change worse.
5. Provides many, healthy food choices within walking distance.
6. Mitigates heat island effect.
7. Improves mental health.
8. And provides positive social interaction – gives residents abilities to meet, greet, mix and mingle.

Walking and Talking

As Dr. Frumkin asked, “When was the last time you heard about a case of ‘sidewalk rage’?" A recent blog I wrote on my True Green column about the beauty of walking and “saying hello” in a historic community like Old Salem, North Carolina got more attention than almost any other blog I have written in the past two years. It would seem that people are hungry for walking and talking, and you don’t need empirical research to prove that.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Barbara Campagna

Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at bcampagna@bcampagna.com.