Historic houses face demolition despite hunts for alternatives

Sunday, June 27, 2010 | 4:34 p.m. CDT; updated 9:52 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Brent Gardner, vice chair of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Commission, discusses the condition and architecture of six bungalows on Walnut Street, which are scheduled for demolition on Monday, June 28. Stephens College owns the properties and decided that demolition was cheaper than restoration or moving the houses.

*The first name of Stephens College spokeswoman Sara Fernandez was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story. Also, the city's Historic Preservation Commission was incorrectly identified.

COLUMBIA — Six bungalows on Walnut Street that caught the attention of the Historic Preservation Commission are about to disappear.

The two- and three-bedroom homes were built on Walnut Street in the 1920s and served as family homes for decades.

Then, in the 1960s, Stephens College began to buy them one by one. Under college ownership, the houses became rental properties for faculty and staff. 

A decade ago, the properties entered their darkest days, sitting empty while Stephens decided what to do with them. The college quit renting them when problems in the structures began to mount, and, until this week, they stood with cracked foundations, rotting roofs, rusted gutters and moldy interiors.

What's the law?

A relatively new city ordinance should help reduce the chances of losing historic properties to the wrecking ball. The 2008 ordinance imposes a 10-day waiting period on demolition permits to allow the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to assess the historic value of the property. The goal is to help prevent the loss of properties such as the Civil-war era Guitar Mansion that was leveled in March 2008.
From December 2008 through 2009, 32 demolition permits were issued by the city. Of these, 22 buildings could be considered historic — a building that is at least 50 years old.
All 22 of those buildings were demolished.
So far in 2010, 16 permits have been issued. Aside from the six bungalows near Stephens College, the committee has only enacted the process one other time. 
In May 2009, the committee contacted owners of an 80-year-old house on Range Line Street after the owner filed for a demolition permit.  But the owner did not return phone calls until after the demolition was complete, so the committee was unable to take any action.
The ordinance is designed to give historic advocates a chance to find alternatives to demolition, but if the owners aren’t interested in cooperating, there is no other recourse.
Commission vice chairman Brent Gardner said this was the only property that warranted intervention, until now.
Last winter the committee didn’t get any chance to intervene before the Total Environments Garden Center building on North Old 63 was demolished without a permit.  It had been recognized as a most notable historic property in February 2009.
The penalty for demolishing a building without a permit is a $100 fine for commercial buildings and a $50 fine for residential buildings. As a result of this incident the Columbia City Council is examining the permit process and a possible increase in penalties for not complying with the policies. 
In the case of the bungalows, the process worked as designed, though it did not leave all parties pleased with the outcome.
When asked if he was happy with the outcome, Gardner said, “No, but I don’t know that there’s anything else that could be done.”

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*Sara Fernandez, spokeswoman for Stephens College, said the houses were not a high priority. “With the financial struggles Stephens has gone through, this is not something we did on purpose, but we had to focus on our (academic) facilities first,” she said.

The resulting neglect has led the houses to their final days. Demolition began Monday.

Their fate, though, is only part of the story.

For the first time since the creation of an ordinance that established a process for reviewing every demolition permit, the city’s *Historic Preservation Commission acted on behalf of buildings awaiting demolition.

Since December 2008, when the new ordinance took effect, the seven-person commission has been notified of all demolition permit applications.

The new policy of including the commission began after the demolition of the Guitar House in 2008. The incident attracted community attention because the Civil War-era mansion was demolished to make way for a shopping center before residents had a chance to save it.

As a result, the Columbia City Council changed the demolition permit process to allow the Historic Preservation Commission and community members a chance to explore alternatives to demolition. Previously, applicants for a demolition permit could receive a permit within as little as 24 hours after filing and could proceed with demolition immediately. Applicants now have to wait 10 days after applying to receive the permit. During that waiting period, a sign must be placed at the demolition site and the Historic Preservation Commission is notified.

The commission can contact the property owners and discuss alternatives to demolition if it deems a property historically significant.

A historically significant property is one that is at least 50 years old and exhibits other noteworthy attributes, commission vice chairman Brent Gardner said.

“Unique architecture, or location, or a special event that occurred there, or the continuity of the neighborhood — most of them aren’t in that category,” he said.

If an agreement for alternatives cannot be reached, Gardner said the commission’s options are limited because the group has no legal authority.

“We’re stuck with documenting with pictures and salvaging historic elements,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the commission had enough time to meet with Stephens College and discuss ways to save the houses. A variety of options were explored, including moving the houses, selling the property to someone who would restore the houses or having the college renovate the houses for student or faculty use.

“I don’t think anything else can be done,” Gardner said. “It appeared they had legitimately explored the process to some depth.”

Gardner, a licensed real estate agent, estimated the cost of restoration could be $60,000 to $100,000 for each house and that the restored homes would be valued around $120,000. The lots without buildings would be worth $40,000 to $50,000 each, Gardner said. The county has appraised the houses as having no monetary value; each lot is valued at $14,300. Typically, the county's appraised value is lower than market value.

In discussions between the commission and Stephens, it was ultimately concluded that the bungalows could not be saved. With the help of the college, doors, a cabinet, grates, wall sconces and a sink were salvaged from the houses.

The demolition permitting and review processes worked as intended, but the results have left mixed feelings. For some, the demolition is disappointing. Peter Beiger, a retired Stephens College theater professor, lives a block from the bungalows and can see them from his home. 

“I can tell you, I’m just broken-hearted,” he said. “I think they’re really going to be a loss.”

The bungalows were an example of a popular Craftsman architectural style from the '20s and '30s. This type of house was a practical aesthetic option for working-class people, Beiger said. 

Tearing down the buildings makes more sense than restoring them, though, said Doug Lange, Stephens College vice president for business affairs.

“They have reached a point where we need to do something, and it’s not economically feasible to restore those houses,” Lange said. “It’s time for those houses to be torn down before they become a safety hazard to the public.”

According to Lange, the cost of demolishing all the buildings, removing the debris, grading and seeding the sites and replacing the sidewalks is just under $100,000. In the end, Stephens College officials decided demolition was the best solution. Officials are undecided on the long-term fate of the land, but for now it will be seeded with grass and left as a green area.

Liz Kennedy, a researcher for the Boone County Historical Society, lived about a block from the bungalows in a similar house until 1976, when she sold her home to a contractor to be turned into parking. She said there used to be rows and rows of these traditional style bungalows in the area before many of them were demolished to make way for the growing downtown and universities.

“There isn’t anything really unique about these houses,” Kennedy said. “Those houses have not been used in such a long time. It’s not worthwhile to fix them up, and it will probably improve the neighborhood terrifically when they’re gone. The houses are honestly an eyesore right now.”

Although she isn’t concerned about the demolition of these houses, Kennedy said she is glad the city has changed the demolition permitting process to give the Historic Preservation Committee a chance to save properties.

“Over the years, we have lost lots of really magnificent places,” she said. “People were not very conscious of their history, and Columbia has not done a very good job of maintaining its historic houses. If this waiting period had been in place before, there might have been second and third thoughts before some special houses were torn down.”

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