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Tearing Down History to Make Way for Progress

By J. L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent for The Nebraska Press Assoc.

Another Nebraska community has demolished an historic brick school building so it doesn’t stand in the way of progress. Despite recent efforts to save the building and its twin across town, local officials said hallelujah when the dilapidated property was purchased from a stubborn owner after years of negotiating.

A section of the school that had the name carved in elegant terra cotta will be incorporated into the new neighborhood being created and will pay homage to the past, according to the mayor. That’s a familiar bone thrown to preservationists who have failed in their attempts to convince those in power of the economic sense behind adaptive re-use that has proven, time and again, that renovation costs much less per square foot than demolition and building new.

It’s also a way to cover up the fact that those same city fathers failed to address the deterioration early on by prohibiting or, at least, punishing those who did inappropriate things with the massive structures. In this case, the owner stored grain in part of the building at one point and that attracted countless vermin that exacerbated the deterioration process. Time and inattentiveness did the building in.

Here’s a call to elected officials and citizen watchdogs alike to start paying attention to Nebraska’s historic built environment and exploring ways to creatively re-use it at best. At the very least, how about deconstructing it instead of demolishing it. There is value in using old brick and wood and steel and glass. Recycling building materials. Saving the environment and energy.

Across the state, it’s hats-off to the Wayne County Fair Board, which saved the 52-stall horse barn, which stood for four decades at State Fair Park in Lincoln. The structure was purchased a couple years ago when the University of Nebraska took over the state fairgrounds after the fair was moved to Grand Island. It was in place for the Wayne County Fair last month. The 40-foot-by-260-foot open-air facility was purchased to replace old wooden horse barns that were deteriorating. New life for an old structure. Total cost, not counting volunteer labor and in-kind donations, between $60,000 and $70,000.

What about that former state fairgrounds in Lincoln? Work progresses on the remodeling of the old 4-H Building and a new addition. Work also continues on the deconstruction of part of the Industrial Arts Building, which will have a new second floor addition but retain its iconic trapezoidal shape and elegant Palladian windows on the first floor. Note the new structures at the Grand Island State Fair campus feature brick facades with that same window style.

Saving the Industrial Arts Building was a rallying point for preservationists who rarely win in battles with major universities. A website, a Facebook group, a designation from the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of the 11 most endangered buildings in 2011 and a sympathetic developer all helped save the structure. Architect’s estimates at the time said renovation of the IAB would cost $90 to $125 per square foot. Demolition and building new would cost $175 to $250 per square foot. Makes economic sense.

New life will allow the IAB to stand for years into the future as a tribute to the elegant exposition style architecture that was the Nebraska State Fair. Imagine, incorporating history INTO progress.