What do a mid-19th century church in Hawaii, an Art Deco train station in Cincinnati, a shuttered St. Louis jazz club, and the only private home in Florida designed by uber-influential American architect Frank Lloyd Wright all have in common?
These structures, along with a smattering of natural landscapes and significant sites, all appear on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, a list generated to “raise awareness about the threats facing some of the nation's greatest treasures.”
Although the annual list, now in its 27th year, has spurred preservation efforts that have indeed helped to save a majority of these in-peril sites (250 and counting) from demolition, development, and unchecked decay, it does lead to the inevitable question: how effective is inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places — along with state/local historic designations — in safeguarding a historic site?
The fact that the National Trust for Historic Preservation puts out this list ever year is basic proof that while a site or district placed on the register or bestowed with National Historic Landmark status may enjoy some level of protections and perks, it’s ultimately just as vulnerable as a non-historic property. Historic designation does not equal immunity.
Over the years, an incredibly diverse number of sites — everything from churches to lighthouses to hotels to parks to civic buildings to even entire neighborhoods, towns, counties, and states, as has been the case with Vermont which was listed in both 1993 and 2004 — have appeared on the most endangered list, some multiple times. A select few, including the old Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport, have met their demise shortly after appearing on the list.
This year’s list is composed strictly of newbies. Most of these historic sites are threatened by demolition although development, deterioration, and “insufficient protection” are also among the threats. Poor Cincinnati appears on the list twice for its grand-but-crumbling Music Hall (1878) and Union Terminal (1933), which is also in dire need of some serious TLC.
However, it’s another falling-apart site that's managed to garner a bit more attention than the rest: a two-story home on the rural outskirts of Tallahassee designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The 1954 home, dubbed Spring House, isn’t the oldest nor is it the most historically significant site to appear on 2014's most endangered list. In terms of scale, it’s modest compared to the rest of the entrants (heck, the New Jersey Palisades, in its entirety, is included). And this certainly isn’t the first time a Wright-designed structure has been deemed as endangered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation: Taliesin, Wright’s summer studio and residence in southwest Wisconsin made the cut in 1994. A building considered by many to be one of Wright’s early masterpieces, Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., appeared on the list in 2009.
What makes Spring House — also known as the George Lewis House — so special, and in turn, so at-risk, is that it is the only Wright-designed private residence in the entire state of Florida. If it is lost to further decay and damage, there will be none. (Florida Southern College outside of Tampa, however, is home to Child of the Sun, the world’s largest single-site collection of Wright-designed buildings).
The National Trust for Historic Preservation explains that the unusual, boat-shaped home, itself a rare example of Wright’s brief, late-career Solar Hemicycle series of semi-circular structures, has been subjected to a fair amount of damage over the years:
Exposure to hurricanes and wind storms has led to water intrusion, and the damage is visible throughout the interior of the house. In addition, tall cypress columns have deteriorated at their bases, and insect and woodpecker damage is apparent on the cypress siding.
And keep in mind that inclusion on the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it often serves as a call for action; it gets preservationists all fired up. Mary Jo Spector, a board member of the nonprofit preservation group Spring House Institute, tells the Tallahassee Democrat that the designation will “garner lots of donations on the national level.” All and all, the Spring House Institute hopes to raise $350,000 and snag a matching grant from the Florida Division of Historic Resources. This amount that would allow the organization to purchase the property, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, from the Lewis family and continue with ongoing repair and restoration work started in early 2013.
The Spring House Institute was founded in 1996 by Clifton Lewis, who, along with her husband George, was a trailblazing civil rights activist with interests in the arts and historic preservation. Tallahassee-born Lewis, who died in February of this year at the age of 94, founded the Institute with the intention that the nonprofit would buy the home from her estate and use it as a space to host “classes, musical events, poetry readings, community meetings, seminars, other activities associated with the arts, the environment, and world peace through law.”
According to the Spring House Institute, Clifton and George Lewis approached Wright to design a family home while attending the 1950 World Federalism Conference at Florida Southern College. They told the legendary architect that they were working with “a lot of children and not much money.” Wright, not surprisingly, was game. Four years later, Clifton and George Lewis and their four children moved into the new home on Okeeheepkee Road which cost a grand total of $42,000 to build. Wright, who died in 1959, never visited the completed home in person.
Do head over to the Spring House Institute’s homepage to read up on this rare home's history and learn more about how you can help to insure that it doesn’t make a repeat appearance on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list somwhere down the line.
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