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Historic black buildings aren’t being preserved. Here’s where they are

We aren’t doing enough to preserve black historic sites.

Historic black buildings aren’t being preserved. Here’s where they are
Explore the map here. [Image: NetCredit]

It doesn’t look like much from the outside now.

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The Ada Hanna School in Hamilton, Alabama, is a squat, flat-roofed, single-floor brick building surrounded by overgrowth. The front door is boarded over; its front facade is covered in graffiti, and it’s been subject to arson. But as one of about 5,000 “Rosenwald schools” developed in part by Booker T. Washington and built to provide a better learning environment for rural black kids facing a segregated educational system, it used to welcome the local community on a much more regular basis. Now, it’s at risk of demolition, and it’s one of 50 sites highlighted in an illustrated map of the most at risk buildings in the U.S.

There are some buildings, or, at least, designers on the list with which you might be more familiar. Take the Booth Cottage designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1913, which is in danger of a tear-down, or the Weiss House, by renowned architect Louis Kahn, built in 1950. It’s at risk of being “subdivided,” according to the list.

But the most striking insight is that we aren’t doing enough to preserve buildings of historic significance to the African American community.

See all 50 illustrations here. [Image: NetCredit]

Connecticut’s Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed as among the 11 most endangered places in 2018, are a good example. Yes, their architecture is unique: Eliza’s 1848 home was built in the Greek Revival style, and Mary’s was an “Italianate” duplex, with main entrances under a second-story piazza. But they also have important historical significance: They’re the state’s oldest black-built homes, and the last in a former neighborhood called “Little Liberia.”

There’s also the Excelsior Club in North Carolina, which was built in an Art Moderne-style in 1944 and was an important African American social club through the middle of the last century. It was also put on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list in 2019, and a developer just purchased it in December.

The fate of Virginia’s Carr-Greer Farmhouse is up to Albemarle County. According to the list, an emancipated slave named Hugh built the farmhouse in the 1880s, and the structure is valuable as both an architectural and historic artifact. The country has reportedly funded emergency repairs, but time will tell if more substantial investment will be made.

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While the map offers a bird’s-eye view of American architectural styles over the centuries, the bigger, more frustrating story is one of undervaluation. It’s been going on for decades—and a big component is bias that’s built into systems that determine whether certain structures are worth protecting. According to The New Yorker‘s Casey Cep, one of the criteria for protection by the National Historic Preservation Act is architectural significance, so more “modest” buildings aren’t considered. By the time this major flaw was noticed, some buildings were in such bad shape they were beyond saving. “Destruction abetted decay, and some historically black neighborhoods were actively erased—deliberately targeted by arson in the years after Reconstruction or displaced in later decades by highway construction, gentrification, and urban renewal,” Cep writes.

At least nine endangered buildings on this list have historic African American significance, and others on the map have ties to indigenous and Latinx communities. The alarm bell is sounding. What are we going to do so that even more of these buildings aren’t a thing of the past?

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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