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Young Rust Belt Preservationists Banding Together to Save Industrial Heritage

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Common challenges include preserving centers of manufacturing and creating the conditions for creative reuse

During an election season with a focus on manufacturing and American jobs, it’s hard to escape mention of the Rust Belt and its importance to the race. While many have rightfully focused on workers and economic revitalization, that same concern hasn’t been shown to the physical reminders of U.S. manufacturing across the region. The challenge of protecting and preserving the region’s architectural history, and using it as a catalyst for future development, has led a group of young preservationists to try and find new means to publicize and protect endangered sites.

The Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists, bringing together smaller groups from New York, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, meets for its first summit this upcoming weekend in Pittsburgh. Hosted by the Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh, the meetup aims to establish a regional network, share strategy, and create a support system for new and nascent groups forming around the region.

Mike Panzitta, of the Young Preservation Association of Pittsburgh, says part of the reason to band together is that each city faces a similar story, but has similar opportunities.

"Many of the areas we’ve reached out to have experienced the same early 20th century industrial boom, and the same disinvestment in manufacturing in the late 20th century," says Panzitta. "So the kind of re-emergence of cities we've seen out East in and Sun Belt, the rebound, hasn’t been seen here as much. But the lack of investment, and the corresponding lack of demolition in historic areas, means that we have an opportunity to save historic buildings."

The groups also have another thing in common; trying to lower the average age of preservationists and spur more youth involvement, since many often stereotype fellow preservationists as older and more established. That doesn’t bother Panzitta, because he sees preservation in these region tied to the millennial move back into cities, and the redevelopment of cities such as Cleveland.

In a landscape filled with historic structures lacking proper funding for preservation, Panzitta and others sees these empty lofts and historic buildings in cities across the regions as opportunities, sites that can be redeveloped and serve as bases of operation for the next century’s innovators, business leaders, and startups.

To get a sense of the projects that members of the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists are working on, we asked groups to share some of the buildings currently on their radar.

National Negro Opera Company Building (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh)

This building on 7101 Apple Street in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood was home to the first ever National Negro Opera Company, and served many purposes during the 20th Century, including a boarding house for people who weren’t welcomed in other city hotels because of their race or ethnicity, such as musicians Nina Simone and Lena Horne, and Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente. A cultural hub of African American high society in the 40s and 50s, it was nicknamed "Mystery Manor" due to the number of well-dressed people pouring out of limousines at all hours of the night. While many people consider 7101 Apple Street to be one of the most storied and historically significant sites in Pittsburgh, the National Negro Opera Company House today stands in a state of disrepair.

Monessen Savings and Trust Bank (Monessen, Pennsylvania: Young Preservationists Association of Pittsburgh)

Located in the southwestern corner of Westmoreland County, the City of Monessen is a historic and active industrial mill town. The City’s downtown thrived with a mix of businesses including the Monessen Savings and Trust Bank. The Beaux Arts-style building was completed in 1905 and served as a bank into the 1920s.Today, there are as many as 300 buildings on the City of Monessen’s blight list, including the Savings and Trust Bank. For many small towns in the rust belt region and across the country, demolition is often considered to be the first solution to reduce blight, but more often than not, that leads to a new problem: vacant land in historic main street areas. Monessen resident, high school band director, and Young Preservationist Matthew Shorraw is working to fight the notion that demolition is a solution by focusing on this site as an opportunity for adaptive reuse. He sees the site as a terrific opportunity to establish an arts and music center with a local coffee shop to serve the residents of Monessen.

The Rainbow Cathedral (Muncie, Indiana: Preserve Greater Indy)

Located at 326 West Charles St., this church served as Muncie’s first LGBT church. Located close to downtown, the space offers numerous opportunities for reuse.

Service Station (Muncie, Indiana: Preserve Greater Indy)

This vacant, historic service station at the corners of Madison and Adams streets retains many original features, while being flexible for a new use.

Dennison Hotel (Cincinnati, Ohio: Young Ohio Preservationists)

Constructed in 1890 as an ironworks for a carriage manufacturer, G. B. Schulte Sons Company, this building eventually became the Hotel Dennison, a 100-plus room hotel that became a nine-story staple of Cincinnati's skyline. In 2011, the structure was purchased for $700,000 by the Model Group, with the intent to convert the building into apartments. The group applied for historic tax credits, secured funding from the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, but unfortunately the plan never came to fruition. Due to its location in the Cincinnati East Manufacturing and Warehouse District, proposed demolition of the building will be evaluated by Cincinnati’s Historic Conservation Board on April 18.

Science Hall Athens (Athens, Ohio: Young Ohio Preservationists)

Ohio University in Athens is planning to demolish one of its oldest structures, Science Hall. Designed by Frank Packard, a famous Ohio architect in the early 20th century who designed many campus buildings, the building is a candidate for demolition, to free up space for an improved facility.

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