Historic preservationists in Helena are stepping up their efforts to counter a recent acceleration in the demolition of historic homes and buildings.
“The demolition has revved up in the last 12 to 18 months,” said Beth Wiedower, who coordinates the Rural Heritage Development Initiative in Helena for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
She points to the recent dismantling of the New Light Baptist Church, a “beautiful, red brick, turn-of-the-century church” on the National Register of Historic Places. “One day the doors and the stained glass were gone,” Wiedower remembers. “Then there was an empty space where the church used to be.”
Like most of the vanishing historic properties in Helena, the New Light Baptist Church was razed by Brother Norman, who is paying property owners for the right to take down their buildings and sell the materials.
Norman’s actions are not illegal, but Wiedower is concerned that Norman’s rush to turn a profit will damage Helena’s long-term revitalization prospects.
“My frustration with all this, in addition to the great architecture that Helena is known for that we’re losing, is that this is counter to every one of our efforts,” Wiedower said. “It’s counter to the million-dollar Kellogg grant for rural heritage development, it’s counter to the consolidation efforts of Helena and West Helena, it’s counter to the Delta Bridge project and the Walton money and the work of Southern Financial Partners, and counter to all of our efforts to promote economic development and tourism, which are all means of revitalization of this town. And the more fabric we lose, it is in direct conflict with what we are trying to do.”
Wiedower said she learned that Norman is selling the building materials to a developer in Northeast Louisiana who is constructing high-end homes using old bricks and wood to provide character.
Repeated attempts to contact Norman were unsuccessful. But John Crow, who owns the historic Edwardian Inn, confirmed Norman paid him for the right to raze a circa-1870 Italianate home next door and take the old bricks and other materials.
“The house next door would have had to be rebuilt from the ground up,” Crow said. “There was just not the money for that. I don’t like to see anything torn down if you can save it.”
Helena-West Helena Mayor James Valley says that financial considerations are understandably overriding preservation efforts.
“I think they care,” Valley said of citizens’ desire to preserve their historic properties. “I think some of them get to the point where they have to choose between how much they care about history and how much they can afford to maintain it.”
But Wiedower said there are additional options.
“That’s where I feel we failed,” she said. “The owners are not aware of programs available to provide money to upkeep these structures, or the real value and worth of them. And that’s partially our fault because we were not doing the outreach that we need to promote those opportunities, financial and technical assistance.”
For the time being, preservationists are asking for stricter city regulations for historic structures in the immediate downtown. The City Council will hold a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. April 3 on a minimum maintenance amendment to the historic district ordinance that would impose a fine on property owners who do not sustain a certain degree of upkeep for buildings on and around Cherry Street, which is Helena’s most distinctive area.
Then, on March 22, the council will consider a proposal to expand the Cherry Street historic district to include Walnut Street, thereby capturing the old black business district, where Norman has recently dismantled several buildings. The historic district commission must approve any work on structures within the district’s borders.
But even that won’t address the larger issue, Wiedower said.
“We certainly can’t blanket the whole community with a historic district,” she said. “But we can raise awareness among the community so that there is a public outcry the next time Brother Norman goes to someone. Had we had a conversation with New Light, and if they knew the availability for funds and technical assistance, maybe that building would still be standing.
“When you don’t see the immediate economic impact of something like historic preservation or heritage tourism, you may think, ‘I need to pay rent next month, so I’m willing to tear this down,’ ”
Wiedower continued. “But we’ve got something unique and distinctive that other people want to see, that has value, and we have to raise awareness internally for that and by doing so, we’re educating about the economic value of our heritage and our history.”