LITTLE BIG TOWN: How Akron’s Unique History Has Impacted its Architecture
I - Introduction: The City Around Us
When I look at what other cities have been doing with historic preservation, creative redevelopment and city planning, it’s easy to get frustrated living here in Akron.
Now I would be remiss if I let this overall disappointment cast a shadow on the great efforts of individuals like Tony Troppe, who has single handedly carved his own historic district out of downtown Akron. Likewise, on a larger scale, Stuart Lichter’s Industrial Realty Group has imaginatively helped preserve what’s left of our industrial past, through projects like Canal Place, and most recently, the East End development.
It’s also true that, scattered here and there, we have examples of enlightened institutions and developers preserving and re-purposing some great old buildings. Just look at our old downtown libraries and post offices, Polsky’s and O’Neils, The YMCA, the Howe House, the Akron Airport Terminal, the Civic Theater and some others. You could also note that very, very few of these examples pre-date 1920 — but more on that later.
As I said, these efforts are scattered — and that may offer a hint to my disappointment, which surrounds the piecemeal, half-hearted and sometimes self-congratulating way Akron has approached historic preservation.
One reason for this is that city administrations over the past sixty years have never solidly embraced the inherent value of historic preservation; indeed, a few have almost declared war upon it. Economic development has always been the key driver — if we can manage to save a few historic old buildings, then that’s nice, too. It’s as if no one in Planning and Urban Development has ever fully grasped that historic preservation has its own economic benefits, or can have a critical impact in developing and enhancing the identity of an area, or a neighborhood. That’s one thing we need to look at.
Also understand that when I talk about historic preservation, I am not talking about the preservation and maintenance of house museums like Stan Hywet, the Perkins Mansion, the John Brown Home or Hower House. I am also not discussing preservation of individual historic landmarks — like the Civic Theater as an entertainment venue, the O’Neil House as a bed and breakfast, or the Goodyear Airdock as a fantastic eyeful of building that has to be seen to be believed. For the most part, and for what we have, Akron does a pretty good job with these types of things
I’m really talking about buildings, spaces and places; some notable and attractive, some more modest and ordinary — but all of which can combine to enrich the fabric of our city landscape, preserve our history and collective memory, and enhance the value and attractiveness of our neighborhoods.
Akron probably isn’t big enough to have a local architecture critic writing a newspaper column, that’s true — although, during some periods of our history, there were probably enough new and notable buildings being built to keep a critic busy. Maybe too many for a town of this size. And there lies part of the problem.
The Long View: Akron is Different
What is lost on many people — even those who have lived in Akron for their entire lives — is that our city is unique, particularly for its size. During several historic periods, much of the architectural and visual character of the city was totally ripped away and replaced by something new. Part of this was pure accident. Part was due to the tidal wave of growth that engulfed the city after the turn of the 20th century. And part of it was the mindless advance of “Urban Renewal” that erased so much of our history during the 1960’s and 70’s.
Very large cities, like Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Detroit, could maintain a decent inventory of old buildings due — if nothing else — to the sheer volume that was available. This is why, given generally similar economic and historic patterns, those larger cities can still boast sizeable “Victorian” neighborhoods, or “Warehouse Districts”.
For example, this residual abundance allows post-industrial, loft-style living as an option in most large cities, but in Akron, we are forced to simulate that experience by building a new building (Northside Lofts). The apartments at East End, in old Goodyear Hall, come slightly closer from a historic standpoint, but are not true “loft style living.” (To be technical, they are converted offices, not a former industrial space; i.e., (soft) loft vs. (hard) loft.)
Downtown Akron used to be packed with old warehouses and industrial buildings that could have been utilized in this fashion; up until the late 60’s, the space between the University of Akron and downtown was a sea of such buildings, large and small. I don’t point this out to lament their passing, only so that we can recognize that central Akron used to look far different than it does today. Find an old postcard or overhead photo (probably taken from a blimp) and you’ll see what I mean.
As for “Victorian” neighborhoods, there are areas of West Hill and University Park that still have a significant number of pre-1900 houses. Highland Square has some, and the Hall Park allotment found there is a historic district, though the houses there date from roughly 1902–1919. Other distinctive and historically significant pre-1920 neighborhoods, like the original Goodyear Heights and Firestone Park allotments exist as well.
Yet, in terms of preservation or promoting their historic nature, the City of Akron has pretty much left these areas to their own devices. The block grants that were made available in many of these neighborhoods did not focus on providing any meaningful advice (other than a booklet) to homeowners on historically sensitive restoration. Shamefully, the only educational program which has addressed this at all was offered by the Cleveland Restoration Society in 2007.
In the following section, we’ll show that for its size, Akron represents a unique case study in how history, economics, geographic size and location — not to mention pure chance — can impact the visual and architectural character of a city. Subsequently, we’ll also see that over the years, our local government’s efforts toward meaningful preservation, or support and promotion of any existing character has been pretty inadequate.
Early Akron: After the Canal Years
The visible and rapid change that Akron has experienced throughout its past is not especially unique — although the speed, visible effects and lasting impact are rather singular, as we will see. If a visitor to Akron in 1840 would have been impressed with the prosperous and rowdy canal town, they would have been stupefied at the burgeoning industrial metropolis that greeted them in the 1890’s. By that time, the canal had been swallowed up by a city that was packed with large factory operations — many of which were world leaders in their industries — Farm Equipment (Buckeye Mower and Reaper), Cereal (Shumacher and later American Cereal/Quaker Oats), Book Publishing (Werner Company) and Clay Products (Robinson, Buckeye and Summit).
Besides the forgotten canal itself, the Old Stone School and Richard Howe’s house, most of 1840’s Akron had been wiped away by the late 19th century.
Other than a handful of ancient and forgotten houses, the Perkins Mansion and John Brown Home, the restored Mustill Store and lock ruins, there is almost nothing left of Canal Era Akron. There are outlying bits and pieces — the rare Greek-Revival house near an old horse-and-wagon byway — perhaps reaching out towards Copley, Tallmadge, Springfield or Bath. Otherwise, there is only the Ohio Canal itself — and the lakes that fed it.
The Vivacious Victorian Era / Pre-WWI
From the 1870’s to the eve of World War I, Akron was a busy place, but most of that business and industry was focused towards the center of town and toward the east, in old Middlebury. Reflecting this, the city’s grandest Victorian era homes were first located along East Market Street, and very soon thereafter expanded in the opposite direction, along West Market. Due to the incredible prosperity seen in Akron during the late Victorian period (and Edwardian, we could also say — up to WWI) the city was filled with many large and beautiful homes, and a large number of impressive commercial buildings and schools.
Grandest of these may have been the original Buchtel College, which succumbed to fire in 1899. But there were many others; the old Summit County Jail, The German-American Music Hall, blocks full of impressive commercial buildings on Main St., the old Central High School…the list goes on. Unfortunately, none of those are left. The few examples we have, like the Werner Office Building on North Union, The Byron Robinson Mansion (1905) on Buchtel, some churches and, of course, what late Victorian-era houses remain in West Hill, Highland Square and University Park — represent just a tiny fraction of structures built during this period.
From an industrial standpoint, there are a few surprising survivors from this period, though they are located in areas of town where you might seldom venture, or where they are obscured from view behind more modern buildings. Examples include the old boiler works on Bank Street, the Kenmore trolley barns south of Summit Lake, the Selle works just south of Cedar St., the old machine works on Carroll Street, just west of Market, and the Bluff St. warehouse, north of Perkins St. overlooking the valley.
Of course, Akron is not alone in having lost a number of significant Victorian and Pre-WWI buildings to the ravages of age, time and progress; we know old, outmoded school buildings get torn down all the time. But considering the huge economic, physical and architectural impact this period had on the city, it is somewhat surprising that so little remains.
However, there is a good reason for this, and we’ll take a look at in in Part II of this article.
II - The Tire Tsunami
So, having passed through the Victorian period and witnessed a prosperous, fast growing town totally transformed by successful industry and commerce by — let us say, 1910 — we are left with the puzzling fact that there is so little evidence of this left to see today. What gives?
The primary cause for this is the unique history of Akron itself; the city that, by 1920, could claim to be “one of the fastest growing cities in the world.”
What really sets Akron apart is that — in the space of about thirty years — that “binge and purge” scenario seen in the Victorian era happened all over again, but at a level that was totally unprecedented. By 1929, many of those older industries were fading; rubber was the new kid in town, and huge new factories expanded throughout the city almost overnight. From 1910–1920 alone, the city experienced an incredible growth in population, going from just over 69,000 residents to over 208,000 — and it would reach 255,000 by 1930.
Imagine for a moment, if today’s Akron tripled its population in 10 years to almost 600,000 residents. Even with today’s advanced technology, it would present an incredible strain on the city’s physical and geographic resources. With demand for housing and building space growing at a fever pitch, little existing real estate — regardless of its architectural “value” — would resist developers who could profit from taking advantage of that demand. We see this today in places like San Francisco, with the growth in tech.
One might almost think of the Rubber Boom as an economic tidal wave that swept in and swept away most of pre-WWI Akron. The difference is, when a tidal wave recedes and goes back out to sea, there is nothing left; in the case of Akron, the water receded and left a bigger brighter, louder, shinier and far more crowded new city.
Much of what was left behind during that wave can still been seen today. From downtown landmarks like O’Neils, Polsky’s, the YMCA, the old Mayflower Hotel, the Beacon Journal building, the Civic Theater and the First National Tower…to the neighborhoods surrounding the central city…a great deal of what we see in Akron today stems from this period. Things happened fast; so naturally, the quality varies. At its best, we have attractive residential areas like Northwest Akron and Fairlawn Heights. Likewise, planned neighborhoods like Goodyear Heights and Firestone Park were remarkable examples of the best ideas in residential, “garden-city” planning that the period had to offer. At the other extreme, we have blocks and blocks of hastily constructed worker housing — the well-known four-square Akron vernacular house — 2–1/2 storeys, full-width front porch, hip-roofed or gable facing the street — sturdy, perhaps, but crowded too close together on narrow, gridded streetscapes.
Until recently, most of Akron’s schools were from this period as well, but the much-needed city-wide rebuilding program has swept most of them away. Hopefully, a few of the remaining examples can be preserved through some type of adaptive (and imaginative) re-use.
Another victim of this rapid growth was the city’s infrastructure. A friend once commented on his puzzlement that while incredible forethought and planning had gone into designing the city’s water supply after WWI, it seemed little thought had gone into planning for the sewer system. My response was that such a situation was entirely logical — since obtaining a safe, high-quality water supply was a high priority, while getting rid of the used water was a far lower priority. With the city’s rapid growth, and block-after-block of new houses constantly going up, there was simply no time to develop a long range sewer plan; the concept of combined sewers worked for the most part, and that was good enough. It’s a predictable development that we are now just paying for today in our sewer and water bills.
A Second 20th Century Wave
If, over a hundred years, a town or city sees one major wave of economic prosperity that leaves a memorable stamp on its visual aspect and overall character, that is indeed fortunate. After WWII, and up to about 1960, Akron was experiencing its third such wave.
With the Depression, the population of the city had actually dropped during the 1930’s — from approximately 255,000 to 244,000. But the post-WWII boom had sent it upward again, reaching over 290,000 by 1960. Post-war prosperity and the growth of the auto industry ensured that Akron’s good times would continue, as more cars meant more tires. A lot more tires.
From a visual and architectural perspective, this period was perhaps not quite as destructive as those previous. It might be more correct to describe it as additive; it included thousands of compact cape-cod houses, loads of 24 x 40 tract housing, and newer, more modern schools and strip shopping centers — mostly built on the city’s outer fringes. It brought modest expansion at the University of Akron, as well as newer, more modern commercial infill in established areas like downtown — where decrepit, nondescript turn-of-the-century buildings were casually replaced.
When we think of this period downtown, we think of the old Scott’s store, the Greyhound Bus and Union Railroad Depots, the old WADC radio building at Mill & Main — none of which are still standing. Commercial shopping areas, like Eastgate Plaza, Midway Plaza, Arlington Plaza and Fairlawn Plaza generally date from this period, as do many other banks, auto dealerships, medical and other commercial buildings found throughout the city. Unfortunately, many of the buildings in this group that are already gone are also the same ones which warranted any architectural merit or which generated any strong sense of nostalgia.
By 1960, Akron was at its high-water-mark in terms of population with almost 300,000 residents. In terms of residential neighborhoods, this is essentially the Akron we see today. While there were some new neighborhoods added around the periphery over the last 60 years (and a few additions near the city center, like Cascade Village and Hickory Street) most of the city’s housing stock was in place by the time President Kennedy took office.
The biggest influence on Akron’s built environment would not be another economic boom. Instead, the face of Akron would be altered by two modern phenomena: Post-War Highway Construction and the era of “Urban Renewal”, which started in the late 1940’s but really didn’t significantly impact Akron until the mid-to-late 1960’s.
Having known nothing but expressways in Akron all of my own life, it’s hard to know the impact their construction had during the 1950’s, as the city was sliced into four quadrants by the new major highways and sections of neighborhoods were cut off from one another. I’ve never spoke to anyone alive and living in those neighborhoods during those years about what that experience must have been like; certainly it had a substantial physical, psychological (and of course, visual) effects, some of which last even to this day. A similar, but perhaps more detrimental, effect was seen with the creation of the Innerbelt in the 1970’s, which cut a large swath of the near west side off from downtown, further isolated the central business district and resulted in the quintessential “Road to Nowhere.”
The modern phenomenon of Urban Renewal, which swept across America after WWII, represented another tidal wave of visual and physical change that swept away even more of old Akron. Federal money was made available to clear away blocks and blocks of old, blighted real estate — replacing ancient eyesores with new athletic fields (UA’s Lee Jackson Field), massive parking lots, and “clean, open and modern” civic gathering places, like Cascade Plaza and the Superblock.
Today, looking back on the growth of the University of Akron, it’s hard to argue against the need for more recreational space that Lee Jackson Field represented. The houses that were cleared away were old and unremarkable, and some of their contemporaries still exist south of East Exchange. It does seem strange, however, that these athletic fields, which have been put to good use over the past 50 years, may now give way to a grand new south “entrance” to the University — something which may offer a more symbolic than practical benefit.
III - Downtown Akron: Failed Experiments, Happy Accidents
When it comes to changes in the built environment that have been brought on by Urban Renewal, Akron’s downtown speaks volumes. The vast majority of commercial buildings that once stood here — from the Victorian period up to the mid 1960’s — are all gone. Central to this was the removal of old Howard Street and the intersection with Main, where the Flatiron building once stood, all cleared out to make way for the urban planner’s mid-century fantasy of Cascade Plaza.
For those who never saw it, old Howard Street had for many years been a popular “commercial street”, second only to Main Street itself as a vibrant center of activity. Of course, like secondary downtown sectors in many American cities, it had fallen on hard times, and by the early 1960’s was seen as nothing but a dilapidated collection of aging eyesores that no longer served their purpose. So it was that the proponents of Urban Renewal decided to remove the south end of Howard Street altogether, from Main to Market, and replace it with Cascade Plaza — and later, The Superblock.
When I was nine years old, I can remember my mother letting me walk down Main Street at mid-day (while she shopped at O’Neil’s and Polsky’s — yes, in 1967 you could do that and be safe) to stand and watch them take the wrecking ball to the Flatiron Building.
Like many 1960’s-era Urban Renewal projects, Cascade Plaza was supposed to transform a blighted area into a modern-day Akron Acropolis — complete with modern new office buildings, a new hotel and plenty of open, concrete-paved gathering space, with a fountain and an ice-skating area where citizens could gather. It even seemed to fulfill this purpose for a few years; the plaza was the place where international Soap Box Derby champs were greeted, and later, where popular downtown concerts were held.
But like a lot of Urban Renewal concepts, the reality never really matched the vision. Other than a few office workers taking lunch there on sunny days, the plaza never became the agora-like gathering place that planners envisioned. The reasons for this were reasonably evident; the plaza was well above street level — so even if there was something interesting going on, it was visually cut off from the street activity below, so no passer-by would be able to see it.
Secondly, it soon became clear that broad concrete plazas were not especially warm or welcoming, especially in northern climates. During most of the year, and generally surrounded by unremarkable modern architecture, it had all the charm of a parking lot — which it was, essentially — under the pavement.
The phenomenon of the Superblock was soon to follow, with its large, orange brick office towers at one end and a new Federal office building at the other, supplemented with huge parking decks at the rear and underneath. Since downtown had lost so much retail business to the area’s shopping malls, it was decided to create a modest retail space on the site — The Orangerie Mall — to provide some ancillary services and a mixed use component to the project. Perhaps the thinking was, “if we can’t beat them, we’ll join them”, by offering a “mall-like” experience.
Over the years, The Orangerie has seen mixed reviews; as an indoor retail space, it’s always been a slave to daytime office activity, and its lack of a visual presence on Main Street means that business generally dies off weekdays at 5pm, when the offices close.
Today, the old buildings and shop fronts of old Main Street and Howard Street would be prized for their architectural diversity and quirkiness, and the mixed use opportunities for retail and entertainment businesses in such a sector would be highly valued. Think of East 4th or West 6th Street in Cleveland, or West 25th or Market Avenue in Ohio City, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. While areas like these in larger cities were able to “hide” long enough to escape the scourge of Urban Renewal, Akron’s size and certain geographic / economic factors made this sort of benign preservation just about impossible. Hemmed in by a valley to the north, a hill to the west, the University and a railway to the East, and the sprawling BF Goodrich complex to the south, Akron’s central business district was never that big to begin with. When the time or opportunity for rebuilding came, the choices were limited — and the easiest thing to do was to tear down an existing structure.
Over the last two decades, additional redevelopment on Main Street has witnessed additional clearing of Akron’s architectural past, with mixed results. Lock 3 became possible with the demolition of a stretch of retail buildings reaching from the north side of O’Neils almost to the Civic Theater. Originally, the plan was to construct a new downtown retail/mixed use space at street level; but when the Cleveland-area developer failed to get the project off the ground, the open space began to be utilized for special events and concerts. Today, it remains as a park — and a popular downtown venue.
In many ways, this was a worthy trade-off, since it opened up sections of the old canal and created a needed public space; grassy and inviting and easily viewed from Main Street. Indeed, this vital and much-used gathering place turned out to be everything Cascade Plaza was originally envisioned to be — including its own portable ice skating rink, which is actually utilized during the winter. It is ironic that such a space as Lock 3, created almost by accident, has done so well, when Cascade Plaza, created by “professional” urban planners, has never come close to reaching its potential. Perhaps it is a small lesson we should not forget.
Similarly, Canal Park has provided a welcome visual and economic boost to Main Street, though a number of older buildings were also sacrificed in its construction. Some might miss the slick, moderne Scott’s store at Main and Center, or The Bank at the old Anthony Wayne Hotel, but in the end, the baseball stadium is a worthy replacement that provides a strong social, visible and economic benefit to Akron’s downtown.*
- Strangely enough, the ballpark’s location also echoes a Master Plan that was developed for the Akron Chamber of Commerce around 1920. Long before Polsky’s, O’Neil’s, the Mayflower or the YMCA were built, this part of downtown was low, open, and somewhat dilapidated — nestled between higher ground on the east and west. Planners had envisioned clearing this area out and erecting a stately railroad terminal overlooking this space from the east (behind the Mayflower, on Broadway) and a large, broad municipal building of some sort flanking it on the west (on Bowery). Probably imagined in some impressive beaux-arts design, the two structures would have faced off across an open, park-like mall, with a small, canal-fed lake — located just about where the baseball diamond is today. Perhaps what seemed like the most natural place for a grassy field 90 years ago still remains the best spot today.
A much weaker case exists for some other downtown projects. Long ago lauded as Akron’s version of Donald Trump, one might have expected David Brennan to leave a more inspiring visual legacy than Main Place — which resembles a dark Borg cube rising up from a screen of beige waffle fries. Even worse is the tan, nondescript “structure” that is now located where the Portage Hotel used to be. Why they tore down the Akron Armory to build the [yawn] Ocasek Building, when there was a vacant lot available on Main Street next to the Federal Building, is still somewhat of a mystery. And I am not surprised that the University demolished the slick streamline-era Greyhound Bus Terminal to erect a new College of Business Administration, formerly referred to as “the Lego Building.”
At the southern end of downtown, whole blocks of older buildings have been replaced by new mixed use retail/entertainment/residential developments that fulfill many of the same functions as the originals. Indeed this entire portion of downtown is barely recognizable, as it is now dominated by large scale housing designed for college students. These massive blocks now surround the art deco Beacon Journal building like a bunch of big, post-modern bullies. Then again, maybe the BJ building had it coming; it had after all, replaced the beautiful old German-American Music Hall that was built on that spot in 1904.
Parking lots and roads have also taken their toll on downtown Akron, from the empty lots across from Canal Park to the Martin Luther King/End-of-the-Innerbelt divide that completely cut off the tip of North Main Street. The result was a small island of dining, retail, entertainment and residential activity, perched over the edge of the deep valley between downtown and North Hill. Today, you can still get a great pizza, hear some great blues, get a bike fixed, or very soon, stay the night at an attractive new hotel. Somehow, this spot has happily defied all attempts at its destruction, and continues to be a great example of urban survival.
For the most part, however, the majority of the newer buildings we see in downtown Akron are less attractive and interesting than the structures that were torn down to accommodate them. There are exceptions. The Akron Art Museum addition, The STEM School (formerly the Inventors Hall of Fame), John S. Knight Center, and the expanded Akron/Summit County Public Library represent bold and original — or at least highly competent — architectural statements.
IV - The View Today
What we are left with, then, is a mixed bag. Historically speaking, aside from a few older residential enclaves and historic sites, little remains of Akron as it existed from the Canal Period (1825) to before the First World War (1914). There is still a strong visual remnant of the major Boom Years (1914–1930) including commercial and industrial buildings, churches, and a significant percentage of our neighborhoods. Still, time and economics have taken its toll on these as well, and we must act soon if they are to be preserved.
Unlike their residential counterparts, a number of commercial buildings that appeared during the era of the Post-WWII Boom, which lasted up until about 1960, have also been hit hard by newer replacements, urban renewal and changing economics. Think of the many medium-sized neighborhood grocery stores (like Acme) which have been replaced by larger, mega-stores serving several neighborhoods. While many post-war shopping centers survive, others have been swept away completely (like Akron Square, at Arlington and Waterloo Rd.) or lie almost empty. Small and redundant bank branches, even the lowly gas station has suffered a similar fate; most are located only at major intersections, and where several may have served a neighborhood 50 years ago, almost none are to be found.* I point this out, not to claim that gas stations or even nondescript grocery stores are meaningful in terms of architectural preservation, but only to show that societal and economic changes can render an entire type of building irrelevant and subject to disappearance in a relatively short time. This is true everywhere, not just in Akron.
*I grew up near Six Corners in Goodyear Heights, and in 1970 there were three gas stations at this major intersection. The Heights was also served by several other gas stations on Newton Street, Bauer Blvd., Eastland Ave. and Darrow Road. Thankfully, better mileage has resulted in less need for gas stations, but today, there may be just one gas station in Goodyear Heights, and it’s practically in Tallmadge.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing we are left with is that the broad “sweeping away” of many commercial sections of town have left Akron with far fewer historic architectural resources available to so many other cities, big and small — especially near downtown. We have no warehouse districts or blocks of old commercial streets that are scaled for walking; we had them once, but over a period of many years, we managed to tear most all of them down.
The Future: Historic Preservation — or Heritage Conservation?
There has begun to be a discussion in some circles as to whether efforts focused on protecting our historical built environment should be characterized as preservation or conservation. Some have begun to see the traditional concept of preservation as appearing restrictive and generally unwelcome by the public at large — who often view it as a bar to progress, an invasion of property rights, and an unwelcome government intrusion. Though many of us who are familiar with the aims of historic preservation know better, one only has to go into an old neighborhood and start asking people about establishing a historic district to see what I mean; the looks on peoples’ faces and general wariness will often make this plain.
Though it may simply be a matter of semantics, proponents of conservation seem to feel it may be more readily accepted; recognizing that not every single old structure is able to be preserved, and that age alone does not make a building historic. To some, heritage also denotes an emphasis on local tradition and a community’s shared memory, and that focusing on these elements enables people to more readily get behind efforts to save old structures.
Regardless of the way they are characterized, efforts to conserve and protect the remnants of Akron’s architectural heritage need to be better-focused and expanded throughout the community. Several important groups have a role to play:
1)City Government needs to be more proactive when it comes to heritage conservation, especially where our neighborhoods are concerned. I believe there is a single residential historic district in the city (Hall Park) and there should be at least four or five — Highland Square/West Hill, Fairlawn Heights, Sunsetview/Portage Path-Merriman, Goodyear Heights (original) and Firestone Park (original).
Rather than demand a strict house-by-house assessment as was required for Hall Park, the city should just require an overall visual assessment and use the original allotment boundaries (with possible adjustments) to identify a district, without requiring any initial homeowner stipulations or restrictions. This, combined with some effort at homeowner education, would offer a “fast track” toward protecting and preserving these important neighborhoods.
Demanding that National-Register level requirements and documentation be met to designate historic areas that are already well-known and easily identified as a whole (the “tout-ensemble”) raises significant obstacles, deters citizen involvement and delays meaningful progress. Moreover, it would be unnecessary if there are no legally binding requirements, ordinances or tax benefits involved. Simply recognizing these neighborhoods for what they are, providing guidance and letting the real estate market work is a good start. Later efforts can be devoted to more detailed documentation, and more formal preservation-related ordinances or legal restrictions, if needed.
In terms of commercial development, the city has a good track record of providing assistance to developers when needed. The efforts of developers like Tony Troppe and Stuart Lichter have shown that Akron is open to preservation efforts and adaptive re-use, and projects like these should be further encouraged.
2)Individual Citizens need to be involved in these efforts; education programs and awareness can help in this area and broaden the appeal of heritage conservation efforts. Recent initiatives like Akron2Akron, which encourages residents to “discover” our city’s diverse neighborhoods, are critical to raising awareness and allowing people to see the character, quality and available resources that Akron’s neighborhoods have to offer.
While local preservation groups like the Preservation Alliance of Greater Akron (PAGA) still exist, there is a question as to how involved their membership will be in helping to shape conservation efforts going forward. Initially founded as Progress Through Preservation on a strong (even militant) base of advocacy, less is heard from the organization now on this subjects, as it seems to focus on things like preservation tourism — visiting house museums and highlighting already preserved-and-protected buildings in a newsletter. Per their online brochure, strong advocacy on behalf of historic preservation no longer appear to be a major component of their activity.* Hopefully this may change.
*As an example, in November of 2015, The University of Akron has made it clear that it would like to demolish several historic buildings on its campus, including some on the National Register of Historic Places. So far, nothing has been heard from the PAGA on this subject, nor have I seen any Letters to The Editor in the Beacon Journal from any of its members questioning this proposal.
3) Community Leaders, including business owners and developers, have a critical role to play as well. These are the “dreamers” — the people who can look at an older, historic building and see something better, brighter and more interesting. They are the ones who can come up with a great idea for adaptive re-use, and who can invest or find the money needed to make these dreams become a reality. Identifying, nurturing and encouraging such individuals is critical to preserving what’s left of old Akron.
In summary, we must recognize a few things that put Akron’s architectural heritage — and its future conservation — in perspective:
One is that Akron — to a far greater extent than most other cities — has been a victim of its own past success, due to multiple waves of economic growth, its unique geography, and other historical factors. Our experience has been somewhat unique, not only for a city of our size, but perhaps for any city.
Second, the result of these changes and subsequent waves of economic growth has left the city with scant physical evidence of its past success or impressive architectural heritage. Many of our better buildings (especially those built before 1920) have been lost, often replaced by forgettable structures — or nothing at all.
Third, the impact of this loss on our city’s character has been missed by all but a few individuals, those who have either lived in the city their entire life, or who are invested in heritage conservation as a worthy goal. Over the past few decades, it could be said that Akron’s focus has been more on survival than revival, and historic preservation was simply not a priority.
Fourth — and perhaps for the reason stated above — city government has never really embraced historic preservation in a meaningful way or had a coherent vision of how it could provide strong economic or quality-of-life benefits. For lack of a visionary or a champion, Akron has failed to take essential actions that are considered matter-of-course in many other cities, and which have been in use for many years.
Today, with so much already gone, so many opportunities lost, and with historic buildings still in danger, the question is not our ability to make up for lost time; it is simply making the very best out of the little we have left.