The buildings undergoing remodeling for the Bowery Project on S. Main St. and Bowery St. (Photo: Charlotte Gintert)

Vintage Structures | Saving Akron’s Past: The good, bad and ugly of 2020

Writing by Mark Schweitzer, photos by Charlotte Gintert

Each month in The Devil Strip, we try to highlight an example of Akron’s historic architecture and share a little on how each building tells its own story about Akron’s past. From private houses on quiet streets to proud urban landmarks to the occasional ramshackle ruin-in-the-making, it’s fun for our team to find, research, profile and photograph these local treasures. 

While we usually expect the building to be the star of each installment, sometimes it’s the story of the builder, resident or company that created the building that makes it especially notable. These structures tell the story of Akron — how the city developed, what its residents thought, and how industry, society and economics changed it.

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While there have been some positive developments in the rehabilitation, renewal and reuse of historic buildings in 2020, Akron continues to lose significant historic structures to development, neglect or lack of funding for preservation. While there is clearly interest in protecting and discovering new uses for old buildings, there is no centralized effort to catalog, prioritize and develop a strategic plan to make it happen. 

The Good News

Fortunately, you don’t have to look far to see some great examples of historic preservation taking place in Akron right now. Main Street’s Bowery Project, The 159 (Law Building) across the street and the BLU-tique Hotel have managed to carry on right through the Main Street redevelopment and COVID-19 crisis. The CitiCenter Building will be soon to follow. 

All these projects have maintained their historic character while being transformed for contemporary living. The work at Lock 4 in particular has created a bold public space that’s highlighted by the canal, the transformed “backside” of the old Main Street buildings, and the addition of beautiful large-scale murals.

The key to making all these projects happen are the historic tax credits developers receive when they adhere to approved historic preservation standards. These credits have encouraged developers to invest in repurposing historic buildings. The 159 received $2.4 million in credits for its estimated $25 million project. Similar tax credit deals have been in place for the other downtown developments.

Tax credits and grants can be critical in smaller-scale projects, too. One of the other bright spots during 2020 was the announcement that the Summit County Land Bank had acquired the former John S. Knight home on Portage Path near Five Points. Previously profiled in The Devil Strip, the six-bedroom, English Arts-and-Crafts style stucco home is on track to be fully restored and renewed as office space for the Land Bank. A grant from the Knight Foundation will go a long way toward making this extensive restoration job possible. 

“The house had been neglected for years, and you can see that there’s a lot of work to be done,” says Patrick Bravo, the Land Bank’s executive director. “We’ll maintain as much of the historic character as possible. A few elements, like the windows, will have the historic look but with modern materials and performance. The good news is, we may be able to reuse the old ones as a design element in the offices.”

Outside of downtown, some other preservation projects are in line for completion or commencement, and they will rely on historic tax credits, too. 

The Gateway Group is developing the old University Club on the University of Akron campus as The Martin House, a boutique hotel — a $19 million project receiving a $3.2 million tax credit. In the heart of Middlebury, the Robinson Mansion is still in mothballs, waiting for renovation work to begin, hopefully as soon as the economic crisis brought on by COVID-19 passes. 

On the neighborhood level, the Kenmore Boulevard Commercial Corridor was designated a National Register Historic District at the end of 2019. This was a positive move toward trying to maintain as much of the street’s historic appearance as possible. Throughout the city, neighborhood organizations now seem to be the primary drivers when it comes to preservation, aided by initiatives like Great Streets that help knit these efforts together with place-making, improved aesthetics and better urban design. All of these concepts are perfectly compatible with historic preservation.

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The Bad and The Ugly 

If you ask any lover of historic Akron buildings what hurt the most in 2020, it would probably be the loss of the Werner office building on North Union Street. This incredible castle-like edifice was probably the grandest building left from Akron’s pre-rubber industrial era. Once the longtime commercial owners moved out, the building was left to deteriorate while any potential buyers were faced with a wholly unrealistic asking price. 

Suddenly, one day in early September, it was a pile of rubble. News reports said the building was in the way of the proposed replacement for the Route 8 southbound bridge ramp. But it surprised me that a construction project using public funds wouldn’t have at least triggered a demolition review for a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Federal funds cannot be used for demolition in such a case. However, the building’s owners could have demolished it themselves and then sold the property to the state. 

Likewise, anyone driving east on Market Street will pass the steel-reinforced hulk of the old St. Paul’s Sunday School Building, which suffered a severe fire in 2018. While the sanctuary on the west side of the property is still in decent shape, the stone walls of the older building still wait for the University of Akron to decide its fate. 

A proposal to designate the St. Paul’s building as a local landmark, which helps protect them, still sits as an “old business” item in the City’s Urban Design and Historic Preservation Commission, of which I am a member. While the commission has strong feelings about historic preservation and lots of expertise, they are infrequently consulted on the subject. Case in point: No heads-up was given on the demolition of the Werner Building.

Historic preservation on the street where you live

That said, things are better than they used to be, according to Akron City Councilmember Jeff Fusco, who heads City Council’s Planning Committee. He points out that today, the city is more open to working with and promoting nonprofit neighborhood development groups and letting them direct preservation efforts. There was a time, he says, when discussion of the subject was almost taboo.

“To the city’s credit, the working relationship — at least in terms of our neighborhoods — is much better than it used to be,” he says. “Back in the day, planning directors used to push Community Block Development Grants [federal funds for urban improvements] into neighborhoods if residents wanted revitalization. This meant improving streets, water lines and sidewalks instead of pushing much in the way of preservation or place-making.”

That sometimes also meant ignoring citizen pleas to save old buildings, or not supporting National Register applications, both seen as a barrier to development. I believe this is part of the reason why Akron lagged behind other cities in enjoying the benefits and tools offered by historic preservation. Look at 40-year-old images of city streetscapes and it’s easy to see — in some places, there’s just not much left.

One benefit to all that previous infrastructure spending: Neighborhood revitalization can now focus on improving homes and other structures. Over the past few decades, many of Akron’s historic neighborhoods have had water lines replaced, sidewalks repaired and new street trees planted. 

“Those places are ready to go,” says Fusco. “Akron’s historic neighborhoods can focus on restoring the character of their homes, improving the sense of place, and bringing back a sense of community in the places where we live. The city has resources that are willing to help.”

Akron’s residential tax abatement program could be a big help here, though it seems to be skewed toward new construction. Reviewing the list of qualifying improvements, it’s hard to imagine that putting on a new roof, replacing downspouts, repairing walks, repairing porches and steps, remodeling a kitchen, replacing a hot water heater, rewiring and re-plumbing wouldn’t increase the value of your house. For those who can take advantage, the path to preserving your historic home can certainly become a little easier.

Here in Akron, new structures will continue to go up, and sadly, some old favorites may come down.  Same as it ever was.

What will 2021 bring? Let’s get past 2020 first.