Ideally, the historian in me wants the preservation of our historic buildings no matter the cost. Especially those listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Demolition should not become the de facto solution for handling neglected historic properties. However, we do not live in an ideal world where every historic property is preserved. Every day historic properties come down. But with community involvement and education about alternatives to demolition, maybe that building’s fate for the landfill can be prevented.
On August 22, I attended a meeting between alumni and administration of Salem International University (SIU) to discuss the possibility of preserving the old Administration Building. The Administration Building was built in 1910 in the Collegiate Gothic style and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Salem International University president, Dan Nelant, opened the day by discussing the current status and future goals of the university. He related that the university’s stance on the old Administration Building is that while they do not want to see the building demolished, they do not have a current use for it. They cannot direct any resources to preserving the building due to the needs of the current students and programs. Next, local architectural firm, WYK Associates, Inc., presented a condition and prognosis report of the Administration Building. James Swiger, WYK President, voiced concern over the building’s basement, theater balcony, and roof, and estimated the building’s restoration costs to be $3-4 million. Many in the room thought demolition might be the better option after listening to WYK’s assessment. People suggested using the building’s bricks to create a memorial park on the site.
After the campus walking tour and lunch, everyone reconvened for a brainstorming session about possibilities for the Administration Building. I took advantage of this time to explain the economic benefits of historic preservation to the group. I also recommended that the SIU administration have a historic building assessment done before any major decisions were made, and I suggested that it could be mothballed for added security and stabilization. I provided a set of handouts on the issues I discussed so that the alumni and administration could do further research. Additionally during the afternoon session, suggestions were made for the future use of the building. A popular idea was an emergency/urgent care clinic for Salem that could potentially staffed by SIU nursing students. Another idea thrown around was transferring ownership of the Administration Building to the Salem University Foundation or a different nonprofit to handle the preservation of the building. Overall, the discussion gradually moved away from demolition as a solution, and another meeting has been scheduled for October between SIU administration and alumni to continue the conversation.
The meeting was a good first step regarding the fate of SIU’s old Administration Building. Demolition is off the table for now. It’s up to the greater community of Salem and SIU alumni to continue the dialog and think positively on the possibilities for the building’s use.