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Demolition by neglect

The city and state should do more to preserve historic buildings around San Luis Obispo



"Demolition by neglect" is the term used to describe a situation in which a property owner intentionally allows a property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair. Property owners may use this kind of long-term neglect to circumvent historic preservation regulations. There are mechanisms in place to prevent this if the property is privately owned. But what can be done when these properties are owned by the state of California or the city of San Luis Obispo? Short of publicly shaming the public entity, there is apparently very little that can be done.

Take for example the Powerhouse. The Powerhouse is a historic building located on South Perimeter Road and Cuesta Avenue on the campus of California Polytechnic State University. This building is the oldest building on campus. Built from 1908 to 1910, the building was designed by eminent architect William H. Weeks in the Mission Revival style. The Powerhouse was the last of the original buildings at Cal Poly to be constructed. However, it is now the only remaining original building on campus.

The Powerhouse began supplying electricity to campus in 1910, 16 years before the county of San Luis Obispo had rural service. It continued to supply power through the 1940s at a substantially lower cost than could be had from the local utility.

The founders of Cal Poly were influenced by John Dewey, founder of the progressive movement and arguably the father of "learn by doing." Dewey felt that the teaching methods of the day demotivated students by forcing them to sit passively through lectures and memorize seemingly unimportant facts and figures. He argued that students are naturally active learners and the best way to learn academic subjects is through applied projects. Hence, this Powerhouse was originally run by students and two full-time supervisors. The Powerhouse was later expanded (in 1920) to include a hydraulics/fluid mechanics laboratory where mechanics and electrical engineering classes were taught. When Cal Poly became a two-year junior college in 1928, it offered degrees in mechanics.

The Powerhouse stopped generating power in the 1940s, was replaced entirely and abandoned in 1955. In 1967, the building found a new use when the College of Architecture and Environmental Design decided to hold classes there. The college continued to hold classes in the building even after the construction of a new architecture building, and only stopped in 1990 when the school's administration ordered the building to be abandoned. The Powerhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 30, 1993. In spite of this, the Powerhouse remains vacant and is now in danger of collapsing. The windows are boarded up, the roof is leaking, and invasive vines growing over the roof are further compromising the integrity of the structure.

The Rosa Butrón de Canet de Simmler Adobe located on a 140- by 180-foot lot at 466 Dana St. in San Luis Obispo is another example. The adobe was built circa 1845. In 1828, Vicente Canet married Rosa Maria Josefa Butrón, daughter of Manuel José Butrón and María Ignacia Rita Higuera of Rancho La Natividad. Canet was at the Presidio of Monterey for 12 years, and in 1840 was administrator of Mission San Luis Obispo. In 1840, he was granted the one square league Rancho San Bernardo. After the death of Vicente Canet in 1858, Rosa Maria Josefa Butrón married postmaster John Simmler in 1859 and they both moved into the Dana Street adobe. John Jacob Simmler, who came to California in 1853, opened the first San Luis Obispo hotel. In the 1850s and early 1860s, San Luis Obispo County lacked a newspaper. So legal notices were tacked on the walls of this adobe. There was one very old, barely living grapevine that was originally brought from Spain by the mission fathers. This grape vine was supported by a long arbor leading to the front door. The arbor collapsed in 2012 and the vine has since been removed. The mission fathers also planted a mulberry tree that may still be alive somewhere on the property.

San Luis Creek almost did away with the adobe during the floods of 1973. At the flood's peak, there was 3 feet of water in the house. Up until 2010, Chinatown artifacts were kept in the adobe. Because the adobe was vulnerable to break-ins, the city put up a chain-link fence. When the fence was cut, the city installed wire mesh over the windows. In 2002, a request was submitted by the city of San Luis Obispo to the California Department of Parks and Recreation Office of Grants and Local Services for the amount of $111,700 for the restoration of the adobe as a museum and meeting space. But this request was rejected. The vacant property appears ramshackle, and it continues to remain vulnerable to future flooding.

A second city-owned property bears mentioning. At 1590 Lizzie is the Bowden La Loma Adobe, which has been deteriorating steadily since the Florence Bowden family donated it to the city. It sits forlornly on a large lot overgrown with massive weed patches and untended trees, dotted with trash piles. The historic adobe is surrounded by a chain-link fence bearing "No Trespassing" signs. While there have been sporadic discussions about restoration, the adobe may be irreparable.

Although these buildings do not possess great artistic value in terms of their architecture, they are exceptionally eligible for preservation due to their association with various aspects of social history and commerce.

In conclusion, landmark designation does not prohibit demolition (or demolition by neglect), though it may ensure a more thorough review of demolition proposals. Many East Coast cities actually prohibit demolition of their landmarks, but these cities also leave an exception for cases of demonstrated economic hardship. Even listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which sounds more elevated than a local listing, does not provide for more iron-clad protection. Our only hope is that we, as private citizens, can eventually raise consciousness among our public officials of the importance of historic preservation and of the importance of these landmark buildings. Δ

Allan Cooper is all about preserving history. Send comments through the editor at [email protected] or write your own opinion down for publication and email it to [email protected].

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