Paducah’s built heritage differentiates us from other cities and draws us into a story much bigger than ourselves.
Just days ago, an abundance of local citizens united on Facebook to save a nostalgic icon from demolition: Duck Island in Noble Park. Certainly the vintage structures in our city’s core are just as important to us as this coveted little house in our city park. And certainly this same throng of concerned citizens could persuade our city leaders to protect our heritage just as they did Duck Island. Truthfully, all Paducahans share in the responsibility of being vigilant. Public discourse is healthy for our city!
One major pull that brought me back to Paducah outside of family was the magic of my hometown’s "sense of place" that was reflected in the city’s largely intact downtown. This is what the National Trust had in mind when they named Paducah one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2011. If Paducah wants to live by this designation and remain distinctive, the care of our old buildings must be a high priority to our citizens, our property owners, and our elected city leaders. After all, we promise “Historic Downtown” to our visitors through interstate signage and marketing campaigns. When we give this promise, we are expected to deliver on it.
Until recently, it never occurred to me that Paducah could be in danger of defaulting on the promise of having a healthy historic district. In the wake of the impending demolition of the century-year old Carriage House at 114 North 3rd Street, I must say I am frightened by the possibility.
There are several buildings in downtown Paducah that appear to be suffering from “demolition by neglect.” Demolition by neglect occurs when property owners, who obviously buy with good intentions, concede to letting their buildings fall into such disrepair that the simple answer becomes an application to demolish it. There are many hurdles to property owners in maintaining a building. But property owners that purchase buildings in our downtown core should be expected to sustain them. Demolition is the easy answer out of a problem that should not have become a crisis in the first place. Shouldn’t the city hold the owners accountable for being good stewards of the property? When one building is torn down it has negative effects on the structure of its neighboring buildings. So the permitted loss or demolition of one building, like the apparent fate of the Carriage House, sets a bad precedent for the other buildings at high risk and creates both physical and economic problems for adjacent neighbors’ buildings. Yielding to demolition by neglect falsifies Paducah’s recent national awards, and it creates vacant lots that destroy the city’s collective sense of place.
New projects like the Downtown Living Initiative and the Roof Replacement Program are timely opportunities for us to be proactive. This, in conjunction with a carefully re-crafted local ordinance, would help steer property owners away from needless financial crises and would aid in safeguarding the building from doomsday. I consider such legislation an insurance policy for the future. These avenues are catalysts for revitalization and a component of our economic growth as old buildings and their architectural details are transformed into restaurants, housing, and new and expanding businesses that create jobs. The look and feel of these buildings is a central element to the authenticity of our city.
Perhaps we can shed the simplistic, easy-answer mindset and show how interesting a city can become when our authentic buildings are mixed with well-planned development. Perhaps we shouldn’t cut the rope to the city’s anchor, our physical heritage, when there are plenty of existing vacant lots for new development.
I believe that Paducah has a tremendous spirit – I hear it every day from visitors I meet through the Paducah Visitors Bureau. Our people and our place, created by the charm endowed to us by the many generations of Paducahans who have come before, manifest this spirit.
The next few years will be critical in the life of our architectural treasures like the Columbia Theatre, the Coca-Cola Plant, and the Katterjohn Building.
There are many places like these that are currently in a critical stage between disuse and adaptive reuse. I sincerely hope Paducah citizens will raise their voices in favor of advancing our historic buildings.
This election year, how committed are we to retaining Paducah’s sense of place through our buildings and landmarks?
The STORY of our city is at stake. Let’s all take part in the stewardship of our built environment.