Demolition of History: Shepard Building

Sometimes, you play the hand you’re dealt.

Most people think of Montgomery as a city with a wide variety of historical elements, whether you’re talking Civil War, state government, Hank Williams, or the Civil Rights Movement. And that’s cool — except that we don’t live in a history book. No matter how interesting it is that the Wright Brothers had a flight school here, people don’t move to places because they happen to have played a role in whatever events society is currently choosing to remember in history classes.

That’s not to say that history can’t be a draw — for visitors, tourists, and academics. And it certainly can enrich the lives of people currently living in a place, adding a sense of connectedness to a shared experience of other humans who happened to dwell in a particular place. It can be a nice boost to think of famous people from the past walking down the same streets, maybe eating in the same restaurants, pondering life while seeking shade from the same Alabama heat.

But it takes more than simply having historical significance to make a city. There’s are reasons why Moundville was once the New York City of its era and is now a rural sort of curiosity. Well-settled areas dry up, whether you’re talking about Roanoke and the mysterious lost colony or the first capital city of Alabama (now a ghost town). It takes more than having some historical significance. It takes packaging that history, preserving it, honoring it, integrating it into the ongoing and continuing lives of current citizens.

In a lot of ways, this blog writes about that concept a lot, celebrating historical preservation and great architectural works of our elders. But from time to time, it’s important to look at ways that history isn’t preserved.

For several months this year, I walked by an old downtown building being torn down. It was an incredibly slow process, essentially a demolition by hand for several phases of the project before heavier equipment was brought in. No implosions here, no speedy wrecking balls. The first few weeks were strictly sledgehammer and axe work on a majorly-tall (for Montgomery) building. So I took a picture. Each day.

The results are below.

Starting the process, I had no idea what the building was. I only knew that it was across from the Davis Theater and that it looked really old. I asked some of the workers one day who owned it, and they said Troy University did. I asked why it had to be torn down and they said that the foundation was irreparable. Fair enough. I’m no construction expert.

But I did a little more poking around. Turns out that the building has a name. It was called The Shepard Building. And it was on the National Historic Register.

A little background: If you care about history (and I think we’ve made it clear that we do), you are probably already aware of a Facebook group called Times Gone By. It’s just an archive of old pictures of Montgomery, often with comments by various folks reflecting on Montgomery’s past. We jokingly call it Montgomery’s version of “Stuff White People Like,” but, really, we like it. It’s a cool way to use Facebook and it seems to bring people together and create a shared space for photographs that are frequently stashed away in closets and albums. More on TGB can be found here in an interview with its creator, Carolyn Wright, who works in the state conservation department’s enforcement division. Thanks to the invaluable Siftings of Jill Nolin for scoring the interview.

Anyway, you can see a picture of the Shepard Building here, in TGB’s photo album, “Misc. Downtown Photos.” At the time of this writing, it was the 7th one out of 66 photos, but they are adding pics all the time, so that may change. In the comments, someone posts what purports to be an email from a Troy University Vice Chancellor for Finance and Business Affairs. The email (which can also be seen in this comments thread of some kind of skyscraper aficionado forum) tersely explains that Troy is in the process of demolishing the “Historic Executive Office Building on Montgomery Street.”

Now, here’s where you really have to do some Internet poking. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 set up a federal system, whereby the National Parks Service maintains a National Register of Historic Places. The website isn’t that attractive, but when you start to try to (gasp) use it, you really can get frustrated. Click on “database/research” on the side and you get this.

Eighty thousand properties nationwide! OK, well, click “NR database” over in the side column and you get this. Limit your search to the state of Alabama and the County of Montgomery and you learn that there are 67 sites in our county that are on the protected list. On the fourth page of the five pages of results, you see the Shepard Building, a.k.a. the one that just got torn down in plain sight.

According to the feds, the building was designed by Frederick Ausfield, who evidently also designed the much-revered Sidney Lanier High School. It was put up in 1922 or 1923 and unfortunately, there are no pictures (that I could find) on the NR site. Just that barebones entry, which isn’t all that helpful. And there was no public conversation that I can recall about this building or its pending erasure.

I have no idea what’s involved in demolishing a building on the National Historic Register. Oddly, “How do I destroy a protected building?” isn’t listed on their list of Frequently Asked Questions, although it does explain, “From the federal perspective, a property owner can do whatever they want with their property as long as there are no federal monies attached to the property.” What does it mean for federal monies to be attached? Unclear. Certainly Troy University is the recipient of federal monies by way of student financial aid and any other number of sources, but maybe they have to show that there’s federal money in that particular building. Or maybe since the only consequence of a tie to federal funds is that ACHP has to offer a comment, well, maybe they did and said, “Go for it.” Or maybe it’s smart to tear down a building first and ask for forgiveness after the fact. What are they going to do? Make you rebuild it?

Certainly it’s possible that the building was in such brutal shape that it could not be saved. And maybe there was nothing all that great about it anyway, other than it was kind of cool to look at. Just being old doesn’t make you some kind of treasure. So maybe it was run down, with a failing foundation and sub-basement. The indispensable Birmingham blog Heaviest Corner has written a lot about how people that own old buildings let them run down on purpose so that rehabilitation is prohibitively expensive and they can tear them down, using the financial burden argument to make an end run around any preservation regulations.

Needless to say, the building is gone. The pictures of its destruction are more interesting from a demolition perspective than they are for any sort of historical value. To see it in its prime, Times Gone By has several great old photos and postcards of the downtown area from previous decades. It’s gone and in its place is a parking lot. Not even a parking deck — but a parking lot that holds about 20-25 parking spaces. Because that’s what downtown needed most.

Here’s to impermeable cover and the ghosts of once-sparkling triumphs. May we figure out how to channel nostalgia towards productive creativity.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a cat, a dog, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 5 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Meg Lewis says:

    I’m glad you took these pics – wanted to do so myself to portray the long and painful process of demolition by hand.

    Did you by any chance speak to anyone at Troy about the project? They don’t have a reputation for irresponsible use of real estate. I’ve heard that they wanted to build dorms but it turned out that the building was too far gone to be able to be renovated. In other words, this wasn’t what they had in mind either.

    Hopefully that land can serve a higher calling that parking at some point in the future.

    • Stephen says:

      Hey Meg, no, I didn’t talk to anyone with Troy. I can certainly imagine that the building would have been expensive to rehabilitate. Again, I’m no construction expert, so I can’t say whether X or Y conditions would or would not be fatal to a building’s future use. And since I’m also not an accountant, even if I had access to Troy’s financial books, it’s hard to say whether an expensive rehab would be worth the investment. Questions like these are almost always judgment calls made by the property owner based on data not available to the public. Certainly the smart PR move is to express regret that it couldn’t be saved and issue some language about being a good institutional citizen of downtown Montgomery.

  2. Carole king says:

    The National Register of Historic Places is a nationwide inventory of places of historic and/or architectural value. The owner of the structure usually initiates an extended application process to the Secretary of the Interior channeled through our own Alabama Historical Commission. Several residential neighborhoods in town–Garden District, Cloverdale and Cottage Hill–are NR Districts. But the NR designation holds NO protection or design review. That’s why the city of Montgomery’s own historic designation ordinance is so important. The city’s historic designation process afford design review which includes demolition review. Both of these historic designation processes need the structure’s owner’s approval. The key is to create awareness for historic preservation as an economic development tool to prevent losing our buildings!

  3. Stephen says:

    Times Gone By appears to have created a special photo album on Facebook devoted to this building: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.188126947884940.43500.132495483448087&type=1

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