Time always wins in the end. Of course, that hasn't stopped people from trying to fight it.
One of the most infamous examples of a lost battle in historic preservation circles is the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. When construction was completed in 1910, newspapers hailed it as a splendid gift to the city of New York. It cost more than $100 million to build.
That Penn Station was razed in 1963. Today's Penn Station, which is all underground, has 22-foot ceilings. It's an understatement to say the replacement lacks the grandeur of the original.
"Not that Penn Station is the Pantheon, but it might as well be because we can never again afford a nine-acre structure of superbly detailed solid travertine, any more than we could build one of solid gold," longtime architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in The New York Times in 1963. "The tragedy is that our own times not only could not produce such a building, but cannot even maintain it ..."
Three years after the original Penn Station was turned to rubble, the federal government significantly expanded its preservation efforts with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It was a reaction to the "wholesale destruction" of neighborhoods, often as a direct result of federal transportation and development programs, according to Paul Lusignan, who reviews applications for the National Register of Historic Places.
Now, nearly half a century
But one of the persistent misconceptions is that once a site is designated historic, it will remain forever protected and unchanged. Not so. States can request that a site be removed from the National Register of Historic Places at any time, and for any number of reasons. National Park Service records obtained and analyzed by Digital First Media show that states have requested the removal from the Register of at least 1,752 previously designated sites since 1970. That's 2 percent of the total number of listed sites.
In the past decade, there have been about 51 removals from the National Register per year, with occasional spikes. In 1999, for example, 138 sites were delisted.
"I believe that there is a correlation between tax credits and the number of new listings," said Jeff Joeckel, an archivist for the National Register of Historic Places. "But I am not aware of any correlation between a strong economy and the number of removals." Joeckel surmises that the 1999 spike may have come because states were overhauling computer systems ahead of the year 2000 as a way to prepare for potentially widespread computer problems that year, and happened to notice sites that needed delisting along the way.
The number of removals per state varies, too. On average, states have removed about 36 of their previously listed sites. California has removed 34 sites, including five in the Bay Area, from the registry since 1970.
"With smaller and smaller state staffs, removal work often falls to secondary in importance," The National Register's Lusignan said. "The creation of public access to state and national register databases on the Web has also allowed the public to provide information on 'lost' buildings that might otherwise have gone unnoticed by state staffs."
Joeckel says he and most others in the preservation field are able to focus on the positives, despite the inevitable crumbling that comes with the passage of time.
"But as the archivist," he said, "you do look at the number of removed files and you're just wondering, 'Aren't all of these [new sites] that are listed eventually going to be over here?' "
Bay Area sites removed from the National Register of Historic Places since 1970
House, 1334-36 Scott St., San Francisco
Murphy Building, 36 S. Market St., San Jose
Rock Magnetics Laboratory, 345 Middlefield Road, Menlo Park
Fitzhugh Building, 384 Post St., San Francisco
Byrne House, 1301 Oxford St., Berkeley
For a searchable database of sites removed from National Register of Historic Places, go to www.mercurynews.com/digital-first-media.