Demolition and alteration of downtown Beckley buildings has state historic preservation officials concerned the downtown may not only lose historic character, it may also cause the city to lose national historic designation.

Chris Knorr, a structural historian, and Dr. Shirley Stewart Burns, a historian, both with the state Historic Preservation Office of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, attended a Wednesday evening meeting of the Beckley Historical Landmarks Commission to express their concerns about recent downtown demolitions — particularly for the Raleigh County judicial annex. They both said the demolitions and other building renovations that are not historically compatible could jeopardize downtown Beckley’s position in the National Register of Historic Places.

Burns said the downtown area that includes portions of Prince, Neville, Main, Prince, Heber, McCreery, South Kanawha, Howe and Fayette streets was nominated for the register in 1994. The area is known as the Beckley Courthouse Square Historic District, and 100 of the structures in the area were considered “contributing” to the historic district. To be considered “contributing” in Beckley, a structure had to be built between 1900 and 1940 — considered the period of significance for the district. Thirty-four structures were considered “non-contributing.”

“The historic district is in a state of crisis,” said Dave Sibray, president of the local commission. “The recent demolitions could come under state and federal scrutiny, and we could be deleted from the national registry. Property values could drop between 15 and 20 percent.”

As pieces in a historic district are lost, Knorr said, it gradually affects the architectural integrity of the entire district. When new buildings are added that do not architecturally and historically fit with the others or alterations to existing buildings do not do the same, it could have an adverse effect on the district as a whole.

Burns noted the South Fayette Street building accidentally destroyed Saturday during county demolition for the annex was a “contributing” structure.

Being in a national historic district has its financial advantages, Knorr said. Tax credits and grant funds are available to maintain historic buildings, plus the designation is a point of pride for a community.

People will often move into these locations and make an investment because of such a designation, Sibray said. But if the actions of others have an adverse affect, investments are lost.

Knorr and Burns said the Raleigh County Commission was contacted about the judicial annex because anything the county would do to adversely affect a national historic district location could jeopardize the county’s chances of receiving federal funds for the annex. They said county officials sent two letters stating funds were only coming from the county.

While old buildings are like antiques — with replicas not being worth as much as an original — Knorr said any new building can be architecturally designed to fit a historic district.

“A new building can certainly be designed in a historic context,” he said.

Sibray said he has seen an original architectural design for the judicial annex, and he said it included architectural styles from the 1950s and 1960s.

Another concern Knorr said he had with downtown development is that some property owners are renovating rather than restoring, meaning the buildings are being changed rather than taken back to their original design. He gave the example of some owners painting over brick, which not only changes appearances, but also destroys brick.

Raleigh County Commission president Pat Reed said the county was also concerned about the judicial annex being an architectural fit for the national historic district. She said the county’s architectural firm provided state historic preservation officials with information about the project, and the architect received input on the annex design. She believes the historic concerns have been addressed.

The county has not received federal funds for the annex, Reed said. However, county officials would like to have them. They have met with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and he has a proposal for the judicial annex.

— E-mail:

apridemore@register-herald.com

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