The Future of The Community House
On the eve of our centennial celebration in 2023, the leadership of the historic Community House commissioned a series of internal/external discussions, self-reflection and analysis – with key stakeholders, representatives from the business and residential community, employees, donors and supporters – of our nearly 100-year-old nonprofit charitable organization – to better understand the service needs of society today and to chart out how our landmark property and the vital services it provides (or should provide) can help formulate our next century of service to the community at the corner of Bates and Merrill Streets.
Through the process we learned that “an important part of what gives a city character, and a sense of community is its history. One way of acknowledging this history is by preserving historic buildings and structures. They may be an example of a particular style of architecture, or represent a significant era, or a milestone in the city’s history. These historic buildings are worth preserving for a number of reasons.”
Many of our generational donors, loyal supporters and staff already knew that “old buildings are witnesses to the aesthetic and cultural history of a city, helping to give people a sense of place and connection to the past.” Historic buildings often represent something famous or important to people who live in a city or those visiting.
Beyond our esteemed city, our county and state, recognizing the importance of old buildings to the public and to the country’s heritage, Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. This act works to save historic buildings, explaining, “preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”
Some opined during COVID whether The Community House had seen its best days. Really? Some wondered whether The Community House should be sold – perhaps to a developer? Outrageous. Our leadership believes the opposite, that it should grow physically and programmatically instead. As its chief steward I couldn’t agree more. The Community House is irreplaceable. There are only two “Community Houses” modeled like us in Michigan: The War Memorial in Grosse Pointe and us. Only thirty-eight in the country. And following two years of the perfect storm – we are thriving once again post-Covid. How blessed we are.
Through our analysis we also learned that rehabilitating old buildings to their original appearance not only adds character to the area, but can also help attract investment, as well as tourists and new residents if the structures are historically significant. For example, a historic but abandoned industrial building can be turned into small business space, or a mixed-use development – giving new life to a building and even a whole neighborhood. Think the Rail District.
According to preservationists “older buildings often are also made with unique, valuable materials such as the heart pine, marble, or old brick.” They may have detailing and features that you can’t find any more like decorative facades, unusual glasswork, or copper lining, etc. – think Birmingham’s City Hall, the Baldwin Library, Birmingham Museum, Peabody House, our houses of worship, The Community House, 220 (old Edison Building), Birmingham Theatre, notable residences, and others. Many people feel that because of these features, older buildings have their own identity and distinctive character, making them more interesting than modern buildings. “An added benefit to retaining and maintaining old buildings – old methods of workmanship are also supported.”
“America’s downtown revivals suggest that people like old buildings. Whether the feeling is patriotic, homey, warm, or reassuring, older architecture tends to fit the bill.” Regardless of how they spend their lives, Americans prefer to picture themselves living around old buildings.
Many architects and preservationists suggest the “the preservation of historic buildings is a one-way street. There is no chance to renovate or to save a historic site once it’s gone. And we can never be certain what will be valued in the future. This reality brings to light the importance of locating and saving buildings of historic significance – because once a piece of history is destroyed, it is lost forever.”
As we conclude our year long study and analysis, I think its safe to say – The Community House, its buildings, grounds, and important services are here to stay. While our programs and services will likely be tweaked and modernized to better align with our great city, today’s society – especially the next generation - its young people – our seniors and those currently underserved. To stay relevant and to grow, change is inevitable. Responsible change. We are listening. Stay tuned.
William D. Seklar is President & CEO of The Community House and The Community House Foundation in Birmingham.