Thursday, July 1, 2010

In Praise of Austin P. Leland

If we tear everything down, how will our children and future generations know what America was like? If everything is a glass tower, how will they know our heritage? – Austin P. Leland (1907-1975)

I think I shuddered as I read that quote on a wall a few days ago. The words affected me that profoundly. You see, I didn’t know Austin P. Leland. In fact, I didn't even know who he was before this week.

Shame on me.

Leland was a longtime director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, and in the 1960s he led the fight to save St. Louis' Old Post Office building from demolition. He also was a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Since 1978, Princeton University has issued The Austin P. Leland Award annually to recognize “general excellence in regional alumni activities to associations and clubs with more than 300 members.”

In my defense, when he launched a major offensive in 1964 to save the Old Post Office from the wrecking ball, I hadn’t even been conceived. When he died, I was just 9. While I didn’t know anything about the battle he helped wage to save that historic structure, I did get to witness the fruits of his labor. I saw the first phases of its redevelopment take place in the early 1980s, work that would be completed in 1984 – just in time for this glorious building’s centennial.

Speaking as one of the “future generations” that Leland alluded to in that now immortalized quote of his, we owe a debt of gratitude for keeping slices of America (or at least St. Louis’ portion of it) intact, for preserving our local heritage. Albeit belated, "Thank you, Mr. Leland."

While it’s been almost 46 years since this editorial page comic was published, as part of the argument to protect the Old Post Office, I think its message is just as valid now as ever.

It's a pretty apt depiction. I’m sick sometimes when I think of how much history and breathtaking architecture was lost in the name of the tornado that is “progress.” At least this was one piece that was spared -- because someone was brave enough and determined enough to stand up and say, "ABSOLUTELY NOT!"

No, I didn’t know Austin P. Leland – I only wish that I had.

Stay tuned for a lengthy and visual report on the historic structure his efforts left standing …


Christine said...

I just wanted to tell you I was nearly in histerics over you comment on Jayne's blog. Order of the WTBians. TOO FUNNY.

Why S? said...

This past week I attended a neighborhood council meeting to protest the destruction of a 100-year old Craftsman to make way for a new 64 unit residential building. The architect in charge of the project told us the old house had been deemed to have no historic value and that we don't live in the past, we live in the 21st century and architects today are designing for the 21st century. Basically he was saying we should just all get over it.

I suspect our protests will fall on deaf ears and the project will proceed. Our neighborhood is being torn down one house at a time with no going back.

That comic's a good one. I might have to steal it.

NV said...

Christine -- Thanks! I just love WTB. Everyone should have one.

Why - Isn't that comic great? The second I saw it I thought it was a perfect testimonial to St. Louis during the 1970s and '80s and even as recently as this decade.

I hate that you're fighting a similar battle. You'd think "21st century architects" would be smart enough to design structures that could COEXIST with their historic forebearers, no? I guess no. :(