Constructive Preservation or Preservatory Construction?

Construction Site, Downtown Montgomery, Alabama

During my recent trip to Montgomery I came across a construction site that added a dimension to preservation and development that I could never have imagined. Retirement Systems of Alabama (RSA) is building a new headquarters downtown. I found it to represent an intriguing concept. It is the building you see under construction in the top photograph. What is different about this construction project is that the new building is being erected over and around the old Alabama Supreme Court building, which was built as a Scottish Rites Temple in 1926.

Older building beneath the new construction, Montgomery, Alabama

The historic and beautiful older building will form the center of the first floors of the new building. The historic is preserved and progress continues apace. I think it is ingenious, but I’m not sure how I feel beyond that. Yes, the building was preserved in the strictest sense of the word, but was it really? Is a building only its bones? Is the view of the building not part of the experience of appreciating what those who came before us accomplished? It will never again be seen the same way, yet, the old was kept and the new proceeded. Maybe it isn’t such a bad solution in certain circumstances. What do you think? Abomination or creative solution?

It actually came near demolition in 2007 in favor of – and this part should sound familiar to Knoxvillians – a parking lot! If you’d like to see a video of its history you can find that here. It’s an interesting video that gives a good bit of Montgomery history and the whole preservationist argument as well as the peril under which it found itself at that time. The building was across the street from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church which was pastored by Martin Luther King, Jr., who spent time in this building during the civil rights era.

The experience also reminded me that large-scale construction is happening in some cities. Why isn’t it happening here? Maybe we need to give the green-light to projects enveloping historic buildings. Or not.

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