Preservation Enthusiasts Gather In St. Louis For The Rust Belt Takeover

The grave task of preserving historic buildings would be a challenge for any organization, but one that has undertaken the task is the Rust Belt Coalition of Young Preservationists, a Pittsburgh-based group that focuses on the preservation of old buildings of architectural and cultural significance across the Midwest. The leading organizer of the group, Katy Sawyer, has developed the philosophy that when it comes to this kind of work, there’s greater strength in numbers. “The greatest thing is just having a shoulder to cry on,” she shares as she laughs. “Because there are many more beautiful buildings getting destroyed than we care to admit.”

As a civil engineer, for Sawyer, rescuing a building from being demolished has become a personal quest that can take a toll on the spirit. “Sometimes we’ll spend three years advocating for a building—it might be vacant, for sale, or have an owner who wants to demolish it. Those can be really long fights,” she says.

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Sawyer and the Young Preservationists have worked diligently to expand their mission by reaching out to millennials and connecting to other preservationist groups from Wisconsin to New York, even reaching as far north as Ontario, Canada. “It’s different for every building, but when you have those fights that last years and then it gets demolished anyway, it’s just soul-crushing,” she says, understandably. Even so, battles lost don’t negate a solid day’s work, which can include encouraging local community investment in a project, raising funds, or finding an owner willing to commit to renovating a building.

Most recently, the group has organized the Rust Belt Takeover event in St. Louis happening this weekend (May 19-21), which includes tours of Cahokia Mounds, the remnants of a pre-Columbian Native American city dating from around 1200-1500 CE; the National Buildings Art Center; the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe failed housing complex; and more. One of their favorite proprietors to highlight are craft breweries, with which St. Louis is densely populated. “Beer makers are champions of preservation because they take these really old buildings and reuse them and turn them into amazing breweries,” says Sawyer.

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“Adapting and reusing existing structures is a big movement. For some preservationists, it’s not even about the historic aspect so much as the damage of destroying a beautiful building,” she says. Taking the long view, it is her hope that introducing preservation work to younger generations will lay the groundwork for different attitudes towards urban planning to arise. “We think it’s important to get younger people excited. In many of these Rust Belt cities, there’s a lot of passion and energy. Several cities are in different phases of revitalizing their own hold on the 21st century, and younger people really want to be a part of that, especially when development really starts happening.”

Sawyer is admittedly open about the fact that the field of preservation is a difficult one, not for the faint of heart. “A lot of buildings that get demolished. There are a lot of sad stories out there,” she says. “But there are good ones, too.”

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