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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2011

Wrecker’s ball

Toledo, which never met a grand old building it couldn’t turn into yet another vacant lot, is still at it.

Toledo Public Schools is preparing to start next month to tear down the century-old Jefferson Center, once the city’s main post office. Lucas County is allowing the former downtown sheriff’s residence and county jail, circa 1898, to collapse from neglect.

TPS and the City of Toledo have a tentative deal to redevelop the campus of the closed Libbey High School as a community center. But the agreement does not include the 80-year-old school building, which the district also plans to raze.

These developments reflect the chronic just-knock-it-down attitude that has robbed the city of much of its distinctive architecture and replaced it with little of anything. Local officials argue that at a time of budget austerity, their emphasis must be on paying for essential programs rather than aged brick and mortar.

Yet the disregard for these buildings predated the current recession. And preparing them for creative adaptive reuse rather than the wrecker’s ball would raise, not drain, public revenue.

When Toledo’s then-new main post office opened in the mid-1960s, the federal government gave the Jefferson Center property at 13th Street and Madison Avenue to TPS. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The district used the building as a vocational rehabilitation center and then an alternative school. TPS now leases the building to a Head Start program; its operators say they want to stay after their lease ends this year.

TPS officials say they are on a forced march to begin demolishing the building, to qualify for state funding that could expire next year. But the district also may want to prevent a charter-school operator from using state law to gain access to the building and compete for students.

The district can best repel the presumed threat posed by charter schools by improving its own schools so that city students and their parents will choose them. The TPS transformation plan is designed to meet that goal. Destroying a building of historic and architectural importance should not be part of the effort.

District officials insist they are not committed to tearing down Jefferson Center. They need to resolve instead to find a way to keep the building open and useful to the community.

A similar commitment is owed the sheriff’s home on Jackson Street, which has stood vacant for a decade since the 6th District Court of Appeals moved. County officials say the building, which the Maumee Valley Historical Society has declared a local landmark, is an integral element of a plan to upgrade Civic Center Mall they will unveil this month.

You couldn’t tell that by the way the county has ignored the building. A decision to provide scant heat, power, and water service has accelerated its deterioration. A Blade reporter who toured the three-story building recently found crumbling front steps, paint peeling in strips from walls, and chunks of fallen plaster and tiles clogging its floors.

Such neglect will inflate the cost of renovating the building, pegged at as much as $1 million. There is talk of selling the building to a private entrepreneur or converting it to a service center for juvenile offenders and at-risk families.

But county officials concede they don’t have public or private funding sources. Although they insist the building is not a candidate for demolition because of its historic status, that hasn’t saved other former city landmarks.

It’s good that the city and TPS have figured out ways to preserve parts of the Libbey campus in South Toledo: its stadium, field house, and skills center. It would be better if public officials, private entrepreneurs, and community leaders made one last push to keep the main school building on Western Avenue before it, too, is consigned to destruction.

Toledo has a heritage worth preserving. Properly cultivated, its history and distinguished architecture can attract, not repel, potential employers and residents. That won’t happen if the default official response remains: Tear it down.



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