The fate of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida is unclear. Despite being on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel (which locals brag is the largest occupied wooden structure in the nation) could be torn down to make room for a condominium development. Lynn Waddell reports in an article, A Harsh Fight Over the Fate of a Stately Old Hotel, in today's New York Times that:
A yearlong fight over the fate of the Biltmore has led to the resignation of a city attorney, divided perservationists, and created an even wider gulf between groups that advocate a new Florida and those who want to protect the old one. City Commission meetings have drawn overflow crowds, and yard signs championing 'Save the Biltmore' dot the lush, tidy yards of Belleair.
This begs the question: Should we sacrifice historic landmarks of the past for the sake of real estate development and to meet the housing demands of the future? In an essay in The American Hotel, Bernard L. Jim looks at the demolition of beloved hotels of the past and shows that this debate between creativity and destruction has been going on for quite some time.
The demolition of the Weddell House and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel occurred amid the ongoing cultural debate about the ideology of creative destruction. Developers like John D. Rockefeller and Empire State Inc. profited from the public's perception of demolition as a servant of modernization and progress. If the old had to give way to the new, beloved landmarks like the Weddell House and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel would necessarily have to fall. While developers worked to transfer the public's sentiment from the building to be demolished to the one to be constructed, the public had just begun to realize the fetishlike power that a building acquired over time.
Igor Kopytoff identified this process as singularization. Buildings, like personal possessions, can become unique things that their admirers think should be shielded from the world of commodity exchange. In the years before preservation legislation, the public had few means at its disposal to protect such structures. In fact, people often did not recognize the depth of their feelings for a building until it was threatened with destruction. In the case of the Weddell House, the full recognition of its singularity may not have come until nearly thirty years after its demolition, when the uproar over the Waldorf-Astoria reminded Clevelanders of their own loss decades before. The advantage lay with builders, who argued, in essence, that singularity resided not in the structure itself but in the history of the property. In their evolutionary schema, singularity passed from the demolished structure to the newly built one. The unfortunate corollary to this argument was that developers and builders who wanted to create an iconic structure felt compelled to look to a site that already contained an iconic structure, virtually dooming the most important buildings in the city's past.
To preserve singular structures, the American public would need to contest the power of wealthy developers and more closely interogate the cultural productions that espoused the ideology of creative destruction. In the years before historic preservation, the public could not harness the power necessary to protect a structure that had accrued significant cultural meaning. Today, a structure with a rich cultural biography has a chance to escape what the Empire State Building developers called the "laws of progress." Preservation does not block progress; it only asks that we recognize other kinds of value in addition to economics. With hindsight, we know how important both the Rockefeller and Empire State buildings became to their respective cities, but singularized hotels like the Weddell House and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel were as significant to those cities' histories. In recognizing their contributions to a city's collective memory, buildings such as these no longer need to be sacrificed for the sake of future icons.