These Historic Places in the USA Are at Risk of Disappearing
Each year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation releases a list of the cultural sites facing the biggest threats in an effort to raise awareness about the risks they face and to protect their future.
Two Chinatowns, a pair of iconic skyscrapers, and a rural gas station were all among a new listing of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States. The annual list is compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization that works to save U.S. historic sites and raise awareness about destinations that are both important to the story of the nation and under threat of being lost forever.
“This year’s list of the nation’s most endangered historic places is a portfolio of sites that are nearly as diverse as the American experience itself,” said Jay Clemens, interim president and CEO of the National Trust. “The diversity of sites on the 2023 list—and the stories behind them—reflect the complexities and challenges that have always been part of what it means to be American but have not always received the attention they deserve. Losing any of them would diminish us all.”
The historic sites that are on the 2023 list
The two Chinatowns on this year’s list sit on opposite sides of the country: Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which dates back more than 150 years, and Seattle’s more than century-old Chinatown-International District. Both areas could soon be affected by development—the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team has proposed building a new arena abutting Chinatown, and Seattle’s Sound Transit is weighing transit expansion options that could impact access to the area.
Some of the sites in danger tell the story of Black people in the United States. One is the Pierce Chapel African Cemetery in Midland, Georgia. Established in 1828, it’s one of the oldest burial sites for enslaved people but has deteriorated over time. There’s also the Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church in New Orleans, which has been impacted by hurricane damage. Another is the west bank of St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana, an area along the Mississippi River that historians have used to study the enslaved communities that once lived there. And two more are residences of internationally recognized Black artists facing potential demolition due to worsening conditions: the L.V. Hull Home and Studio in Kosciusko, Mississippi, and the Henry Ossawa Tanner House in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Osterman Gas Station in Peach Springs, Arizona, a nearly 100-year-old building on Route 66 that has long been an informal gathering place for the Hualapai Tribal community (today the tribe owns the gas station and is working to revitalize it), made the list as it needs “stabilization and rehabilitation in order to continue to service its community and the next generation of travelers.” And Miami’s Little Santo Domingo neighborhood, with many residents of Caribbean or Latin American heritage, is on the list because development interests in the area have led to “displacement, demolition, and rising rents.”
The rest of the list includes the Century and Consumers Buildings, two skyscrapers built on Chicago’s historic State Street (in 1916 and 1913, respectively) that have been vacant since 2005, and Charleston, South Carolina’s Historic Neighborhoods, which includes a 65-acre waterfront site that, if sold (the owner has proposed selling the land to a private developer), could “threaten the area’s historic character, viewsheds, and climate resilience.”
The importance and history of the list
“The 11 Most Endangered list demonstrates the tremendous power of place. Each site offers an opportunity to engage with our shared history where it happened and inspires us to work together to honor each other’s experiences and contributions to our country,” said the National Trust for Historic Preservations chief preservation officer Katherine Malone-France, in a statement.
Since debuting in 1988, the list has always included 11 endangered historic places and is selected from nominations made by the general public. In the years since, the organization has spotlighted more than 350 sites, including Governors Island in New York City, President Lincoln’s Cottage, and Nashville’s Music Row. While the sites often face myriad challenges to remain intact, being on the list can be helpful. The newfound attention to their needs often helps bring in money and support for preservation efforts.
In 2017, to mark the 30th anniversary of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, the organization instead chose to recognize “once-endangered sites that are now thriving and contributing to their communities.” Some of the sites included Penn School, the first school founded in the South specifically for the education of African Americans; Angel Island Immigration Station, also known as “Ellis Island of the West,” the U.S. entry point for immigrants from across the Pacific Rim; and Travelers’ Rest, the only archaeologically verified Lewis and Clark campsite. Today Travelers’ Rest is a protected state park, and the other two sites are museums.
In a recent interview with NPR, Malone-France shared Camp Naco in Bisbee, Arizona, as an example of how being added to the list can act as a rallying point for people.
“The camp had been decommissioned in 1923, and it faced a number of different challenges: vandalism, exposure, erosion, fire,” Malone-France said in the interview. “But for the past 20 years, a group of local advocates has been fighting for this place. We listed it on the 2022 list, and since then, over $8 million in grants have been awarded to Camp Naco, and the site is now being restored and programmed for community use.”