CLEVELAND, Ohio — A 22-story, steel and concrete building on Public Square may not appear historically significant at first glance. Neither would a small, eight-unit apartment building in the city’s Glenville neighborhood.
Nonetheless, in the eyes of the state and federal governments, they are “historic,” or are at least part of an area deemed historic. That designation was a requirement of the $35.9 million worth of Historic Preservation Tax Credits the state of Ohio recently gave them and others.
Some of the choices may come as surprising to the casual observer. But preservationists would be the first to say that the significance of a building, which can lead to a designation that in turn can help qualify for tax breaks on renovation projects, is not always how it looks. Sometimes it may not be the individual building at all, but rather its connection to a larger area given the designation.
Take 55 Public Square, the old home of the Illuminating Co., a silver building on the northwest side of Public Square whose signature features may appear to be the “First National Bank” name on the top left, and a large “55” on the right.
The project to renovate the building and turn the bottom half into apartments qualified for a $5 million tax credit awarded by the state Development Services Agency, equaling the largest among any of the projects that received the credits in the last round. The credit is part of a $59.2 million financing package.
The building itself, which dates to 1958 and is representative of the “international” style some architects of the era preferred, is not on the National Register of Historic Places. Instead, it is part of the Euclid Avenue Historic District, designated as such in 2002 because of its historical connection to Cleveland’s architecture, transportation and economy.
But buildings end up on lists like the National Register for a variety of reasons. Perhaps there’s a link to a famous event, a notable former occupant or a good example of a notable architectural design period, among other reasons.
“Personal tastes (on architecture) have nothing to do with this,” said Kathleen Crowther, executive director and president of the Cleveland Restoration Society.
Make or break
Whatever the reason, building owners and developers frequently seek out such a designation so they can qualify for state or historic tax credits.
Often, developers describe these tax breaks as a key component of a larger financing package and say that not getting them could spell doom for the project.
For example, preservation consultant Heather Rudge, who worked with CHN Housing Partners on an unsuccessful effort to get a $1.3 million historic tax credit from the state in the last round for a plan to turn the former St. Michael School in Tremont into senior housing, said the incentive is an integral part of making sure the project moves forward.
She added that the project has already received federal tax credits.
But whatever the reason, the key word is “historic,” and it isn’t simply designated so by a building owner who wants a tax break. Instead, such designations are made by cities or the federal government.
The most well-known way is to get put on the National Register. The list, overseen by the National Parks Service, is designed to preserve buildings that have some significance to the nation’s past. The buildings generally date back at least 50 years.
The National Register’s website says its mission is to list eligible properties after “nominations that Americans believe are worthy of preservation submitted by states, tribes, and other federal agencies and list eligible properties.”
That, in turn, helps property owners seeking to rehab or renovate a building qualify for “preservation benefits and incentives,” the site says, usually meaning tax credits.
A single building or property can have its own listing, or it can be part of a district of several buildings. In Ohio, applications to get placed on the National Register are routed through the State Historic Preservation Office, which is part of the Ohio History Connection organization.
Megan Nagy, a spokeswoman for Development Services Agency, said in an email that getting placed on the National Register is the most common way applicants seeking the Ohio tax credits earn the historic designation, adding that developers often seek state and federal incentives at the same time.
The other way to obtain the designation involves having a “certified local government” designate a building or district as a local landmark. In Cleveland, for example, those fall under the purview of the Landmarks Commission.
Such landmarks also qualify for tax breaks, though only state ones.
Those processes have resulted in buildings or areas that many may not consider “historic” ending up with the special designation. Scrolling through the list of projects that received the latest tax credits – along with ample use of Google to find pictures – shows a plethora of buildings that receive such tax credits. They stretch far beyond what many would think of as historic places.
In Cleveland in the last round, a $250,000 break was awarded to Midtown a complex attached to the Agora Theatre concert venue – not the theater itself, which is actually the second Agora location after the first one burned down in the mid-1980s. A small apartment building near the Cultural Gardens in Glenville was awarded a $159,000 credit.
The latter building qualifies because it is part of the East Boulevard National Register Historic District, significant for its early 20th Century layout and style of residential architecture. The former is seeking placement on the National Register because it is the former home of WHK-AM Studio One.
Rudge, who owns the Historic Preservation Group consultancy firm in Cleveland, noted that how a building or area is considered historically significant is also reflected in the goals of state and federal historic tax credits.
She said the state program takes into consideration the economic impact of a project and not the significance of the building. In other words, state officials rank projects higher if the renovations are pitched as bringing in more tax revenue through high-paying jobs and residents paying market-rate rents.
“You could have a Frank Lloyd Wright historic building and warehouse looked at the same by (the state),” Rudge said, referencing the famed architect.
The federal system is the opposite, with the building’s significance taking center stage, she said.
But in terms of aesthetics, as the years passed and many buildings from the 1950s and 1960s start qualifying based on their age, the National Parks Service and the state have showed a “very strong appreciation … for the mid-century modern style of architecture,” Rudge said. She cited Erieview Tower, a 40-foot steel skyscraper completed in 1964, as an example. The building was placed on the National Register in 2017.
Much like the concrete-heavy Brutalist structures that were built between the 1950s and 1970s, often for government buildings and university housing, the office buildings are evocative of a past era.
“The register is not to assess beauty, it’s to recognize historic buildings,” Crowther said.
Still, even some preservationists may have their limits.
“When a 1970s suburban neighborhood gets listed on the National Register, I’m going to change jobs,” Rudge joked.
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