Greenhills, Ohio, is a National Historic Landmark, but town officials have demolished some of its 1930s buildings, unable to bear the cost of pr
Greenhills was built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration to provide modern, affordable, community-oriented housing to working-class Americans. (The town’s motto: “Pioneering a Dream.”)
In all three of the Depression-era greenbelt towns (so called because they were planned to be ringed by a “green belt” of undeveloped land), denser-than-average homes and charming public facilities are infused with utopian intent. Even Greenhills’ undulating streets reveal something of the planners’ social aims, said local preservation consultant Beth Sullebarger. “They were designed to be narrow and to not have four-way intersections, so that they would be safer,” she said. Planners in the Thirties were coming to grips with the automotive revolution and experimenting with ways to tame cars.
Greenhills is a living landmark to the New Deal, but some of its older homes feel a little too lived-in. Four properties—apartment buildings of four to eight units, each ranging from one to three bedrooms—have long been troublesome to the community, according to village manager Evonne Kovach. The properties were once privately managed, but poorly so: They deteriorated through neglect and became known as eyesores.
In the early 2000s, the village government took over 32–62 Cromwell Road, 24–30 Cromwell Road, and 25–35 Chalmers Lane. But Greenhills’ small government wasn’t equipped to be a property management company.
“Boilers,” Kovach recalled. “We had original boilers that were going down, and when one of the biggest boilers in one of the eight-unit buildings was going down, I had to tell the council, ‘We cannot continue to afford this.’ Maybe this is kind of naive on my part, but to have the buildings ratty and get run-down, it doesn’t do anything to preserve those.”
She also cited mold, asbestos, and a collapsing foundation between 26 and 28 Cromwell Street as practically insurmountable challenges. “We’ve had contractors look at it, and they’re all consistent that the only thing holding these walls up was the outside siding.”
So the village tried to sell the Depression-era buildings. It fielded offers, but none of the potential buyers was considered reliable enough to rehab the buildings to U.S. Department of Interior standards. (Meeting those standards is expected of responsible owners and is required for them to receive preservation tax credits.) A report commissioned by the village estimated the rehabilitation cost at $3,981,860—not including structural repairs to foundations, floorings, or walls, or partial gutting and rebuilding of exterior walls.
With the rehab priced at roughly twice its annual revenue, Greenhills made its choice: In December 2017, it demolished the properties. Less than a year earlier, the historic core of the village had been designateda National Historic Landmark.
Prior to the demolition, village leaders received a stern letter from the Department of the Interior regarding the plan to raze the buildings. The NHL listing codifies what preservation-minded residents argue about Greenhills: It has an outstanding role in American planning history alongside Greenbelt and Greendale, and it symbolizes the potential of a cooperative community.
So what, ...., does preservation mean in a place like Greenhills? Its past is inarguably important, but the economic realities of its present mean that conventional, institutional preservation—keeping buildings around—may not be possible. If the report commissioned by the village is to be believed, even if the Cromwell and Chalmers properties had been rehabbed to historic standards, Greenhills’ housing market couldn’t have borne the cost. Period-accurate restorations—abated of mold and asbestos and standing on solid foundations—may well have been more expensive to buy or rent than new construction.
Ultimately, Greenhills’ health, both of its tax base and its properties, hinges on people wanting to live there. Experience shows that the village government isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a landlord, and that without invested owners, more historic properties could end up razed.