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Luna Park is city's newest historic district

Kenny Kemp
The former Glenwood Elementary School, slated to be turned into apartments, is one of the cornerstones of Charleston's newest historic district, Luna Park.
Kenny Kemp
The area, including the corner of Park Avenue and Grant Street, contains a variety of architectural styles, according to one local historian.
Kenny Kemp
This is the corner of Lovell Drive and Grant Street.
Lawrence Pierce
The Luna Park Historic District, seen here from across the Kanawha River, extends about four or five blocks back from the river.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With little fanfare last month, the National Park Service officially created Charleston's latest historic district.That's good news for property owners in the 40-acre Luna Park Historic District, named for the West Side amusement park that burned to the ground in 1923. Nearly all the 395 bungalows, American foursquare and Tudor revival houses in the district are considered "contributing resources," which means their owners can earn tax credits if they fix up their homes according to federal historic guidelines."We're very excited," said Erin Riebe, National Register of Historic Places coordinator with the State Historic Preservation Office.The district is bounded by Kanawha Boulevard, Delaware Avenue, Main Street and Glenwood Avenue."It's an exciting development for the West Side," said lawyer Mark Sadd, a historic preservation advocate.Sadd is helping his brother, Chris, who bought the former Glenwood School last year and announced plans to turn it into 30 or more apartments. The school, designed in 1922 by H. Rus Warne, is considered one of the architectural gems of the district.Getting the district listed on the National Register was a key part of Chris Sadd's plan, his brother said."The developer is planning rehabilitation in accordance with the secretary of the interior's standards for historic rehabilitation," Mark Sadd said. "Without the designation, we couldn't contemplate that."Commercial developers get what amounts to a 30 percent discount on some of their costs through tax credits -- 20 percent federal, 10 percent state -- by following the proper guidelines."It's a powerful tool for community and economic development," Sadd said.Getting the Luna Park neighborhood listed was not a smooth process. City planners were talking about the idea as far back as 2005, when former neighborhood planner Libby Ballard started a petition drive with hopes of establishing a Neighborhood Conservation District.Earlier, students in a historic preservation class taught by Billy Joe Peyton of West Virginia State University had surveyed the neighborhood and identified it as a likely candidate. After the conservation district effort failed, Ballard regrouped. Through the city's Historic Landmarks Commission, led by Peyton, she obtained a $21,000 survey and planning grant from the SHPO. She hired a contractor, Taylor & Taylor Associates, to survey the area and prepare formal nomination papers to the National Park Service.Consultant David Taylor got off to a good start, Ballard said. He held a couple of public meetings, walked the proposed district, photographed its buildings.Taylor never finished the second phase of his contract, though.
"When I left, the first of April last year, it was pretty well on track," Ballard said. "I thought [the district] would be approved. Then I learned he didn't turn in the nomination."Under its grant contract with SHPO, the city's Landmarks Commission had to meet federal guidelines, Riebe said. "The contractor missed some deadlines." So SHPO canceled the contract after paying out $11,524, a little more than half the original amount.Jeff Plagemann, Ballard's successor at the Planning Department, went to the Landmarks Commission last summer for help. Peyton had a solution.
"We had pretty much all the raw data and a very rough draft of a nomination," Peyton said. "We recognized the urgency of getting this finished."I had an intern, a very sharp woman named Victoria Souhala, a history major about to do her capstone class -- a senior seminar. She agreed to take the nomination and tweak it until SHPO could finish it."She was very capable. She looked at the nomination forms, tweaked the nomination. I did some final editing and passed it along to SHPO. Erin Riebe took her work, refined it and polished it, and presented it to the Archives and History Commission, the state body that approves historic district nominations, and they pushed it along to the National Park Service."
The Park Service approved the nomination on April 3, according to a weekly notice on the national register website. It is one of 16 new sites listed in the April 13 notice, along with U.S. Highway 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif. -- the iconic Route 66.Unless you subscribe to the Park Service's email list, though, you probably didn't know. No one -- SHPO, the city, the Park Service -- put out a news release."I think it snuck under the radar, the way the nomination was made," Peyton said. "But this is a good time. This is National Preservation Month."Luna Park now joins the East End, downtown, Elk City, Edgewood and Grosscup Road as city historic districts, not to mention a host of individual sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places."I think what people don't know, in West Virginia we have about 1,100 nominations, but around 23,000 to 25,000 individual resources," Riebe said. (For a complete list, go to wvculture.org/shpo and click on the National Register link.)The Luna Park district has 554 "resources," the nomination says, mostly houses. A total of 444 buildings are deemed "contributing," which means they retain their original historic character. Another 103 are "noncontributing" to the district because they're too new or have been overly modernized."It's a typical urban neighborhood," Peyton said. "Small-sized homes, but nice-sized homes and a hodgepodge of architectural styles. The period of significance runs from 1910 to 1945, but most homes were built in the late 1920s and 1930s."Previous district nominations -- notably downtown Charleston -- were delayed over fears about possible restrictions.Those fears are unfounded, Ballard and Riebe said. Owners in a historic district can do whatever they want with their property -- even tear a building down if they want."Being designated has no down side," Ballard said.At Luna Park, "We took our time, and sent out newsletters ahead of time -- what it meant to be a historic district and what it didn't mean," she said. "I don't think anyone spoke out in opposition. We had pretty good attendance at our meetings and pretty good approval. In fact, I had some people contact me after I left the city, wondering where the nomination stood."Mark Sadd credited the Landmarks Commission and Ballard for pushing the city to recognize the Luna Park district."I think they can point to this [school] project as a direct outcome of that vision," Sadd said. "You'll recall, there were some people who were willing to demolish this property."It makes a wonderful project even better if a developer can rehabilitate it with historic standards," he said. "I encourage all commercial property owners on the West Side to look at this."Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.
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