Former Wright Brothers bike shop faces demolition

In 1892, the brick building at 1005 West Third Street had several large windows that allowed residents of Dayton, Ohio to peek inside and see the Wright brothers, who were still at years of becoming aviation pioneers, running their bike shop.

Now the windows are gone, the plywood is in place, and the building may soon be demolished.

The Dayton Zoning Appeal Board on Tuesday approved the city’s request to demolish the building where state legends Wilbur and Orville Wright opened their first successful bicycle business. City officials plan to review developers’ proposals for the space and then decide who should be awarded the property.

The building, all parties agree, is dilapidated. But its potential demolition pits some officials, who say the building is dangerous and a nuisance to neighbors, against conservationists, who argue it has historic significance and, if redeveloped, could benefit from tax credits.

“We’ve lost so much heritage, we’ve lost so much history – we should be working to save every building we can,” Monica Snow, president of Preservation Dayton Inc., said Sunday.

The debate in Dayton echoes those that have taken place in other parts of the country, in which conservatives, developers and city officials have argued over the future of local properties with strong historical ties.

On an island off Miami Beach, residents and city officials were divided over whether to raze Al Capone’s former mansion. On Astor Row in Harlem, an 1883 home that had been declared a landmark was unceremoniously razed last month.

In Dayton, public meetings were held. Letters have been sent. After the landmarks commission denied the city’s demolition request because it wanted the city to try to preserve the building’s facade, the city appealed and won a zoning appeals board decision, who voted 5 to 1 to overturn the denial.

The Wright brothers became important figures in aviation history when they created a fragile machine in 1903 that sustained flight, cementing them as the first people to successfully fly an airplane.

Before achieving this status, however, they worked at home, repairing and assembling bicycles. Soon they were successful enough to open their own store on West Third Street—one of many over time on that street—where they continued selling and assembling bicycles. Through their work, they honed their mechanical skills, which propelled them to become titans in the field of aeronautics.

“I don’t want us to be portrayed as anti-Wright brothers,” Todd Kinskey, Dayton’s director of planning, neighborhoods and development, said Sunday. He added that “if the Wright Brothers could go back in time, they wouldn’t recognize the building.”

Indeed, the building’s structure and role in the community evolved over the course of a century: a new facade was added in 1928, around the time it became the Gem City Ice Cream Building. The building was purchased by the city in 1998 and declared a public nuisance in 2008.

The National Park Service said in a letter to the city’s historic commission in September that “little, if any, of the structure” occupied by the Wright brothers still exists. The building is part of the West Third Street Historic District, according to the service.

Ms Snow said the city was ‘responsible for the deplorable state’ of the building because it had done little to prevent further decay since acquiring the property.

She said Preservation Dayton Inc. met with developers who “didn’t run away with their hair on fire,” believing the building could be saved.

Mr Kinskey said Dayton had not been able to redevelop the building in previous years because the city had financial difficulties following the 2008 financial crisis. He added that several engineering studies commissioned by the city had shown that the building was in danger of collapsing, especially the facade, which could separate and fall onto the street. A few bricks have already been removed, he said.

Whether or not the building is demolished, Mr Kinskey and Ms Snow said the space was likely to become a housing complex. Both said they would be okay with this outcome.

“If a developer comes along and actually has a plan to redevelop and retain the building, then we will definitely consider that,” Mr Kinskey said.

Residents who live near the building have expressed mixed views: a letter from a neighborhood association said it supported razing the building, while others said in public meetings they supported the renovation .

The space is in an area with a lot of foot traffic. The only difference in what happens to it, Ms Snow said, is whether people will recognize or remember the significance of those who once worked there.

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