Mothballing as a Tool for Historic Preservation

A.C. Grish, 2020

University of Illinois at Chicago - College of Urban Planning & Public Affairs

“Older cities, like Detroit, are blessed with splendid building stock, especially their pre-WWII houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, and institutional structures. This architectural inventory, impossible to duplicate in terms of craftsmanship and materials today, is a precious treasury that needs to be conserved and refurbished like a natural resource, even if there is no foreseeable re-use. In many cases, the architectural heritage is an inner city’s greatest and most distinctive asset.”

-Douglas S. Kelbaugh, Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited

Vacant home in Detroit, September 2017. Photo by A.C. Grish.

The American Rust Belt is generally regarded as the area stretching along the Great Lakes, encompassing cities with significant industrial manufacturing history such as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and others. Years of ample blue-collar employment opportunities in these cities in the first half of the 20th century led to a massive boom in urban population, as well as development of homes and businesses to support the then-thriving neighborhoods. By 1950, the Rust Belt provided about 43% of the jobs in the United States. But as the US went through mass deindustrialization from the late 1970s onward, these places have all seen sharp population loss, declining tax revenue, and subsequent disinvestment in urban communities.

These factors (among others) have posed a unique set of challenges for housing and historic preservation in the Rust Belt over the past several decades. As city-dwellers fled to the suburbs and/or other cities, they left behind an excess of homes and businesses with no one moving in to take their place. Many residents who remained eventually fell prey to financial difficulties, exacerbated by the 2008 housing market crash and nationwide recession, causing a notable increase in home foreclosures. By 2010, there were about 12 million vacant housing units in the United States (about double the average of the early 1980s) with particularly high vacancy rates throughout Rust Belt cities.

High vacancy rates have changed the urban landscape of the Rust Belt. Many cities have taken on projects to raze vacant homes, reminiscent of the pervasive “blight removal” of the mid-20th century, although this time in the name of abandonment rather than progress and development. Detroit’s city government, for instance, created a “Blight Removal Task Force” dedicated solely to identification and demolition of blighted properties. The task force classified 73,035 residential structures as blighted parcels and has demolished about 18,000 of these buildings thus far. This has been an extremely costly endeavor that still leaves gashes throughout neighborhoods in the form of vacant lots.

While Detroit is the most extreme example of the Rust Belt cities, this still begs the question: is there something else to be done wherein vacant buildings are not simply reduced to rubble? Crumbling buildings may be considered a “nuisance” or “blight” but one could argue that empty lots fall under these same categories. Even as homes are being torn down, some Rust Belt cities are still losing population, inevitably resulting in continued vacancies. Will demolition continue until nothing is left besides shiny downtowns surrounded by fields? Demolition is a permanent solution to a potentially temporary problem that irreversibly strips a city of its historic structures. Although buildings with national or local historic status may have some protection from demolition, preservation legislation varies widely and from place to place, and toothless sets of “guidelines” rather than firm legal protections are not uncommon. It is important also to understand that vernacular housing stock, while often disregarded as common and even unremarkable, is a part of a city’s unique identity. Brownstones in Brooklyn or shotgun homes in New Orleans are ubiquitous pieces of those places’ character. Additionally, most of this type of common housing stock was built en masse for cities’ working-class residents. In a country plagued by both high residential vacancy rates as well as an affordable housing crisis, retaining solidly-built middle class housing should be a priority. While there may not currently be high demand for these units in Rust Belt cities, demolition removes the option entirely for future generations. Of course, vacant homes should not be left to crumble in communities. Abandoned properties are often subject to vandalism, and generally give an impression of neglect to those passing by. This paper argues that there is a middle ground that should be more frequently utilized in struggling cities: mothballing.

Brick housing stock in Detroit, December 2016. Photo by A.C. Grish.

Mothballing is the practice of essentially “deactivating” a building in preparation for use in the somewhat distant future. When done properly, a building can be temporarily preserved in its current state (or often even an improved state) until a full rehabilitation is possible. The National Park Service has published a detailed explanation on the physical method of mothballing to be used as a guide. Per this document, the major steps are:

1. Document the architectural and historical significance of the building.

2. Prepare a condition assessment of the building.

3. Structurally stabilize the building, based on a professional condition assessment.

4. Exterminate or control pests, including termites and rodents.

5. Protect the exterior from moisture penetration.

6. Secure the building and its component features to reduce vandalism or break-ins.

7. Provide adequate ventilation to the interior.

8. Secure or modify utilities and mechanical systems.

9. Develop and implement a maintenance and monitoring plan for protection.

The full document goes into detail on each of these steps, including specific needs for structures in particularly warm or cold climates. Notice that the first step is to document the building. This ensures that any changes made can be reversed if warranted when the time is right. The document also discusses the importance of the building’s outward appearance, and recommends that beyond the structurally necessary steps that the building is secured in a manner that conveys it is being cared for. Examples of this include painting the wooden window panels an attractive color and keeping up with the property’s landscaping. This mitigates the effect of a vacant property being an eyesore for neighbors, and can help to deter vandalism. Additionally, the last step regarding monitoring should be an ongoing one. The document recommends maintenance checklists are created and kept up through the years; some of which could be completed with a simple drive-by, and some that require spending time onsite to address any changes in status.

Bright and cheery window coverings. Detroit, August 2018. Photos by A.C. Grish.

Some cities have already implemented mothballing policies. For example, Hopewell, Virginia provides guidelines on their city website about how to properly upkeep vacant buildings. Peoria, Illinois recently enacted a program wherein owners “not completely ready for revitalization but not ready for demolition” can apply for a $20 permit from City Hall that allows them to mothball their property for up to a year so long as they comply with requirements set in place to ensure the building is maintained properly. On a much larger scale, St Louis, Missouri passed a bill in 2014 requiring that owners of properties deemed “High Merit historic buildings” must keep these properties in in a well-maintained condition and make specific repairs if cited. If they fail to do so, they could be subject to a finding of Demolition by Neglect, and if after 30 days the issues have not been rectified the City has the legal right to use their funds to essentially mothball the building, oversee its maintenance, and bill the owner for the expense. Building Commissioner Frank Oswald said about the bill, “The objective is to try and catch these buildings before they’re too expensive to rehab. Maybe for $10,000 we can envelop the building and seal it up, so it’s good for another 15 or 20 years, and in that time hopefully someone comes along and redevelops it.” However, the St Louis bill only applies to properties deemed historic (by their definition, “contributing as a major structure to an existing or potential City or National historic district or deserving of consideration for single site historic or Landmark site designation”). This paper proposes that implementing a citywide mothballing program need not base site selection solely on a structure’s historic relevance, and could be utilized for regular homes in Rust Belt cities.

The suggested mothballing program would need to be discerning; particularly in deeply disinvested areas of many cities, some buildings may be beyond reasonable repair and funds should be allocated in a way that maximizes the potential return on investment — that is the eventual redevelopment of a building. The exact criteria would need to be determined by local stakeholders and would likely be location dependent, but some examples of possible best practice when selecting sites include: homes that are part of blocks that are largely still intact and retain some residents, areas where eventual redevelopment is considered more likely than others, and buildings in reasonably salvageable condition (damages assessed to be below a certain dollar amount). The suggested mothballing program should also set time limits for reassessment, to ensure that it is being used as a stopgap as intended. That being said, weak-market cities may want to consider fairly lengthy time restrictions, as there is a vast difference between a booming city mothballing a large historic building downtown while searching for an appropriate reuse, and a Rust Belt city mothballing working class housing stock in a sleepy part of town. The purpose of the latter example is focused on preserving a city’s “good bones” and vernacular character so residents can eventually move back to largely intact neighborhoods they would want to live in.

Besides the above logistics, the key questions regarding a program like this are who will fund and oversee it? In an ideal scenario, potentially a local preservation group. The non-profit state historic preservation group Preservation North Carolina currently runs a very successful program that could be looked to for inspiration. By their account, “Preservation NC acquires endangered historic properties and then finds purchasers willing and able to rehabilitate them. It has saved more than 800 endangered historic properties, generating an estimate of more than $350 million in private investment. ” Preservation NC also posits that the redevelopment of these properties often begets more improvements on the surrounding blocks. Once again, this is geared more toward historic properties — although no specific landmarking is required for a property to be considered eligible for this program. Most importantly, a group such as Preservation NC likely possesses the skills and resources to both physically manage these properties, and aid in finding a responsible new owner. While a mothballing program would require funding, Detroit has already spent over $200 million on blight removal — surely some of those funds could potentially be allocated toward a system to avoid the need for demolition altogether. Local governments could also create a structure wherein a middleman group could manage and oversee the mothballing program, with both potentially profiting from the eventual redevelopment while also retaining intact neighborhoods and affordable housing for residents.

Overall, lack of investment in Rust Belt cities has been a massive challenge, but it has presented preservationists with a unique benefit: many buildings have been “saved” solely because no one is attempting to develop the land beneath them. The onus is now on preservationists to get creative in finding ways to ensure their cities’ historical built environment is not razed to the ground. Many of these cities are injecting reinvestment money primarily into their downtowns, creating increased wealth disparity in places already struggling to retain residents. In a country with a rapidly dwindling middle class, and housing shortages in many places, maintaining working-class neighborhoods that are not simply hollowed-out husks of their former selves is imperative. The fact is that eventually, people may return to Rust Belt cities — but only if there is something left to return to.

Historic home in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, December 2019. Photo by A.C. Grish.


City of St. Louis, Bill №332, introduced March 7, 2014,

“FAQs.” Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. Accessed April 26, 2020.

Jayyousi, Maryam. “Why More Demolitions Won’t Stop Detroit’s Blight.” Detroit Metro Times. Detroit Metro Times, November 19, 2019.

Logan, Tim. “St. Louis Proposes Fund to ‘Mothball’ Vacant Buildings.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 17, 2013.

Mallach, Alan. “The Empty House Next Door: Understanding and Reducing Vacancy and Hypervacancy in the United States,” 2018.

“Mission/History.” Preservation North Carolina, October 30, 2018.

Ohanian, Lee E. “Competition and the Decline of the Rust Belt.” Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, December 20, 2014.

Park, Sharon C. “Preservation Briefs: Mothballing Historic Buildings,” 1993.

Peoria Council Approves Rules for ‘Mothballing’ Vacant Buildings. January 15, 2014.

“The Next Step: Detroit Aims to Be Free of Residential Blight by the End of 2024.” City of Detroit. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, May 31, 2019.

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