A Conversation About Preservation with Ross Pristera

by Jeremy Morrison

Pensacola is an old city. Centuries cruise the streets, history seeps from the architecture.
It’s something Ross Pristera noticed when first moving to the area from up north.
“When I came here it was kind of interesting to see a lot of what was here is still here,” he said.
Built up over hundreds of years under the influence of varying nations, Pensacola makes for a nice field office for Pristera, who serves as the historic preservationist for the University of West Florida’s Historic Trust.
“We’re a unique place,” he said. “I just don’t know if people understand it — because you’re from here, you’re use to it.”
Recently, Pristera was approached by Pensacola City Councilman Brian Spencer about getting an updated snapshot of the city’s stock of historic and culturally significant structures, with the ultimate goal being the creation of a more protective process for such structures that might otherwise be demolished without any oversight.
It’s a mission the historic preservationist is on board with. The university conducted such surveys previously, in the 1980s and 90s, and Pristera thinks another is due.
“We really need an updated list,” he said.
Such historic structures, he explained, are integral and essential to a place’s essence. They add to an area’s allure.
“When you have a concentration of them in a historic district you get a certain character and feel,” Pristera said. “That’s why people like them, and want to move there.”
The historic preservationist views the loss of such historic properties as damaging to “the feel and the character of our city.”
“If you start losing them — you can think about them like your teeth, if you loose one it’s OK, but if you start losing a lot it looks terrible,” Pristera said.
When structures such as 417 West Belmont get demolished, it gives the preservationist pause. He mentions how the Belmont Devilliers district has “lost so many teeth in their smile.”
The small house near the Five Sisters restaurant in downtown is listed as being built in 1901. Old photos reveal its use as the B&B Taxi stand. It was demolished on Tuesday.
Though the structure was not among the grander specimens dotting North Hill and Old East Hill, and had suffered significantly from the wear and tear of the years gone by, it still represented a loss for the community.
“If we start losing [small structures] then we’re missing the story of the average people in Pensacola,” Pristera said.
The new owner of the West Belmont property described the structure as “basically condemned.” He said multiple contractors had said as much, and that it was not something to be saved.
Pristera said that he understands some old structures are in bad shape, but that many can be rehabilitated.
“I have seen a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t think was savable, but it is,” the preservationist said, pointing out that some of the structures in UWF’s Historic Pensacola Village were at one time in a state of disrepair.
But, he concedes, the case for saving historic structures must be made more convincingly as the economy improves and development picks back up.
“Now that the economy is really picking up we’re getting back to this argument of ‘history’s standing in the way of progress,’” Pristera said. “But, I don’t really buy into that. I don’t want progress for progress’s sake. I want good progress.”

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