A Former Wright Brothers Bicycle Shop Faces Demolition

Officials in Dayton, Ohio, have given permission to raze the building, which they describe as dangerous and at risk of collapsing. Preservationists say parts of it can be saved.

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

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

A Dayton zoning appeals board on Tuesday approved the city’s request to demolish the building where the 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 is pitting some officials, who say the building is dangerous and a nuisance to neighbors, against preservationists, who contend that it holds historical importance and, if redeveloped, could qualify for tax credits.

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

The debate in Dayton echoes those that have taken place in other parts of the country, in which preservationists, developers and municipal officials have wrangled 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 house that had been declared a landmark was unceremoniously razed last month.

In Dayton, public meetings were held. Letters were sent. After the landmarks commission rejected the city’s demolition request because it wanted the city to try to preserve the facade of the building, the city appealed and won a decision by the board of zoning appeals, which voted 5 to 1 to reverse the denial.

The Wright Brothers became significant 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 that status, however, they worked at home, repairing and assembling bicycles. Soon, they had enough success to open their own store on West Third Street — one of several over time on that street — where they continued the sale and assembly of 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 painted as anti-Wright brothers,” Todd Kinskey, Dayton’s director of planning, neighborhoods and development, said on Sunday. He added that “if the Wright brothers were to be able to come back in time, they would not recognize the building.”

Indeed, the building’s structure and role in the community have evolved over 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.

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The three walls of the original two-story bicycle shop that the Wright brothers ran in 1892 are still standing inside the current structure.Credit…Ty Greenlees/Dayton Daily News via Associated Press

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

Ms. Snow said that the city was “responsible for the terrible condition” of the building because it had done little to prevent further dilapidation since it acquired the property.

She said Preservation Dayton Inc. had met some developers who “have not run out with their hair on fire,” believing the building could be saved.

Mr. Kinskey said Dayton could not redevelop the building in prior years because the city was struggling financially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. He added that several engineering studies the city commissioned had shown that the building at risk of collapse, particularly the facade, which could separate and fall onto the street. A couple of bricks have already come off, he said.

Regardless of whether the building is demolished, Mr. Kinskey and Ms. Snow said that the space was likely to become a housing complex. Both said they would be fine with that outcome.

“If a developer steps forward who actually has a plan to redevelop and keep the building, then we’ll entertain that for sure,” Mr. Kinskey said.

Residents who live near the building have offered mixed views: A letter from a neighborhood association said it supported razing the building, while others have said in public meetings that they support 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 acknowledge or remember the significance of those who once worked there.

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