Is Deadwood gambling with history? (Part 2)

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filling station

The recently destroyed Sinclair filling station, ca. 2013. Photo credit:  City of Deadwood Department of Planning and Preservation

Continued from Part 1.

Originally built in 1927, a small, unassuming Sinclair filling station on the edge of Main Street bespoke the pragmatic style of small rural industrial towns and stood as a monument to Deadwood’s mid-twentieth century history. It also survived a devastating fire that nearly destroyed the town in 1959. But over the years—and at least in part because the station did not comport with Deadwood’s dominant Wild West image—the Sinclair structure slipped into disrepair.

These events set the stage for the structure’s demise. In 2006, the owners of First Gold Hotel, a lucrative gaming resort, purchased the Sinclair station. This March, they razed it, claiming that time, disuse, and damage from a powerful blizzard last fall had stripped away the building’s historic value. Because the local Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) sanctioned the demolition, it might seem that the Sinclair station simply died of natural causes.

But as the Rapid City Journal reported earlier this month, nearly a decade of off-and-on litigation—and what some have alleged to be calculated neglect on the part of First Gold—spurred the building’s destruction. (Newspaper photos of the demolition can be seen here.) From the very beginning, critics claim, First Gold sought to level the Sinclair building and expand parking for casino patrons. But in 2010, the state Supreme Court found that because the station was a registered historic site, First Gold needed a permit—endorsed by Deadwood’s HPC—to destroy the facility. The parties eventually reached an agreement by which the hotel owners could expand their parking but would also have to rehabilitate the structure. More than a year passed without any such effort by First Gold, and a series of code violations eventually brought the property back to the HPC’s attention.

Ultimately, the HPC commissioners voted 4–3 to allow the building’s demolition on March 27. First Gold followed suit and toppled the building the next day, before any appeals could be filed or the town’s head historic preservation officer could clear the site for demolition. In response, a group of angry community members organized the Deadwood Trust for Historic Preservation and filed a lawsuit protesting the Sinclair decision and other recent cases that have pitted casinos against the preservation of historic properties. The City of Deadwood has also cited the contractor who destroyed the building for failing to obtain a permit, an offense which could result in a small fine or jail time. Ultimately, the courts will determine the intentions of First Gold’s proprietors, their contractor, and the HPC—and the legality of all of their actions.

In the meantime, the Sinclair station is gone forever.  With it died a piece of Deadwood’s history that reached beyond the town’s oft-romanticized Wild West narrative. A decade ago, Max Page and Randall Mason showed in Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States (Routledge, 2004, p. 10) that although historic preservationists have sometimes had fraught relationships with urban redevelopment interests, they have also often worked alongside developers to improve the character and economy of communities large and small. Observers of the Sinclair station affair are left to ponder the extension of that fraught history into the twenty-first century and to consider the balance between the goals of inclusive, thoughtful public history and the specific needs of heritage tourism in towns like Deadwood. In instances like the Sinclair case, the very industries that provide the financial footing for so much historic work also seem to have the power to dictate the terms of that history and, for at least one structure, to take it away.

~ Eric Zimmer is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Iowa. He grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota.




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