Trying to save the building was a foregone conclusion.
Completed in 1913, the original Cushman Motorworks plant at 21st and X streets was already being torn down; its status as a landmark of one of Lincoln’s earliest manufacturing companies disappearing along with it.
Even in its last days, however, the building emblematic of the mission deco architecture style popular in the early 20th century continued to marvel preservationist Matt Steinhausen.
“That building was built better than any of us anticipated,” Steinhausen said.
On the concrete-cast second floor, Steinhausen snapped a photo of a 3-ton skid loader pushing over red-bricked walls and tracking across the building where the plant’s administration and engineers once worked.
Steinhausen was shocked, even angry.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has owned the original Cushman Motorworks building and the surrounding factory complex since 2003, had said the brick building wasn’t salvageable and any efforts to repurpose it were not feasible.
“A skid loader was driving on the second story knocking over walls,” Steinhausen said. “This was a building the university told me wasn’t viable.”
The deconstruction and demolition job, awarded to Dore and Associates Contracting of Bay City, Michigan, in September 2013 for roughly $850,000, began in March and continued throughout the spring.
Through June, however, neither UNL nor Dore and Associates had filed for a demolition permit from the City of Lincoln, plans examiner Gordon McGill said, in violation of city code.
McGill called UNL and threatened to shut down the project until the proper documents were submitted, but as of July 1, crews continued to clear the site.
UNL spokesman Steve Smith said the university proceeded on the project "based on past precedent with the city."
"We are currently coordinating with the city with respect to any demolition permits that may be required in the future, considering the nature of this phased deconstruction," Smith said.
McGill notes it's not uncommon for UNL to move ahead without the proper documentation, saying: “It’s the university and they can pretty much do as they wish."
Smith said the deconstruction of the site is about 70 percent complete and work is expected to finish by early September.
"The contractor is carefully sorting materials for salvage and a final report on the waste diversion will be submitted when the project is finished," he said.
But the rush to tear down the original Cushman building leaves Steinhausen and others interested in saving the structure confused.
Never recognized as historic
Despite being recognized for its architecture and significance to Lincoln’s history for more than four decades, the Cushman Motorworks building had not been designated as a historical landmark, according to Nebraska State Historical Society national register and certified local governments coordinator Ruben Acosta.
To be eligible for a historic designation, a property must be able to tell a significant story associated with historic events or a historic person, or be significant in its architecture, Acosta said.
“The building cannot have changed too much over time, it should appear as it did when it gained significance,” he said. “The building has to appear as it did when it first gained significance.”
The property’s owner must submit an application to the Nebraska State Historical Preservation Board, which can forward the materials onto the National Parks Service, the agency ultimately responsible for selecting the nominees for the National Register of Historic Places.
Local properties belonging to certified local governments also must be considered by the local historical preservation commission in the city offices.
The Cushman building appeared to fit all of the qualifications needed to become a historical landmark, but none of the property’s owners -- UNL included -- ever filed to have the building recognized, even though the site was identified as a significant landmark in two studies done in the 1970s.
The first, a 1972 study of the Malone neighborhood conducted by five UNL geography professors, found the future of the Cushman factory -- the “sharpest and clearest element of the landscape” of the neighborhood bordering the city campus -- would largely decide the future of the Malone neighborhood as a whole.
“If Cushman leaves the area it will herald the approach of either the university or the city,” the report states. “Either of the two can, upon entering, drastically change over one-third of the total Malone Area or that portion west of 22nd Street.”
A 1978 survey of the Malone neighborhood also identified the Cushman building as a significant structure from more than 5,500 sites studied. It rated the building “very good for historical and architectural heritage.”
Cushman was purchased by Textron in 2002 and its operations were moved to the Textron headquarters in Augusta, Georgia, before Textron sold the 17.8 acres of property to UNL in 2003 for $4.9 million.
The prophecy made by the team of UNL geography professors had come true.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the site could become home to an early incarnation of Innovation Campus, where the university would partner with the private sector on research and development in coordination with a research center at the remodeled Whittier Junior High School.
The plans were reflected in UNL’s 2005 campus master plan, which suggested further study of “private-sector research and development facilities that feed off the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s planned research facility on the old Textron/Cushman site near Y Street.”
Those plans were later abandoned after UNL secured a new Innovation Campus site at the former Nebraska State Fairgrounds.
No current plans for development
Jennifer Dam, UNL assistant director for campus planning, said a number of studies were conducted looking at how buildings might be situated at the Cushman site, but current plans do not call for any development.
Clearing the abandoned buildings “paves the way for future development,” Dam said.
The changes outlined in the 2013 master plan were new to preservationist Steinhausen and Malone Neighborhood Association President Ed Patterson, who said locating information related to the university’s plan for the Cushman site was difficult.
“They did it without really bothering to discuss it with anyone,” Patterson said. “It’s hard to make much of a case for saving the building if no one knows about it.”
Living in the Malone neighborhood for the last 50 years, Patterson said he has fought the university and city alike on projects involving the Malone neighborhood.
UNL has been responsive in most cases -- a recent rumor that the university had purchased and slated several houses for destruction in the neighborhood were put to rest quickly and effectively -- but Patterson said information isn’t always as easy to find as UNL says.
“I feel like there’s a reason they started (demolition) with the original Cushman building first,” Patterson said.
Steinhausen said Cushman’s demolition is the latest in a long line of historic buildings UNL has acquired and knocked down without giving serious consideration to preserving them.
An effort to save the Industrial Arts Building on Innovation Campus was successful, Steinhausen said, but mostly because federal funds were tied into repurposing the building.
The Facebook page where Steinhausen posted his photo of the skid loader working on Cushman’s second floor quickly gained more followers than the effort to save the Industrial Arts Building, showing just how many people are interested in preserving Lincoln’s history through its architecture.
Steinhausen said UNL should develop better policies regarding future use of historic buildings, while Patterson said using historically significant buildings would be appropriate for the university’s future.
“The university is always so anxious to talk about being the economic engine of the state that they are eager to wipe out what has been huge accomplishments for Nebraska in the last century,” Patterson said.