Daytonian of the Week: Rachel Bankowitz, preserving the Gem City’s history

‘Every building has a unique history that I can’t wait to uncover’

Rachel Bankowitz is preserving Dayton for the future.

If you’re an admirer of our city’s architecture, her roles as preservation planner and the historic preservation officer for Dayton, helps keep the city’s charm and history alive.

Bankowitz manages the city’s 13 historic districts and numerous individual historic landmarks in Dayton.

In April Gov. John Kasich appointed her to the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board, where she will lend her expertise to the state.

So, what inspires Bankowitz, our Daytonian of the Week, about her role in the Gem City? Here's what she said:

How did you get into your current role with the City of Dayton? 

Like a lot of kids in Dayton, I couldn’t wait to go to college out of state. After graduating with my master’s in Historic Preservation, I spent 10 years working in the private sector as an architectural historian/preservation planner conducting surveys for, and documentation of, cultural resources throughout the Midwest.

Life was good, but one day I realized the importance of being near my family, who were still in Dayton. Out of the blue, I decided to check available employment with the City of Dayton and, as luck would have it, they were hiring for a general planner position. I applied and scored an interview and once they realized my skill set in preservation, offered me the role of Preservation Planner. The stars couldn’t have aligned any better and that’s how I knew it was time to come home.

How long have you been in this role? 

I’ve been with the city for about five years. A lot of my time is spent managing our city’s 13 historic districts and all our individually-designated historic landmarks. I process all requests for Certificates of Appropriateness, and prepare and present casework to our city’s Landmark Commission. Of course, historic preservation encompasses more than my normal duties, and typically includes research, fieldwork, photography, grant writing, etc. My days are never the same, thankfully!

How did you become interested in planning and historic preservation? 

I have an old soul and I’ve always enjoyed old houses. Growing up, nearly all of my relatives lived in older buildings. One New York relative had an apartment in an old Victorian house. To get to their unit, you entered through the original parlor, laden with heavy, elaborate, 19th-century woodwork and old-world charm. I remember being in awe of old architecture even as a young child.

Why is historic preservation important?

Historic preservation is important because it helps us understand our past. Everything has a history. Perhaps more importantly, it teaches critical thinking. To think historically is to recognize that all problems, all situations, all institutions exist in contexts that must be understood before informed decisions can be made. No entity — corporate, government, nonprofit — can afford not to have a historian/preservationist at the table.

Tell me about one of your favorite historic sites/buildings in Dayton. Why is it special to you? 

That’s a difficult one for me. There are so many! What I love most about our historic sites/buildings, and old buildings in general, are the stories associated with them. I love looking at old newspaper articles because they offer a human perspective about these buildings. For example, the brick industrial building at 620 Geyer Street was once associated with the Underwood-Talmadge Company, who for many years supplied candy throughout the Midwest. The former single-family house-turned-funeral-home at 25 Indianola Avenue was originally owned by Frank J. Cellarius, who published the first street maps of Dayton in 1891. Every building has a unique story that I can’t wait to uncover.

What local project have you worked on that you are most proud of? 

Since joining the City of Dayton, I have successfully nominated over 25 buildings to the Dayton Register of Historic Places, helping to ensure their preservation. This list includes some very iconic downtown buildings, like the former Biltmore Hotel (210 North Main Street), the former Dayton Young Men’s Christian Association Building (115 West Monument Avenue) and the Westminster Presbyterian Church, 125 North Wilkinson Street. I also successfully nominated the former Bimm Fireproof Warehouse (now Lincoln Storage) on East First Street to the National Register of Historic Places.

Governor Kasich recently appointed you to the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board. Tell me about that honor.

The Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board is appointed by the governor to advise the State Historic Preservation Officer and the Ohio History Connection Board of Trustees on historic preservation issues. The advisory board evaluates the significance of properties nominated to the National Register of Historic Places and makes recommendations to the State Historic Preservation Officer.

The advisory board meets four times a year and includes a variety of professionals, including architects, historians, planners, architectural historians, archaeologists and public members from around the state who have expertise in Ohio history, architecture and archaeology.

The advisory board reviews National Register nominations for 30-50 buildings, sites, structures, objects and historic districts each year and advises on the allocation of Certified Local Government grant funds for historic preservation projects in Ohio communities.

I’m looking forward to learning more about what is going on throughout Ohio, so I can apply that knowledge to Dayton.

What do you think Dayton will look like in 10-15 years? 

Aside from all the development happening downtown, I see the revitalization of some of our inner-city neighborhoods. I also envision a few more historic districts.

What inspires you about the Dayton area? What should people know about Daytonians and the city?

I know it’s been said before, but the resilience, perseverance and general goodness of our citizens. After living out of state for many years, I can proudly say that Daytonians are fundamentally “the salt of the earth.” We are reliable, trustworthy and straightforward. We recognize there are issues, but we continue to push forward.

What’s been your most recent professional challenge, and how did you push through it? 

My most recent challenge is not finished. I’m currently part of a team working to create a plan to improve North Main Street and its surrounding neighborhoods. It’s no surprise that this area has suffered from disinvestment for years, and community morale is low. However, through the planning process, I have met some wonderful, resilient, inspirational people. They are why I continue to push through the challenge. I want to do all I can to make life better for them.

What would you change about Dayton? 

Preservation can be a hard sell here. There is sometimes an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality. For example, some might see a vacant, but otherwise structurally-sound house, and would prefer it be demolished than preserved. I understand not every old building can be saved, but I wish people would realize that many of our historic properties, including the Oregon Historic District, were vacant at one time and slated for demolition; however, people recognized the importance of the historic district, and fought for its preservation. They recognized that the architecture and quality of construction was too important not to save. Can you imagine Dayton without the Oregon Historic District?

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in Dayton and attended Corpus Christi. We lived off of North Main Street in the Santa Clara neighborhood until the mid-1980s when we moved to the suburbs. Even as a child, I missed the diversity of city life. Years later, I can honestly say I’d rather live in the city than the suburbs.

What do you love about life in Dayton? 

I love the people, the fact that I don’t have to drive a car because I can bike or walk anywhere, and all the cultural amenities of a big city.

What superpower would you love to have? 

The ability to make everyone laugh!

Describe your perfect Dayton date.

My perfect Dayton date would be to get outdoors for some exercise, hiking, biking, or kayaking, and then refresh at one of our many local breweries.

What Dayton area food do you love? 

I love the history and tradition of Esther Price. Their chocolate isn’t bad either!

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