The Cowan Mill may have taken years to build, and stood for many decades, but it was undone in one afternoon. Its rapid disappearance from Lewiston’s landscape is proof that history is fleeting, and how endangered vacant properties really are, regardless of their community significance.

More than any city in Maine, Lewiston is arriving at a proverbial tipping point for its historical buildings and architecture. The city is losing much more than it stands to gain, with numerous irreplaceable structures falling victim to fire, neglect and decisions of policy.

Bates Mill No. 5 always crystallizes this discussion here. Those who wish to keep it cite its noted architect, Albert Kahn, its placement at the city’s center and overall uniqueness. Those who think it should come down, which includes us, see its shabby exterior and expensive re-use as unfeasible.

History is greater than one building, though, even one of Bates Mill No. 5’s size. Focusing too tightly on the big sawtooth mill can obscure the structures that are equally important, and just as imperiled from the recipe that downed the Cowan, the Libbey Mill and others.

Lisbon Street still has its missing teeth — the giant hole where three downtown buildings burned in December 2006, for example. And now, with the pending closures of St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s churches, there are two more landmarks with vacancy in their near futures.

It begs a question — what should be done in response? What happens if these older buildings languish empty is well-known. They can fall apart. They can be vandalized. They can burn. They can, after serving as community pillars for centuries, slip away into history easier than ever imagined.

Action is necessary, and it should start with the stewards of history in Lewiston-Auburn. Those who know best why certain structures should be saved should be the first to tell the rest of us.

The recession seems a blessing and curse for historic preservation. While booming times can prompt private investments — such as the Dominican Block and Lyceum Hall — the lagging economy can stall projects and incite decline, such as what happened with the mills at Island Point.

It also lays the groundwork for government intervention. It will never be more cost-effective for municipalities than today to get involved in preservation of properties. Incentives are available. What’s needed is a plan.

So let’s make one. It makes little sense to mourn the Cowan, as so many did, and not take strides to prevent the next one. Preventable losses of beloved landmarks can be, and has been, the chief regret of many communities. By failing to act, these places never realized what they were losing.

Unfortunately, we do.

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