At What Cost?

On the back cover of Historic Preservation, the authors’ state, “It is an ideal introduction to the field [preservation] for students, historians, preservationists, property owners, local officials, and community leaders.” I agree, I found it a thorough introduction which answered many questions, often ones I didn’t know I had. I was interested to read how various groups, communities and governmental bodies created and used all manner of laws to achieve their goals. While I am not sure preservation is the area I want to work in, I will keep this book as a reference, just in case.

Production still from Pixar movie, “Up!”

While I generally applaud preservationists’ efforts, and love much of what has been preserved, I am concerned about the increasingly broad definitions of what is historically important. The broader definition, the less historically important the project seems.  In particular, I found that “Heritage Areas” and “Heritage Corridors” stretched credulity.  To paraphrase the authors, are Heritage Areas now preferable to National Parks or National Monuments? I have to ask if economic factors are driving this movement. By this I mean that tourism, tourism-related development and the ability to retain more local control on the appearance, function and activities seem to provide self-interested, economic motivation for applying for this status. I think developing coalitions is useful and I would not want to discourage such efforts, but many of these projects seem questionable.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Manhattan

From a legal perspective, I think of St. Bartholomew Church in New York is an example of another problem.  In disallowing their proposal to build a commercial tower as a way to generate income, the courts ruled that since the church was still able to function as a church and it could still perform its various missions if it sold off some of its stock portfolio, this was not a “taking.” The property owner was not trying to destroy this historic building but they are not given any latitude on how to raise funds and instead are forced to expend resources against their will. Must they maintain this historic property until their resources are gone? Once the parish has emptied their bank account, does it become the responsibility of the Episcopal Diocese of New York to maintain the property? I note this because I am aware of historic churches from various faith communities facing similar demands. What recourse do they have?

One thought on “At What Cost?”

  1. Dean I agree with your comment on what is historically important. This comment and question gave me pause because I never really thought about it. If it has significance to the community would that not deem it historically valuable? It does to the community it represents as does the churches and Cathedrals of many religions. Here in Boise their is the Greek Orthodox church which was built by greek immigrants and now has many other ethnic immigrants using it. It is only historically important due to the community and most native people of Boise due to its lineage. I also agree that if it historical sites should be able to maintain themselves. St. Bartholomew Church is a great example that probably plagues others in large cities like New York or Chicago. It makes one think how one could help preserve it and allow it to not be tainted or abused if allowed to sell some of its portfolio. It seems fear of losing the site has allowed for law makers and city hall to be overly protective.

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