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.
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.
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?