Part II is Worth Reading

As I noted in my previous posts regarding Historic Preservation, I do have some concerns with the broadening definitions of what historically important and about what constitutes “taking.” However, I do not intend to rehash my concerns here. I found the second half of Historic Preservation to be full of useful content on the legal and technical aspects of historic preservation. I appreciated the information about conservation and the four types of intervention, (preservation, restoration, reconstruction, and rehabilitation) and found the text to be an illuminating and thorough-going treatment of these subjects. Conservators in the field have done remarkable research and provided guidelines and solutions for each type of intervention. The Secretary of the Interior standards frequently referred to in the text appeared to be pretty thorough and reviewing the standards on the National Park Service website confirmed that fact.

While I have little interest in being a conservator, I was intrigued by

Sanbron Fire Insurance Map, District of Columbia
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, District of Columbia (1888)

all that was contained in the “Research and Documentation of Historic Properties” section of Historic Preservation.  I love the description, “Researching historic properties is both a craft and art. The craft is in piecing together information on a property from disparate sources; the art is in its interpretation.”[1] I believe that researching the history of a building or district sounds fascinating.

In exploring the National Park Service website I decided to look at two obscure Civil War-era battles, the Bear Creek Massacre in Franklin County, Idaho and the Battle of Ball’s Bluff in Virginia.  The first was listed by the Civil War Advisory Commission as a site worthy of protection in 1990. Beyond some limited use of the site for interpretation by Shoshone tribal members and a wayside signs, little has been done beyond at the site.  That is why I found the Update to the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission Report on the Nation’s Civil War Battlefields, Far Western Battlefields: States of Colorado, Idaho, and New Mexico of particular interest. The “Update”, published in 2010, provided a lot of information about what has or has not been done relative to the site, as well as what steps need to be taken to further protect the site.

Ball’s Bluff a relatively well-developed park, but is a little less impressive with regard to NPS provided information. The only readily available NPS document was a one page report by the Civil War Sites Advisory Committee. This dearth of information is offset by a wealth of information provided by other sources, in particular NOVA Parks, an inter-jurisdictional organization in Northern Virgina.

[1] Norman Tyler, Ted J. Ligibel and Ilene R. Tyler, Historic Preservation: An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009), 202.

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?