Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Great Society and a not-so-great one: the importance and nuances of preservation

In light of the disturbing news that the Indiana State Senate has passed SB 177, which limits the terms of commissioners on the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission and which sends appeals of commission decisions to the Metropolitan Development Commission rather than to the Circuit Court. And in light of the Obama administration's withdrawal of budget support for some national preservation efforts it seems like a good time to repost a column I wrote for the July 2008 "Urban Times." Here is a brief primer on how and why preservation is important.


Downtown Indianapolis is brimming over with historic homes, historic districts, notable and outstanding properties, and even a National Historic Landmark (American Legion Mall).

Many downtowners are familiar with terms like “historic resources” and “historic preservation.” But unless you are a preservation professional (and even if you are) it’s difficult to understand the myriad of terms that define preservation in your neighborhood and even more difficult to grasp the nuances of the terminology. Here is a primer of sorts about the origin of those terms and their significance in the preservation movement.

We have Lyndon Johnson to thank for the federal government’s involvement in the national preservation movement. In 1966, President Johnson signed the National Historic Preservation Act. This act provides the groundwork for preservation on the local, state and national levels.

Lady Bird Johnson, a famous cultivator of historic and native plants and beautifier of national highways, wrote the forward of the report that became the impetus for national preservation and the preservation act. In her words, “…the buildings which express our national heritage are not simply interesting. They give a sense of continuity and of heightened reality to our thinking about the whole meaning of the American past.”

The National Historic Preservation Act gave the Secretary of the Interior the responsibility to expand and maintain a National Register of Historic Places. And Section 106 of the act gave teeth to the preservation movement. It was a legal mandate to consider historic preservation in federal planning and required that those working on federally funded projects had to take into account the effects of the projects on historic properties.

The preservation act called for the creation of governor-appointed State Historic Preservation Officers and required them to have staffs and offices and matching funds to oversee the preservation movement on the state and local level.

Each state’s historic preservation officer would oversee a statewide survey of historic resources. Since the mid-1970s, the Indiana State Historic Preservation Officer has overseen surveys of most of Indiana’s counties (about 3/4ths of the state has been surveyed). That survey is technically called the “Indiana Historic Sites and Structures Inventory” (IHSSI).

Often conducted by graduate students, sometimes with little experience in evaluating historic properties, the IHSSI uses a standard form to collect info on properties’ materials such as windows, siding, foundation, and to postulate a date of construction and a style name for the building’s architecture, as well to record known history of the property. Surveyors are also asked to give the property a rating on a scale ranging from contributing to notable to outstanding.

Contributing properties are at the low end of the range. They retain enough historic integrity (original materials and design) to display their historic nature, but they may have lost some original materials, had additions of non-historic materials or they might simply be an unremarkable example of a common type. Small bungalows often fall into the latter category.

Notable properties have high historic integrity and may or may not have historic significance either as an architectural type or for their association with a person or event. Typically more research would need to be done on these notable properties to establish their significance and raise them to an “Outstanding” rating.

Outstanding properties have high integrity and their significance is known—either because the architecture is remarkable or because some historic event or person is associated specifically with the property, or because it is representative of a historic trend.

The information compiled by the IHSSI is published in book form in the county interim reports. Marion County has individual interim reports for each township. Unlike other county interim reports, though, Marion County’s township reports only list the properties rated notable or outstanding. The properties rated contributing in the IHSSI were not included in these report to keep the size of the reports smaller.

The National Register of Historic Places is a separate entity from the IHSSI and the interim reports. However, properties that receive an outstanding rating in the IHSSI and the interim report are considered eligible for listing on the National Register. But they aren’t listed until someone completes a nomination form and the State Historic Preservation Officer’s staff and the State Review Board both approve it and then send it on to the National Parks Service for review and approval.

The National Register recognizes the best of the best properties. Properties listed on the National Register may be individual buildings, districts, sites, objects or structures. They have both historic integrity and significance for architecture, or an association with a historic trend or events, or an association with a person of importance, or because the property might yield further information (though the latter is usually significant only for archaeological sites).

Properties that are listed (and also those that are deemed eligible for listing but are not yet on the National Register) acquire the protections provided for in the National Historic Preservation Act.

Any federally funded project that might have an effect on the properties must take them into account and try to avoid an adverse effect. If that adverse effect is unavoidable, then the project managers will enter into mitigation with the State Historic Preservation Officer’s staff and try to work out an agreement on how to mitigate the effect, which basically means coming up with a way to essentially repay the community for affecting its historic resources.

A National Register listing doesn’t in any way impede what a private citizen wants to do to his or her property. If you live in a National Register Historic District, such as Lockerbie Square, the Old Northside, Herron-Morton Place, Meridian Park and Ransom Place, there are no restrictions placed by the National Register on what you do to your home or commercial property. This is true if you own a property that is individually listed, such as the Athenaeum, or if you own a property that is within not individually listed but is within a listed historic district, such as the Jungclaus Campbell Co. in the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District.

-----If you live in a LOCAllY designated historic district, you are governed and restricted by the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission, not by the National Register listing, as to how much, if at all, you can change your historic property. This local organization is the only protection that historic properties receive from their private owners tearing them down or painting them purple or pulling out all their original windows to install sliding glass doors, etc. The powers of the local IHPC are built upon the foundation that our architectural heritage is important to all of us and that private individuals are simply temporary stewards of buildings that can last for generations.

Although the nuances of historic preservation and its terminology can be confusing, we who live downtown reap the benefits of districts and individual properties, which are preserved for all of us to enjoy. For, as the National Historic Preservation Act attests, these resources are our “irreplaceable heritage.” Preserving them means that their “…vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, economic, and energy benefits will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.”

Historic properties are inherently “green,” for they require no new-construction energy. And they help us better understand who we are and where we came from as a people and a community. We can be thankful that Lyndon Johnson listened to his wife about that idea. We can only hope that our current leaders will have as much foresight.

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