“A Little Learning…

December 29, 2023 Blog, Economics, Texas Comments (1) 207

is a dangerous thing” said Alexander Pope, and he recommended going whole hog (until Alps on Alps arise) or abstaining. Heritage conservation/Historic preservation is a specialized field, and like many specialized fields, the wider world has misapprehensions or misunderstandings about it. We can try to impart a little learning. There are pitfalls though, because misapprehension often rings truer than fact.

A case in point is the National Register of Historic Places. Its name is often misapprehended as “The National Registry” just because that sounds, well, classier. When a building, site, district or structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places that means it can’t be torn down, right?

Wrong. Also, Wrong. And Wrong again. The list has been around since 1966 and provides no protection against demolition. It DOES provide a review process that MIGHT make demolition less likely, but that is only if it is literally a federal case. It is kept by the Secretary of the Interior, who will have no idea if anyone is going to tear it down unless a federal agency tells the Secretary they are going to. And they can still tear it down, but only after going through the process.

310 W Polk, Chicago, demolished 1991 by the Postal Service because they knew that the National Register doesn’t prevent demolition.

Now, you can explain that time and time again, but it won’t stick, because the misapprehension is so much more plausible. That’s what it SHOULD mean, right? What really amazes me is that people in high positions dealing with real estate and so forth not only don’t get this, but they suspect there is some weird detail of the National Register that is going to somehow – magically – thwart them. Because it is a specialized field. Fear is always based on lack of knowledge.

Even though the National Register can’t prevent anyone from tearing down anything (there I said it again, but you still don’t believe it, right?) it can provide – since 1976 – preservation tax incentives that can be used to restore the resource. Part of the reason we have so many buildings on the National Register is that real estate developers put them there in order to get a 20% investment tax credit. $2 million off your taxes for a $10 million rehab. Not bad.

But wait, there’s more! In Texas, you can get an additional 25% tax credit ON TOP of the federal one, so your $10 million rehab only costs you $5.5 million. Or, in the case of the St. Anthony above, more than $24 million in tax credits. So who wouldn’t want the National Register – it can finance your rehab or, you can ignore it and tear it down! No downside, right?

Another historic tax credit project, right across the street.

And another, across the street again. Not rocket science.

No downside unless you are a victim of misapprehension, or magical thinking. Case in point: the Conservation Society of San Antonio has nominated of the Texas Pavilion/Institute of Texan Cultures building (1968, Caudill, Rowlett & Scott) to the National Register of Historic Places. Its owner, the University of Texas at San Antonio, is going to oppose the nomination because they want to “monetize the site.”

Okay. Site. Money. Weren’t we just talking about a tax incentives worth 45% of rehab cost? That would be an attraction to someone buying it. BUT, they assume it will be torn down so Spurs Stadium IV (A New Hope) can be built on a smaller site than the Spurs II and III. So? You are the UT System, you can do what you want. In fact, the State and the UT system don’t even have to ask the city for a demolition permit like the rest of us.

As they proved with the Sutton Building in 2019.

So why would you oppose National Register listing if it adds potential incentives and doesn’t prevent demolition? How could you be so powerful and not understand your power? You don’t quite believe that truth because it doesn’t feel true – this is the National Registry (sic) after all!

Civilization and the current moment are saturated with people following courses of action that contradict their fiduciary responsibilities because they have a better storyline. This National Register thing has got to be a big green dragon – it can’t be as innocuous as they say, right?

Oh look, another historic tax credit project!

A good storyline beats the bottom line any day.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

JANUARY UPDATE: We got a unanimous vote from the State Review Board so now it is up to the State Historic Preservation Office to forward the nomination to the Keeper of the National Register (or not). We had 9 speakers in favor at the hearing in Galveston and they also received 47 letters of support and many more online expressions of support. UTSA provided the sole opposition to the listing.

FEBRUARY UPDATE: University of Texas Board of Regents voted in secret to either lease or sell the ITC to the City for a new Spurs arena. No one is talking, though.

The Spurs probably have enough tax liability that they could use the historic preservation tax credits themselves, avoiding a syndication!

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Diversity and American History

December 18, 2015 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Interpretation, Texas Comments (2) 2219

I took this picture in the United States.

For several years I have been working on a problem: the “Diversity Deficit” in the National Register of Historic Places.  95% or more of our historic sites have as their primary significance the story of a male of European descent.  You can see some of this year’s blogs on the topic here and here. Continue Reading

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National Historic Preservation Act: Addressing the Diversity Deficit

August 4, 2015 Blog, Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Justice, History, Intangible Heritage, Interpretation, Texas Comments (3) 2256

Two weeks ago I spoke during the meeting of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation regarding the Future of the National Register of Historic Places, which will be 50 years old next year.  I detailed some of the shortcomings that have emerged over that time, including a startling “Diversity Deficit.”

Less than 5% of the buildings listed on the National Register evoke the nation’s diverse history – the rest chronicle white men, who are much less than half the country.  I also detailed many of the challenges in preservation practice that we inherited from an architect-driven 1960s practice, one that has a tendency to focus too much on the formal.

The photo is one of may favorite examples, from St. Nicholas Avenue in Hamilton Heights, New York, the building lacks architectural integrity.  But Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man there in 1947, a book more relevant than ever today. The building is authentic but does not have integrity.  The problem is not the building but our practice – we adopted the architectural concept of “integrity” in 1966 instead of the international concept of “authenticity.” Continue Reading

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Conserving Buildings and Preservation Laws

September 19, 2011 Chicago Buildings, Economics, Historic Districts Comments (2) 1379

Almost a year ago in Austin, new National Trust President Stephanie Meeks outlined her plan for the Trust going forward, which I reviewed here. In that speech, she said preservationists need to become more visible beyond those who just say “No!” Continue Reading

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