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!
“Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
- Mark Twain
I have always loved history because it contains everything. It is full of contradictions, replete with exceptions that prove the rule, and layered with conflicting motivations, unintended consequences, and outright paradoxes. Those of us who promote history by preserving historic sites revel in this depth and complexity. It isn’t simply that more stories can be told from each place. You can also attract more visitors, and thus complexity adds money as well.
This was one of the big arguments we made about preserving the Woolworth Building with its important Civil Rights history across from the Alamo (see this blog for example). Under the old plan, you would get Alamo battle tourists only. By adding another layer to the depth of history told, you get more tourists. That means more money. That’s why everyone was so excited when the Alamo and the other San Antonio Missions became a World Heritage Site in 2015 (my blog at the time).* Because that adds another story – the story of the missions, the Franciscans, soldiers and indigenous people who first populated the city in the 18th century. More stories = more tourists = more money.
I bring this up because some tabloids and their online siblings have been attacking various National Trust historic sites for being “w*ke” or adopting “CRT” or some other cryptohistoric political claptrap they invented. Being tabloids, they strive to paint sites onto one side of the political spectrum by outright lying that they are only interpreting these sites one way.
Wrong. Also stupid. Also you lose money because you shut out stories that attract more and different people. Diversity is always going to be economically richer. One of those maligned by the knuckle-draggers was Montpelier, which I visited as a Trustee of the National Trust some years ago.
The main point of interpretation was James Madison and the Constitution, which it still is. So don’t believe the tabloidiots who said otherwise. Another story being told is that James Madison could not maintain 100 buildings all by himself and had enslaved people do it. That story is also told. I saw the preparations for both of those stories – and many more about nature and gardens and decorative arts and lifestyles. That’s how successful sites work – they have depth. Otherwise people would see them once for an hour and never have to return.
The problem with “culture wars” is that they are driven by ideology. Ideologies, as I explained before (and despite their verifiable agency) are always wrong BECAUSE they are static and thus ignore history. History is dynamic, diverse, complex and contradictory. That’s why it is so fun. You can’t get it all in an hour. Or a day. Or a week. Or a lifetime.
When the mouth-breathing tabloidiots is that when they say “w*ke” or “CRT” they are making it up. These house museums and historical societies are about preserving and interpreting history, and the more the better. Their agenda is telling a deep, rich and complete story of everything that happened over time.
Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.
*FUN FACT: The 1836 Battle for the Alamo is not part of the World Heritage nomination for the missions.
I recently recovered my old coin collection from my parents’ house and it got me thinking about time and value. There is a natural tendency to assume that older things have greater value, but any economic history can disprove that pretty quickly. The value of things fluctuates greatly over time, but we tend to think values go up over time.
During my teaching career, I remember having a hard time – before 2008 – explaining to students that real estate values can go down. No one at that time had ever seen that, but as a historian, I had seen it 150 years earlier.
I thought of this when someone posted on an historic preservation forum posted about having to deal with all of these people trying to donate pianos. We get a lot of those here as well, And I actually personally took a piano off someone’s hands in 2006 or 7, only to ditch it a decade later. We think that old things have value, but the fact that so many people are trying to give them away…means they don’t have value. People are trying to give them away.
I love old stuff, but that does not mean it has monetary value. I once had a woman become fairly rude when I explained that we were not going to accept a particular piece of furniture which she intended to have us display in one of our house museums. Her bold and presumptuous intention was met with a realistic collections and donation policy. Now, you might say “But that is where something like this has value! In a house museum!”
Yes, it has educational value there. But its economic value is likely a negative number. Let’s do the math. There are 10,000 Victorian homes around here of which exactly four are museums. That creates a market demand for 4 old pianos, maybe 5. Let’s say that 4,000 of those homes had pianos at one time. Basically we have 3,995 extra pianos, and let’s say, generously, that 500 of them are restored and tuned and used regularly. So now we have 3,495 old pianos and supply and demand says their value is diddley plus squat plus sweet FA, as the English would say.
That’s not even getting into the dismal economics (is that redundant?) of the house museums themselves, which require a pretty massive subsidy to survive as what they are. Your museum admission generally pays about 20% of the cost of keeping those houses. So who is paying the four-fifths and is it worth it to them?
Used, rehabbed houses are not the problem that house museums are. They have use value as well as historic value and they exist in a market where they retain value – because they are used.
But let’s get back to my coin collection. I’m sure Mom was glad to have it gone, and it can’t have much value. It reminded me of a discussion we had at Vogt Auctions in 2019 about how certain items – china, silver service, and probably pianos – no longer have monetary value because demand is gone. They had several experts letting people know that many of their treasured collections were not going to be wanted or kept by their descendants.
That does not mean there are not valuable things – they are just different than the things that were valuable 20 years ago. Mid-century Modern furniture is at a premium. Victorian furniture is on clearance.
Young’uns pay for vinyl, but I’m not sure about those cassette tapes.
It is kinda like fashion – some very strange 70s and Victorian stuff is back in vogue now, like baby doll dresses. Meanwhile I am trying to see if I can skate through a whole decade without acquiring pointy brown shoes. I know, don’t say it – it is illegal and I am in big trouble.
Here is a very intact Victorian home in San Antonio of the typical Queen Anne type: L-shaped plan with front facing gable, decorative balusters, posts and porch trim. It even has decorative brackets with drop pendants that survive on the corner.
Next door we have this house. It is boarded up and a temporary fence was added three weeks ago, but this Queen Anne retains a lot of integrity, from every one of its four Doric order porch columns to original wood siding and decorative shingles in the protruding gables. The house volume is unchanged since 1912.
Next door, also behind the fence, this Folk Victorian gem has a double-munched standing seam metal roof, original siding and original shingles in the gables. It is also boarded up, so we don’t know how many original doors and windows survive, but in my experience, there will be several if not all.
SOOOOOO……. the owner proposed to demolish these three.
I have seen buildings in WAY worse shape get saved.
In fact, one that was on the demolition list when I started at the San Antonio Conservation Society three years ago recently came up in our house hunting.
The owner of the three Commerce houses has a business a block away where he rents, so he bought these “just in case.”
Perfect! Move your offices in there and ditch the landlord!
Um, so then the owner’s representative said they tried renting them but they were having too much trouble. But then the druggies and thugs started hanging out and breaking in, so they need to be demolished.
Because when you demolish buildings, those problems go away?
Then the owner’s rep said he wants to build and apartment building here but has no plans and no timeline.
“There is plenty of room to put in his office AND add an apartment building,” I said. This is not an EITHER/OR.
And then there is money. You rehab these as houses, you can get the city tax incentives. You rehab them as National Register landmarks (that still needs to be done) and you can get a 20% investment tax credit. And a 25% state tax credit. They would totally qualify based on their history, architecture and condition. 45% of your rehab costs paid for.
Since the fence went up three weeks ago the squatters and scrabblers have stayed away. We can only hope the owner listens to reason. Or money. Or the neighbors. Or takes a look at Zillow and sees what has happened to other buildings that someone once thought should be demolished.
Because they couldn’t think of anything else.
This coming week I will be lecturing about Main Street, a National Trust for Historic Preservation initiative that began in the 1970s as a way to help preserve historic downtowns throughout America in communities of every size. This was in the era when suburban shopping malls had become the centerpiece of American life, drawing attention and dollars away from the smaller shops and services of the old downtowns. Continue Reading
Everybody loves them some locktender’s houses
One of the interesting facts about the heritage conservation field is that it does not track neatly with political persuasions. My first day of work in 1983 saw the legislation creating the first national heritage area co-sponsored by every single member of the Illinois Congressional delegation, bar none. Imagine. Continue Reading
This Friday I will deliver a keynote address titled “Path To The Future” at the National Trust for Canada conference in Calgary. The conference is titled “Heritage Energized” and the setting is the boomtown West, the kind of place that easily disregards the past in a rush toward the new.
Or is that just a stereotype? It is hard to find a city in North America or Europe that has not seen an economic “boom” from its historic buildings, especially if those buildings are conserved in enough concentration to spark revitalization. From Denver’s LoDo and Seattle’s Pioneer Square to Manhattan’s SoHo and Chicago’s Printers’ Row, it seems every town has an historic district that has turned into an economic engine. Continue Reading
President Lincoln’s Cottage, Washington DC
Last week in this blog I presented some concepts on how we can create a more democratic, diverse and inclusive heritage conservation in the United States, largely by applying the lessons of international heritage conservation over the last twenty years, notably the Burra Charter. Preservation is a process, not a set of rules. Continue Reading
In Chicago today the news is the unanimous decision of the Cook County Board to rehabilitate the historic Cook County Hospital Building (1914, Paul C. Gephardt) as medical offices. Seven years ago the building was to be demolished after the new John Stroger Hospital replaced it, but Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago and others were able to find enough County Board allies to prevent demolition, and the unanimous action yesterday illustrates the shift. The project also ably illustrates several intriguing aspects of rehabilitating historic buildings. Continue Reading
One of the gratifying things about being in the historic preservation/heritage conservation field is that it is future-oriented. Usually the position preservationists take – which may seem radical at the time – becomes the mainstream position later. So all those blogs of mine earlier this year about preservation as the road to economic recovery? Here is it from the AIA today:
“Embracing the Economics of Historic Preservation: Reusing and renovating already-constructed buildings can lead the way out of this
Thanks to Joan Pomaranc at AIAChicago for forwarding this!