Monday, March 2, 2020

Busting Historic Preservation Myths

former 1927 Willsboro High School into the Champlain Valley Senior CommunityMyths pervade most aspects of life and they can be very persistent. Whether it’s “we only use 10% of our brain” or “George Washington had wooden teeth” these myths can be relatively harmless  – or they can really get in the way of true understanding and action.

Historic preservation has its own set of myths. Some originate from a grain of truth, many are outright wrong, and still others require a more nuanced understanding.

I run across these myths all the time in our work where we often push back with education, persuasion, and our own experiences. In this series of short essays, we take on the four most persistent and sometimes damaging myths about historic preservation in the Adirondacks.

MYTH #1: If my property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, I will never be able to make any changes to it.

This is the most common myth we encounter. The truth is that, in and of itself, National Register listing does not restrict an owner’s right to make changes to a building, including demolishing it, except in two specific circumstances.

First, if a building owner receives public support for work on their National Register eligible or listed building, then the work will be reviewed by a state agency and must conform to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. You can understand the trade-off. In exchange for getting public money, the funder wants to ensure that the public goal of preserving and enhancing the state’s architectural heritage is achieved, or at least not diminished. Our experience is that such reviews are usually extremely reasonable and apply mostly to building exteriors.

Second, where a local municipality has enacted a local law to protect its designated historic properties, then a local board may scrutinize an owner’s plans. Such ordinances usually grow out of a local interest in achieving historic preservation and community revitalization goals. These ordinances are developed and approved through a public input process and are administered by people who understand the circumstances in their own community.

These also mostly apply to exterior changes to a building. Although sometimes these do cause controversies, on the whole, such ordinances have been found to greatly enhance community character, cohesion, and vitality.

Essex is one of the most architecturally rich and intact villages in our own region, in part, because of the measures taken by the town to protect its cultural resources.

Warrensburg also recently denied an application to demolish a historic building to build a Dollar General store in an historic district, thanks to its local zoning ordinance. Otherwise, such ordinances are extremely rare in the Adirondacks.

So, if you own a National Register listed property but are using your own money and live in a community without a historic district law, you are free to do almost anything you like, within the limits of building and other municipal codes.

On the other hand, National Register designation carries many benefits. This is true for individual building owners but it is especially true for historic neighborhoods and downtowns. A selection from PlaceEconomics’ Twenty-Four Reasons Historic Preservation is Good for Your Community provides substantial evidence that historic preservation:

  • Creates jobs
  • Stimulates downtown revitalization
  • Promotes heritage tourism
  • Provides affordable housing opportunities
  • Improves property values
  • Is at the heart of a healthy small local business economy
  • Provides space for new business start-ups
  • Creates walkable, human-scaled, environmentally responsible communities

All of the above happens because well-preserved historic communities are attractive, intimate, and dynamic places to live, work, and visit. Communities with designated historic properties are further advantaged by a number of financial incentive opportunities available to historic building owners (see Myth #2 in the next installment).

For more information about the National Register of Historic Places, click here.

Christine Bush and Nolan Cool contributed to this essay.

Photo of former 1927 Willsboro High School into the Champlain Valley Senior Community provided by AARCH.

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Steven Engelhart is the Executive Director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), the regional historic preservation organization of the Adirondack Park. AARCH's mission is to promote better public understanding, appreciation and stewardship of the region's built environment.

Among AARCH's many activities are: sponsoring a series of tours of historic places; offering workshops; giving slide presentations; publishing a newsletter; managing Camp Santanoni, advocating on behalf of threatened historic sites; and providing technical assistance to individuals, organizations and local governments.

Steven is a native of the region and has a BA from SUNY Plattsburgh and a MS in historic preservation from the University of Vermont. He is the author of Crossing the River: Historic Bridges of the AuSable River, a small book about bridges and local history of the AuSable Valley. He resides in Wadhams and loves to hike, canoe, read, play the banjo, explore the region, and spend time with family and friends.

2 Responses

  1. Mike Conway says:

    Hi Steven,
    I helped Eli S. with a HTC project in Essex County a few years ago. Would love to hook up with him again. Is that school his project? Please pass on my info to him , if so. I am looking to help where I can.
    Best Regards,
    Mike Conway

  2. Big Burly says:

    Thank you Steven,

    Dispelling myths with fact is an important effort. The points made at the end of this installment all point out that historic preservation plays an important element in economic development activity.