Why Historic Preservation Needs Government: the free market can’t do it all

In discussions on historic preservation, it’s common to hear someone say, “I love architecture and history, and think it should be preserved. But it’s not the role of government.  Historic preservation is best left to the private sector.”   Some take it a step further.  Recently, the Orlando Sentinel published an editorial by Dan Peterson, executive director of the Coalition for Property Rights.  In his editorial Peterson states, “A municipal government telling an owner he has no right to demolish a standing structure in order to build a new one is dictatorial and, in fact, unlawful.”

Indeed, there have been fine examples both locally and internationally of the private sector’s providing solutions for threatened historic properties.   Did you know that Mount Vernon isn’t owned by the federal government?

Mount Vernon: pre-restoration

Mount Vernon: pre-restoration

In 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to purchase George Washington’s family homestead and rescue it from decrepitude, thus launching the first major historic preservation project in the United States.  The Association operates the home museum to this day.  Closer to home, the Friends of Casa Feliz formed in 2000 to save Gamble Rogers’ masterwork, when consensus couldn’t be reached for the city to own the project.  The Morse Foundation has painstakingly preserved Osceola Lodge, the 1883 Craftsman style home of city pioneer Charles Hosmer Morse, without city assistance.

There have been more situations, however, where the private sector was unable or unwilling to intervene, resulting in serious threats to architectural heritage.  In some cases, government has stepped into the breach.  A classic example is Stonehenge—in the 1870s, the monument’s private owner, arguing that “it’s not the slightest use to anyone now,” attempted to sell it to a railway company, when the British government intervened by passing the Ancient Monuments Protection Act.

Penn Station 2

Penn Station: RIP

When government doesn’t come to the rescue of a threatened architectural treasure, people almost invariably wish it had.  Following the 1963 demolition of New York’s Penn Station by the private Pennsylvania Railroad Company, public outcry was such that Congress would ultimately pass the National Historic Preservation Act, which empowered States and municipalities to develop plans to legally protect their historic inventory.  Since the passage of the act in October 1966, cities that value their history have established strong historic preservation ordinances.

While we have a preservation ordinance in Winter Park (enacted in 2003), one need only look at the thin roster of designated homes, coupled with demolition records of the past ten years, to conclude that it doesn’t go far enough to protect the city’s historic assets.  The shortcomings of the ordinance include:

  • An unrealistic threshold for district designation:  In order for a historic district to be formed in the city, the ordinance requires that at least two-thirds of the homeowners in the proposed district vote in favor of its formation.  Two districts have managed to get the votes to form districts—the College Quarter and Virginia Heights East.  Others, though, have fallen short because of this threshold, which far exceeds the requirements of other Florida cities.  West Palm Beach, for example, requires no threshold whatsoever for a neighborhood to be designated, nor should it, according to Friederike Mittner, the city’s historic preservation officer.  “We don’t ask the homeowners’ permission for other zoning ordinances,” she said.  “Historic preservation is just another form of zoning.”  That city has 16 districts designated to date, protecting over 3,500 historic homes from demolition.quote for blog 2
  • Insufficient protection from demolition: If a historic home or building is voluntarily listed by its owner on the Winter Park Register of Historic Places, it’s difficult, though not impossible, for a future owner to receive permission to demolish it.   It’s a different story, however, for historic homes or buildings not lucky enough to be owned, or previously owned, by a preservation-minded person.  Specifically, there are  about 700 Winter Park residential and commercial structures on the Florida Master Site File (the state’s official record of historic buildings), yet only about 25% of them are on the Winter Park Register or in a historic district, and thus shielded from demolition.   Thus, if someone were to purchase Gamble Rogers’ Macalaster House,arguably one of the architect’s most acclaimed structures, and raze it, there would be absolutely nothing in the city code to impede the process.  Other precious structures with no protection? The Alabama Hotel.   Rogers’  iconic arte moderne Jewett House.  Sandscove on Via Tuscany. The 1902 George Wright House, the oldest house in the historic Hannibal Square neighborhood, currently being marketed as a tear-down.  The list goes on and on.  

    Macalaster House on Alexander Place

    Macalaster House on Alexander Place

In Sarasota and many other cities that value preservation, it’s not so easy to demolish a historic home, even one not listed on the local register.  Sarasota’s Senior Planner, Dr. Clifford Smith helped draft his city’s ordinance which he says “makes it very difficult to demolish a house on the State Master Site File.”  To knock down a historic home, the owner must demonstrate to the city that he or she has explored every potential option for saving the home, including selling to another buyer, remodeling, and relocation.  If the board is satisfied that these options have been exhausted, they may grant a demolition permit after a waiting period of 120 days.  According to Smith, these regulations make it so difficult to raze a historic home, that in the five years since the policy was written, only a handful of historically significant residences of the 3,500 listed on the Florida Master Site File have been lost.

  • Serious Qualifications for Historic Preservation Board:  If a city takes preservation seriously, its ordinance should outline meaningful qualifications for service on the board that administers its ordinance.  Presumably,  the majority, if not all, of its members should have professional experience in architecture, construction, or history, or have a demonstrated passion for preservation.  In West Palm, for example, the HP ordinance specifies the following about selection of its nine-member board:  “Two members of the full board shall have professional degrees in architecture, at least one of whom shall be a regular member. A minimum of two members shall be chosen from among the disciplines of architecture, history, architectural history, archaeology, landscape architecture or planning. A minimum of two additional members of  the board shall be experienced in the areas of commercial development or real estate, banking or law. Three other members, including the two alternate members, shall be from any of the foregoing professions. Two members shall be citizen members at large. All members shall have demonstrated a special interest, experience or knowledge in historic preservation or related disciplines.”  By contrast, here’s what Winter Park’s ordinance specifies about board members’ qualifications: “Must be a City of Winter Park resident, one of which is an architect.”

There is a role for private citizens and organizations in historic preservation.  But arguing that there’s little place for government in historic preservation is akin to saying that government shouldn’t engage in zoning, or road-building, or park maintenance—that if the private sector values these things, they’ll happen.  We know this not to be the case.  Cities around the country that have been successful in preserving their sense of place have one thing in common:  a strong preservation ordinance enforced by a city government that values its historic resources.  Right now, Winter Park’s Historic Preservation Board has been charged by the City Commission with reviewing the city’s ordinance, and making recommendations to strengthen it.  Let’s hope that ambitious enough changes are proposed by the board—and accepted by the commission—to endow the city with the clout necessary to save our architectural heritage.  Because assuming the free market and a weak ordinance will adequately protect a city’s character and sense of place will, well…you know what they say about assuming.

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