Historic Leasing Opportunities in America’s Newest National Park—and Across the Country

By Christine Grubbs posted 05-24-2019 12:23


Historic leasing plays an important part in protecting historic assets and increasing community engagement in America’s most recently designated national park. Indiana Dunes National Park—formerly Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore—manages multiple leases for a variety of purposes, including private residences, preschools, and youth camps. For the past several decades, historic leasing has enabled Indiana Dunes to provide for the long-term preservation of underused and underfunded structures, breathing new life into these historic assets and enhancing their public use and enjoyment. 

Historic leasing is a public-private partnership that allows the National Park Service (NPS) to leverage private funds to preserve historic buildings that, while within park boundaries, are often not critical to the mission of a park. Under a lease agreement, the park maintains ownership of the building, but the lessee is responsible for its restoration and maintenance for the length of the lease. Long-term commercial leases of 55 years or more may also qualify for the federal historic tax credit and receive a 20 percent credit for qualified rehabilitation expenses. This strategy is proven to both reduce the deferred maintenance backlog and ensure the preservation of structures that tell our nation’s story. 

House of Tomorrow | Credit: Hedrich Blessing/Chicago History Museum

As part of the partnership between the NPS and statewide preservation organization Indiana Landmarks, a recent announcement highlights a new opportunity in the park: leasing the iconic House of Tomorrow, also known as “America’s First Glass House.” The famous site—vacant since 1999—may now be leased long term as a single-family residence. One of the five Century of Progress Homes remaining from the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, the House of Tomorrow overlooks several historic houses and the southern shore of Lake Michigan. These homes were relocated from Chicago to Beverly Shores, Indiana, in 1935 and initially served as private residences. As they began to fall into disrepair, Indiana Landmarks engaged the NPS to find new ways to protect and preserve these unique structures. 

The resulting solution was a 55-year lease with the NPS that allows Indiana Landmarks to enter into long-term subleases with individual residents who take on the restoration and maintenance of the houses. Four Century of Progress houses have been successfully leased through the partnership, with only the House of Tomorrow remaining to be leased. This innovative preservation tool provides residents with a unique opportunity to live in a national park and care for a rare historic structure while also helping the NPS tackle deferred maintenance. 

Another partnership between the Field Station Cooperative Preschool, Indiana Landmarks, and the NPS has revived derelict Swedish settlement houses and transformed them into an early childhood learning center. In the early 2000s, the nonprofit school agreed to a 55-year lease with the park, creating a new educational space that provides students access to the natural environment to complement their learning. This partnership has increased community engagement, allowing students and their families to interact with Indiana Dunes in new ways. 

Historic Leases Help to Address Deferred Maintenance in the NPS 

Since 1916, the NPS has been responsible for stewarding places of significant historic, cultural, scenic, and scientific value throughout the United States. Yet years of inconsistent federal and public funding have led to a deferred maintenance backlog of nearly $12 billion, of which approximately 47 percent is attributed to historic assets. Indiana Dunes in particular currently faces a backlog of more than $26.5 million dollars and 57 percent of its repair needs involve historic resources. Without dedicated and reliable funding, historic assets at Indiana Dunes and other parks throughout the country are at risk of permanent damage or loss and will continue to deteriorate, making restoration and preservation efforts more challenging and expensive in the future. 

Students at the Field Station Cooperatve Preschool at Indiana Dunes National Park. | Credit Field Station Cooperative Preschool

The National Trust for Historic Preservation continues to work alongside our partners to advance strategies that would help tackle the deferred maintenance backlog, including regularly providing testimony and reports to Congress in support of robust federal appropriations and working to advance legislation that would create a reliable, dedicated federal funding source to address the backlog. This proposal, included in the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act (S. 500) in the Senate and the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225) in the House of Representatives, is currently supported by more than a third of the members in both chambers. Congress’ focus on the NPS maintenance backlog has also generated significant interest in historic leasing as part of a comprehensive solution. The National Trust is a leading voice promoting the expanded use of leasing. 

Although the NPS has full authority to enter into leasing agreements, numerous opportunities remain to increase the number of leases throughout the National Park System. Advocacy is necessary to encourage the NPS to seek out these partnerships. Momentum has grown since the National Trust released a 2013 report that outlines the legal and policy issues surrounding leasing, offers recommendations, and provides examples of successful leases. Additionally, in September 2018, Tom Cassidy, vice president of Government Relations and Policy at the National Trust, was invited to a House Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and presented testimony highlighting leasing as an effective tool to help tackle deferred maintenance and increase community involvement with our nation’s parks. 

Also last fall, the National Trust released a series of case studies that celebrate success stories in several national parks. We now share four additional case studies highlighting unique leases: Indiana Dunes National Park, Cuyahoga Valley National Park, First State National Historic Park, and Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park

One Example: Historic Leasing in Cuyahoga Valley National Park 

The 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park, located between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, provides historic, educational, natural, scenic, and recreational opportunities to visitors and nearby residents alike. In addition to its rich biodiversity, the park protects and interprets hundreds of cultural assets, including part of the Ohio & Erie Canal, historic communities, and old railways and farmhouses. With limited staffing and funding, the park is using leasing as one way of repurposing historic buildings and farmland. 

One of the sites in Cuyahoga's Extraordinary Spaces Program, which transforms underused buildings into event spaces. | Credit: Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park

In the early 2000s, Cuyahoga Valley embarked on a leasing program aimed at restoring 13 historic farms and putting them back into productive use. The park restores each main farmhouse and its key farm buildings, allowing farmers to begin work once the leases are signed. Cuyahoga Valley’s unique approach to the lease agreements shows that leases can be flexible enough to fit the needs of both the park and lessees. Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, a nonprofit partner of the park, operates the Countryside Initiative program, which provides technical assistance to the farmers. Today, 11 leased farms help preserve rural resources, create opportunities for entrepreneurial and diverse farmers, and teach visitors about farming methods and food production. Farmers pay a monthly rent for their farmhouses as well as a second rent payment on the land. 

And in 2011, the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park—the primary friends group for Cuyahoga Valley—initiated the Extraordinary Spaces Program, signing a 10-year lease to transform several underused buildings into event spaces. Especially popular for weddings, venues such as Hines Hill Campus and Happy Days Lodge offer visitors a new way to experience the park. This lease opportunity also benefits local communities by encouraging sustainability efforts and zero-waste initiatives as well as by hiring local caterers who use produce from local farms. The Conservancy pays a flat fee of 2 percent gross profit to the park. 

Cuyahoga Valley benefits from the increased revenue from both leasing programs, which not only allows the park to decrease its deferred maintenance inventory but also provides revenue to help complete additional projects. 

Making the Case for Historic Leasing

Historic leasing is a little known but highly effective preservation tool for historic assets managed by the NPS. This innovative solution to help tackle the deferred maintenance backlog also brings underused historic buildings back to life and allows local communities and visitors to engage with the park in new ways. As you ask your members of Congress to support legislation to tackle the deferred maintenance backlog, we hope that you will share the importance of protecting historic assets in our national parks with proven strategies like historic leasing.