Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Preserving the Spirit of Place 

12-09-2015 17:35

Every so often there occurs an event so cataclysmic, so egregious, that it sparks a demand for national action. In the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, many in our country were disturbed about the foul condition of our natural waters—our lakes, streams, and rivers—where fish could no longer survive and filth was obvious to all who would look. There were those who said a national response was required. Other demands on the federal treasury, however, took precedence. Until one day in 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, polluted with oil and grease, burst into flames. That final indignity brought about the Clean Water Act of 1972. This legislation led to an eventual expenditure of $70 billion by the federal government for wastewater treatment plants and an even greater outlay by private industry and local communities to comply with new discharge standards.

In 1963 a desperate call for national action to preserve the historically and architecturally important buildings across our land was heard. Out of a single event—the destruction of magnificent Penn Station in New York City—arose a national outcry. Modeled in part after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, Penn Station was an awe-inspiring building, the likes of which will never again be built. A line from an edito-rial in the New York Times, published soon after the commencement of the station’s demolition, expressed the sentiment of the day. It read:

“We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.”

Fortunately, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and others were trying to sound the alarm that we must save the Penn Stations and other grand buildings.

Preservationists are en-gaged in extremely important work for our country. They are preserving what British novelist D. H. Lawrence once referred to as the “spirit of place.” Expressing his anxiety about the quiet exchange of quaint English hamlets for the faceless infrastructure of the industrial age, he wrote:

“Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.”

All across our land, the actions of preservationists are preserving that spirit of place. They are doing far more than trying to save the Penn Stations of our land. They are fostering an urban revitalization of whole sections of some of our older cities. By encouraging tax credits for the rehabilitation of older buildings, by promoting smart-growth initiatives, and the conservation of open space, preservationists are making whole sections of our older cities more livable, more attractive to homebuyers.

This all makes sense. By promoting city dwelling we reduce expenditures on brand new roads; sewer pipelines; gas, electric, and phone lines— thus assisting our town and county treasuries. For within historic districts exists the needed infrastructure. None of it has to be built—it is already in place because of the past exodus of residents. Washington, D.C., is typical of our older cities where the population has gone from 800,000 in 1950 to 540,000 today—a 32 percent drop.

Furthermore there are tremendous economic benefits to preservation. Studies have shown that dollar for dollar, historic preservation is one of the highest job-generating economic development options available. In other words, one million dollars spent on rehabilitation creates more permanent jobs, does more for retail sales, and does more for family incomes in a community than a like amount spent on new construction.

My state of Rhode Island is a microcosm of what is taking place across our nation. Many magnificent marble palaces in Newport were saved from being subdivided into a series of apartments and instead were preserved as originally built. Now, they are by far the largest tourist attractions in our state, and extremely important to the economy of Newport. Likewise, historic districts are flourishing and homeowners are eager to buy turn-of-the-century homes that were so soundly built.

Preservation is also on the cutting edge of the environmental movement. Why? If we can successfully entice a goodly portion of our citizens to live within our cities, we have helped stanch the flow of what we’ve come to know as urban sprawl. We are losing our farmland at a frightening rate—two acres every minute of every day, according to estimates of the American Farmland Trust.

There is no question that every new home that is built in our suburbs or every new housing development that is created affects some creature’s habitat. I have long held that if we give nature half a chance, it will rebound from the blows dealt to it from mankind. But we must give it that half a chance. Regrettably, in too few areas are we doing that. The preservation movement is at the forefront of environmental action by making our cities more attractive, thus reducing the paving and development of our countryside.

Few environmental challenges equal that of global warming, and the principal culprit in that area is the automobile. If people remain within cities, there will be fewer autos on the road, which means less pollution, less global warming.

To make preservation even more effective, preservationists need to do everything possible to make the federal government a leader in historic preservation. When we do something good, cheer us on.

For example, we can all be delighted and encouraged by the inclusion of large sums of money in transportation legislation for so-called enhancements. These funds can be used, among other things, to restore historic buildings. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan deserves the principal credit for the Enhancement Program, which we first included in the 1991 Highway Bill and continued in the 1998 Transportation Bill known as TEA-21. This was a radical departure from previous highway bills and Senator Moynihan deserves tremendous credit for his efforts.

The federal government can also lead by example by restoring post offices and courthouses, rather than abandoning them and moving their activities to the suburbs. Almost a decade ago, I visited the traditional home of the federal judiciary in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico—a court house that had fallen into disrepair. It was a shambles, and a movement was underway to abandon the structure in favor of constructing a new courthouse in the suburbs. But the building’s historic significance, coupled with such architectural flourishes as a beautiful two-story loggia overlooking the harbor, warranted its preservation. Thanks to the General Services Administration’s preservation efforts, and a $35 million restoration, this beautiful courthouse has been saved and will be dedicated in 2000. The restoration of the courthouse should spur a renaissance in San Juan’s historic quarter. Lawyers doing business at court will frequent nearby restaurants and shops. Hotels and other businesses may spring up as more people visit the area.

We can create incentives in the tax code to promote restoration. Those who restore historic buildings for commercial purposes are already eligible for tax credits. Since these provisions have been in place, $18 billion have been generated in private investment.

I have long hoped to extend these credits to homeowners through legislation called the Historic Homeownership Assistance Act. It would allow homeowners who rehabilitate homes in historic areas to take a tax credit equal to 20 percent of the project’s cost. This credit could be used toward one’s tax liability or in the form of a mortgage credit certificate. Because of this flexibility, these provisions would be attractive to low- and middle-income homeowners, not just those in the top tax brackets.

There has been overwhelming support for this legislation across the political spectrum. In 1999 we enacted a version of it as part of the tax bill approved by Congress which the President subsequently vetoed. Hopefully, in 2000 we can do it. Before I go, I want to get this done! You can help by pestering your senators and representatives to support the Historic Homeownership Assistance Act.

Preservationists also need to give vocal support to the efforts of states, counties, and towns to preserve open spaces. If the land is saved, then homes are not going to be built there. Clearly, open space conservation and historic preservation go hand in hand. In fact, Senator Joe Lieberman and I are pressing for legislation that would accomplish both goals. It is called the Natural Resources Reinvestment Act. It would fully fund the Historic Preservation Fund at $150 million per year and encourage states to set aside open space.

While we may be addressing these concerns at the federal level, the time is ripe to promote local and regional ballot initiatives. Last year, voters approved the vast majority of the 200 ballot initiatives for open space purchases to curb urban sprawl at state and local levels.

With such wide-ranging support, evidently these measures are not just the province of the elite. No, the rich and poor alike support these measures, because they benefit everyone. One of the biggest successes occurred in New Jersey in 1998, where voters set aside $98 million to buy open space. And, in early October 1999, two local anti-sprawl initiatives made news in the Washington D.C. area. In Montgomery County, Md., planners proposed to spend $100 million over the next decade to preserve historic properties and undeveloped land. In addition, the city council in Rockville, Md., approved a six-month development moratorium on single-use retail stores of 60,000 square feet or more.

There are many ways to encourage historic preservation at the federal level. But absent your cooperation, none of the preservation work would get done. So the rest is up to all of you. And I trust that you will carry out these initiatives with purpose and enthusiasm. Do what you can to recruit others to join your ranks.

Naysayers may ask: What difference does saving one train station or post office truly make to the future of America? My response is this: Preservation is not just about conserving brick and mortar, lintel and beam. It is about the quality of life, and the possibility of a bright future. Carl Sandburg expressed the danger of losing touch with our past when he said:

“If America forgets where she came from, if people lose sight of what brought them along,... then will begin the rot and dissolution.”

On behalf of the city of Providence and Rhode Island, we look forward to sharing our historic treasures with you during the National Preservation Conference in 2001. Keep up the good work.

Publication Date: Winter 2000


Author(s):John H. Chafee

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