Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Preserving the Spirit of Place (2002) 

12-09-2015 17:35

At the 1999 National Preservation Conference in Washington, D.C., John H. Chafee, senator from Rhode Island, spoke eloquently about the spirit of place and the importance of finding ways to preserve it. Those remarks, in what proved to be Chafee`s last major public address before his death, inspired the theme of the 2001 Providence conference, which was dedicated to him and held in his home state. Senator Chafee`s eldest son, Zechariah Chafee, spoke at the opening plenary session in Providence about his father`s longstanding commitment to historic preservation.

Greetings, preservers of our past, benefactors of our future. Welcome to Providence, and welcome to Rhode Island, once John Chafee`s home. For years you and he worked together to, as you put it, "protect the irreplaceable." During John Chafee`s six years as governor and his 23 years in the Senate, the cause of historic preservation had a high-level government advocate of imagination and vigor. How fitting that the National Preservation Conference should be dedicated to his memory. His family is moved by the honor and thanks you for it.

For our well-being as a nation, he saw the necessity of saving buildings of historical standing and of architectural merit. As he said, "Naysayers may ask: What difference does saving one train station or post office 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." Organizations such as the National Trust have succeeded in raising the national consciousness regarding the importance of rescuing those special gems.

But it was also in the broader social policy implications of historic preservation that John Chafee saw fruitful possibilities. In the large-scale salvation of older houses in aging cities he saw a way of attracting families to live in town rather than adding to our mushrooming suburbs. He understood that the cost of tax breaks for the repair of old houses would be a savings, given the costs of new roads, schools, and sewers in new suburbs. He knew it would bring vitality to our shrinking cities, and thus, of such importance to him, it would save from further development the fields and forests of our dwindling countryside.

To this end, he pushed right up until his death in 1999 for the Historic Homeownership Act. This act would give to homeowners who rehabilitate homes in historic areas a tax credit of 20 percent of the project`s value. This sum could be used to defray taxes or to obtain a mortgage credit. The act would attract middle- and low-income as well as high-income homeowners to the repair and ownership of houses in historic neighborhoods.

John Chafee also ensured that the massive transportation bill he shepherded to passage in 1998 contained money for the restoration of historic buildings.

As I am sure you recognize, in politics there are many who flock to drink the wine of success. Far fewer are those who have toiled in the vineyard. John Chafee toiled to the very end.

Publication Date: Winter 2002


Author(s):Zechariah Chafee