Sunday, June 07, 2009

Preservation: Looking at Our Heritage and Our Future

By Sharon Dooley.

Growing up in New England, as I did, one becomes infused with history from an early age. In my community and others nearby there were constant reminders; as one drives from town to town, each town is announced with a sign noting when it was founded or incorporated. In my town just north of Boston the sign stated our founding in the 1630’s – that is right – close to 400 years ago. The stone Congregational Church (descendant of the Pilgrims) was built in the 1700’s; the oldest building in town dates back to the previous century. So when I see debates about Historic preservation – I understand the importance of retaining important memories from years and cultures long passed. Many who grew up in areas that had colonial settlements have had similar experiences.

The current debate in Montgomery County – so well described by Ann Marimow in the Post Metro section recently brings this conversation home to Montgomery County.

The question asked was: “ when is a building “just old” and when is it historic?” I might also ask is every old building salvageable? How many old barns do we need to preserve? Should we require a farmer to preserve a building that no longer has a use to him? All of these are important questions and need to be explored further when the council takes up Mike Knapp’s proposal to allow owners to walk away from historic preservation designation if they so wish. But as with many questions in Montgomery County – there are complexities that lie beneath the surface.

Over the years preservationists have saved many structures from destruction and have kept some unique buildings intact. Examples such as the Comsat Building in Clarksburg, the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring and Higgins Tavern in Olney are just a few of the prominent architectural types that dot our county and have had major campaigns to preserve and/or restore them. In Olney, an historic Spring House was discovered along Route 108; it was over grown with vines and weeds but was restored when a nearby building was constructed. (Here the owners revised their development plans in order to preserve the building.)

Some might say that the discussion should be ‘how many old barns should we save’ versus the ‘save every old thing’ crowd. Others might indicate the necessity to understand our heritage by showing where we have been is vital by using places to mark this history - the recent purchase by the Parks Department of Josiah Henson’s Cabin along Old Georgetown Road is an example. (Henson was notable as the slave on whom Uncle Tom’s Cabin was modeled and he and his family went on to prominence in later years.) Several of the most recent historic sites in the County are noted in this map that accompanied the article referenced above.

In my view – since once something is torn down, it cannot be restored, our community should always be cautious with irreplaceable architecture. We need to be able to have a heritage to leave to our following generations. In ancient Greece and Rome the crumbling public structures are maintained and honored by their communities; ours are not 2000 years old - does that mean we should do less? I think not. We need to be careful not to amend our heritage out of existence. We also must be careful not to harm property owners. When properties are designated historic, the owners receive advantages in their taxes since the property has an easement on it and that is considered to reduce its value. When properties are considered in a district other special considerations apply and restrict use and modifications to those in keeping with the area. Therefore some who have advantages in one manner should not be able to have subsequent owners say – “never mind- we are no longer historic.” What should happen if an historic tiny church wants to expand its footprint as the congregation has grown – how should this be accommodated? What should happen if someone wants to place a fast food enterprise in an historic zone – what should be the approved fa├žade? These are all questions that require serious study and should be answered. I hope with the assistance of each of the County interests having a say; these matters can be adequately addressed in hearings.

The council, as Marimow described, is going to consider a bill on Monday that would weaken many current protections and might change historic designations significantly in the future. By requiring a super majority on the historic preservation commission to approve changes, two persons could stall future designations. It appears to me that we should look toward some compromises that might allow a bit of flexibility. If a people purchase property next to a current historic building, there should be some assurances that this is going to remain ‘undeveloped’, so to speak. If maintaining properties are financially difficult for some owners, then perhaps the county could provide some resources to reduce these hardships by means of training artisans who are skilled in the trades of the past. We could have a restoration job corps bank, or a collection of old boards and bricks to aid in maintenance. Owners could apply for grants to preserve upkeep. This, to me is better than the county producing what is in effect a license to tear down buildings that the owner no longer wants. By lowering the bar we reduce our ability to learn from the past; this is not in our collective interest as a community.