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The delicate balance of historic preservation in suburbs

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, February 27, 2010; F02

Mention historic preservation, and people visualize venerable buildings and neighborhoods within cities. Thanks to public attitude and policy shifts in recent decades, countless urban districts and edifices have been officially designated historic and, in many cases, saved from the wrecking ball.

Washingtonians admire Union Station, the Willard hotel, Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Cleveland Park. Virginians have granted landmark status to buildings and neighborhoods in Alexandria, Leesburg and Fredericksburg, while Marylanders proudly boast of historic Annapolis, Frederick and Ellicott City.

Urban historic assets are naturally more familiar. By contrast, suburban and exurban locales worthy of preservation are often less visible, not as well known and underappreciated. Consequently, in many suburbs and exurbs, historic preservation gets less attention and can be more of an effort.

Part of the challenge outside cities arises from the conflict between pressure to grow and change and pressure to resist change. Such conflict is increasingly evident in jurisdictions not only outside Washington, but nationwide.

Montgomery, Howard, Prince George's, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties are experiencing this tension. They all want to preserve their historic character and, at the same time, foster sustainable growth, jobs and fiscal health.

Meeting this challenge requires two complementary sets of plans.

One enunciates goals, principles, evaluation criteria and regulatory protocols for historic designation, all to identify what merits preservation.

The other set, in a sense the reverse of the preservation plans, delineates where growth and change should occur, along with the form, density and character of growth. Growth plans are the indispensable companion of preservation plans.

Preparing a preservation plan is a daunting task, requiring comprehensive field surveys across a jurisdiction plus thorough historic research and analysis. Difficult value judgments must be made because since the historic significance of a particular place or building is often debatable.

Historic buildings are not limited to monumental architecture. They can include farm structures; cabins or manor houses; multifamily apartment complexes; churches and synagogues; and modest civic buildings such as fire stations, schools and libraries. Bridges and other civil engineering structures also may have historic value.

Natural and agrarian landscapes, waterways and parklands often deserve protection for historic as well as environmental reasons.

The Washington area's Civil War battlefields, Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal, the National Mall and the civic squares inspired by Pierre L'Enfant exemplify historically significant landscapes.

What makes a place, structure or landscape a vital part of America's cultural legacy and significant enough to warrant historic-landmark status?

Whether the location is urban, suburban or exurban, historic designation depends on several critical attributes, the most obvious being age, though age alone is not sufficient. Plenty of old buildings are not worth saving.

Another obvious attribute is architectural distinction, as evidenced by exceptional design or technological originality. A structure may deserve preservation because it is stylistically and functionally unique, perhaps a prototype, or -- conversely -- because it is emblematic of a notable stylistic era or family of building types.

And sometimes architecture acquires importance primarily because of a historically significant architect. Independent of aesthetics are considerations of the United States' social, political, economic and military history -- the "George Washington slept here" rationale. We naturally admire and seek to preserve structures or sites where significant events occurred or where history makers lived and worked. Such places physically represent meaningful parts of American culture.

Historic landmark designation does not necessarily prevent modification, modernization or expansion of private property. By recognizing publicly visible characteristics that impart historic identity, the designation seeks only to keep that part of the culture alive. Thus property owners can make changes, but changes must be designed and implemented sensitively.

This has long been an issue for residents of historic Greenbelt, constructed in the 1930s. Many of Greenbelt's original art deco apartments and homes, small by today's standards, have been remodeled over the years. Yet owing to Greenbelt's wise stewardship of its architectural heritage, the essential historic character of the community has not been lost.

Historic designation of a property, in fact, offers financial benefits. Federal tax credits are available for investments in acquiring or improving historic properties. Some states, counties and cities likewise promote historic preservation investment through tax incentives, low-cost loans and grants.

The public's interest in historic preservation and private property interests are not fated to be in conflict, but only if jurisdictions do the right thing: Prepare plans for historic preservation as well as plans for growth and change.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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