Cecil D. Andrus
Secretary of the Interior
Dear Mr. Secretary,
Thank you for your "Dear friends" letter asking what the newly organized "Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service" in the Interior Department might do to conserve our heritage. You say you want ideas for "a national historic preservation policy plan."
In recent years, this country had an amazing change of heart about old buildings and places. As late as 15 years ago, historic and architectural preservation seemed an odd idea to the politicians at city hall and the population at large, to say nothing of the highway engineers, who just loved to rrrrram through anything intheir way.
Today it is respectable to a preservationist Everybody is an favor of preserving our beritage, except the people who believe they can make more money by destroying or remodeling just a little bit of it.
In fact, the preservation movement has suddenly acquired so much power that there is already a danger, as there is with all recent converts, that we are getting fanatical about preservation.
The power gives us the responsibility of discernment. We need clear thinging, both in government and within the preservation movement, about what needs to be preserved and to what purpose.
Growth and change are synonymous with life. Life will assert itself, for better or worse. If we resist all growth and change, we will weaken our cause, and the change will be for worse again.
In other words, I think that historic building preservation in this country is entering a new phase. The first phase was the validity and the legal right of preserving worthy individual buildings or places in the public interest. Now we must meet the challenge of urban conservation.
The question is: Do we save a few trees, or do we grow a beautiful and healthy forest?
Good forestry requires cutting some trees.
The first requirement of urban conservatioin. Mr. Secretary, is that we do everything possible to curb speculative demolition; the second is that the emphasis and moneys available for "renewal" "revitalization" or just plain helping the cities, be directed toward preserving rather than rebuilding.
Speculative demolition means that developers acquire whole rows of nice old buildings and tear them down just to have a nice piece of vacant land to play Monopoly with. They use it as a profitable parking lot until the time is ripe for one development or another that will make them rich. The speculative bulldozers become particularly active when a building or a place is being considered for nomination as a landmark.
Only a few years ago, developers could get demolition permits over the counter, in the District, we now have an ordinance requiring a 180-day delay, to give building's defense and either find compensationmoney or work out a compromise soltution.
An ordinance proposed by "Don't Tear It Down" and currently under consideration by the D.C. City Council would go further. It would put the burden of providing evidence that the building must be destroyed on the owner.
Most of the city's citizen organizations seem to support this priniciple, and I hope that it will prevail not only here, but throughout the country.
We must obviously also hope that more federal assistance for historic preservation, becomes available not only in the fancy Georgetowns across the country, but also in less affluent neighborhoods.
But curbing land speculation and asking for more federal money in the wake of Proposition 13 put heavy responsibilities on preservationists. We cannot bring up such big guns for just any old building. We can train them only on big, important objectives.
The controversy about Rhodes Tavern, which you surely know about Mr. Secretary, is a good example.