Nearly every city and village in America has old buildings or other structures that link the community to its historic origins.
Most such buildings probably have no intrinsic value. They are not historically or architecturally significant. Many are tumble-down eyesores in the seediest part of town.
But thousands of others are sturdy old structures that could be renovated or restored in wholesale numbers to revive both the community's sense of history and its ties to the past.
Old Town in Alexandria is one such place. Quaker Square in Akron, Ohio, is another. San Francisco's Chinatown is still another.
Under existing federal laws and regulations, however, it is difficult and extremely expensive for private historical groups to undertake such monumental tasks single handedly.
Even state historical societies, with financial help from individuals and legislatures, have found large-scale projects of historic preservation to be formidable undertakings.
Federal subsidies amounting to about $50 million a year are available to save the most significant structures, providing the buildings can qualify for listing on the National Historic Register.
But the "marginal" structures -- those sound old buildings in which no great declarations were signed or spoken -- are almost always torn down and replaced by freeways, urban renewal or downtown redevelopment projects.
A recent study by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation raised some new questions about the wisdom of such casual destruction.
Economic studies of historic preservation projects, the council reported, show clearly that such projects often contribute to greater housing supply, higher local tax revenues, new business convention activity and increased public and private investment.
In short, historic preservation pays off.
Rep. John F. Seiberling (D-Ohio) has introduced a bill in the House that would make sweeping changes in the way the federal government approaches historic preservation.
Seiberling's bill would:
Combine the federal Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation into one new agency, the Historic Preservation Agency. It would plan and put into effect federal preservation programs, including distribution of federal funds for state and local projects.
Establish a new inventory of all historic buildings, including those that do not readily qualify for placement on the National Register (which includes national landmarks and other significant historic structures). This would give many marginal buildings a layer of protection from federal construction projects until state or local preservation groups decided what to do with them. It would also make them eligible for federal renovation subsidies, once they were certified by state preservation agencies.
Give the Housing Preservation Agency and the National Trust of Historic Preservation the properties threatened with destruction. The National Trust, a private nonprofit group chartered by Congress to promote historic preservation, manages several historic properties. It would cooperate with, but be independent of, the new preservation agency.
Set up a National Center for the Building Arts to train skilled labor in the trades and crafts related to historic preservation. Many of the old trades -- plastering and tile-laying and woodwork -- are dying. If the nation is to embark on its preservation program, Seiberling said, it will need the skills to do the work.
Require states to share their portions of federal preservation money with local governments that have state-approved preservation programs. Two-thirds of the money in the national historic preservation fund would go to states and localities; the remainder would go to the preservation agency to finance emergency acquisitions, provide direct loans for specific projects with national or global historic significance, run the building arts training center, and operate the agency.