Mention historic preservation, and many real estate developers and public officials frown. In their view, some people use the cause of historic preservation as a means of promoting their real agenda: putting the brakes on new development or redevelopment, regardless of historic considerations.
Historic preservation can, indeed, be a tool to advance parochial, self-serving interests — to whip up popular opposition to real estate projects or physical change within a community, or by elected officials to score political points.
Fifty years ago, few Americans talked or thought about “historic preservation,” a term never heard when I studied architecture in the 1960s. Historic preservation was neither a public policy issue nor part of America’s architectural, planning and real estate development culture. Historic-preservation laws didn’t exist.
The post-World War II zeitgeist, or spirit of the time, was relentlessly future-oriented. Whether to save or demolish was primarily a financial choice based on real estate value, economic potential, existing physical conditions and functionality. If something was old and obsolete, the logical move was to get rid of it.
This changed only when enough people realized that venerable, irreplaceable historic structures, such as New York City’s neoclassical Pennsylvania Station, were being torn down routinely. Or when entire residential neighborhoods built in the 19th century, such as Southwest Washington, were being razed in the name of urban renewal, then the politically correct term for slum clearance.
In Washington, proactive historic preservation actually dates back to the 1950s. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) was founded in 1955 and is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. But despite advocacy by the CHRS and other preservation-minded groups, the District’s historic-preservation law wasn’t enacted until the 1970s. Protecting America’s built heritage and legacy finally became a matter of public policy and law.
Since the 1970s, federal, state and local historic-preservation regulations have helped save aging at-risk works of architecture and public art; historic sections of towns and cities; long-standing parkways, streets and bridges; and parks and civic spaces.
Historic-preservation law established a rigorous regulatory process involving several steps: identifying and nominating potential historic resources; determining through documented research which resources are eligible for official designation as historic; deciding which eligible resources finally merit official historic designation; and listing such resources on national, state and local registers of historic landmarks and places.
But these rules also set forth criteria and guidelines for alteration or demolition of listed resources if justified. In fact, being a registered historic landmark or place does not guarantee that modifications, partial demolition or total demolition will never occur.
Moreover, despite the rigorous review process, requiring research to demonstrate eligibility, officially designating a resource as historic ultimately requires a value judgment by whatever government agency has jurisdiction over historic-preservation decisions. That agency in Washington is the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB), appointed by the mayor, and advised by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office’s professional staff.
The HPRB renders its decisions after public hearings at which it receives staff reports and recommendations, as well as testimony from historic-designation nominators and advocates, concerned property owners, historians and opponents.
Notwithstanding the reams of data and extensive testimony, the HPRB decision is inevitably a judgment call because much of the evidence for historic designation is inherently subjective, as is the assigning of weight to the evidence. “In the eye of the beholder” characterizes how and why pro and con opinions are formed.
Making a case for historic designation necessitates posing disparate evaluative questions, only a few of which yield objective measures — resource age, size, use, structural condition. More subjective questions include: Was the original designer, builder or owner an important historic figure? Is the resource uniquely emblematic of a significant era of American history, culture, architecture or planning? Did something historically meaningful — a battle, the launch of an invention, occupancy by George Washington — occur there? And does the public view it as culturally meaningful or sacred?
In addition to asserting at times that the real goal of preservation advocates is to stop their project, property owners and developers oppose historic preservation adversely affecting their interests for three principal reasons:
They believe the case and evidence for preservation are insufficient and unpersuasive. They claim that historic preservation of a structure or landscape associated with their property will result in extreme financial hardship and extra costs, making the project economically unfeasible. And they cite the difficulty or even impossibility of physically incorporating a preserved resource successfully within the project envisioned.
Washington is especially challenging for property owners and developers, with its countless landmarked buildings and buildings potentially eligible for designation, plus its historic districts and neighborhoods, avenues and streets, public spaces and parks.
Yet Washington’s history and historic fabric, greatly enhancing the city’s aesthetic and real estate values, constitute marketing assets and desirable urban amenities. Thus, historic preservation, if wisely and fairly pursued, can produce a win-win outcome for owners, developers and the public, contributing indispensably to the city’s desirable evolution.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect, a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland and a regular guest commentator on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show.”