Friday, June 27, 2008

The Problem with Historic Preservation, Part 2

The second problem with getting government too deeply involved in historic preservation is determining what qualifies as “historic,” since this frequently involves highly subjective value judgments that vary from person to person, interest group to interest group. This wouldn’t matter much if the vast majority of preservation efforts were undertaken by private organizations and individuals, using their own initiative and money (which is the way it should be, in my opinion). But historic preservation is today being collectivized, just as environmental conservation has been collectivized, bringing government power and taxpayer money into the mix.

What then typically occurs is that you have a small minority of narrow-interest activists advancing their aesthetic agendas with the government’s help and at the general public’s expense. Abuses of power and misuses of resources occur. Like many good ideas that morph into government programs, it’s bound to become a racket.

Equally ominous is the hijacking of HP by the anti-development, anti-property rights, pro-central planning crowd, including smart-growthers, new-urbanists and all-purpose NIMBYs. Declaring something “historic” grants local or state governments (not to mention busybody neighbors) power over the property owner that can be used any number of ways.

Here in Colorado, for instance, the elite enclave of Aspen recently re-defined “historic” to include any structure built in the 1970s – an obvious ploy to give city officials veto power over the demolition or alteration of buildings not covered by the previous ordinance. This wasn’t exactly an architectural Golden Age in America; one would think hopelessly charming Aspen would be anxious to see the shag carpets, kitch Swiss chalets and red brick blankness of the decade replaced with faux Victorians. But maintaining control over property owners, not preserving history, is the ultimate goal.

Back to aesthetics for a moment, by way of highlighting the absurdities.

We can all probably agree that Mount Vernon merits protection, as the home of the first U.S. president, but is a boarded-up Denny’s restaurant really deserving of equal protection? It is to some residents of Seattle, who tonight are grieving over a demolished Denny’s. Read all about it here.

The local Landmarks Preservation Board tried to help the cause by declaring the eyesore a preservation-worthy example of “Googie” architecture (I’m not making this up). “More than 600 people, including national experts on Googie architecture and staff members from the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation, supported the designation,” reports the Times. A nearby condo owner, Lauri Miller, also vouched for the structure’s historic significance: “One of her favorite waiters worked there, and she remembered the time he surprised her at the restaurant with cake, candles and balloons for her birthday,” according to the story. Miller told the paper she feels ashamed and guilty, fearing that her purchase of a nearby condo created too much “bad karma” to keep the bulldozers at bay.

I think I've made my point.

(I came across a news story on June 30 that adds an absurd new twist -- a house in Pensacola that preservationists are saving, at a cost of $200,000, due to its historic insignificance. "The thing about this house is that no one famous lived here," the associate director of West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc. told the paper. "These houses are significant, particularly because they're not significant." Read the rest of the ridiculous story here.

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