Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Historic preservation-local history roundup

Right:  Protest signs at 3823 Morrison St. NW. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Shockingly, the Washington Post covered a neighborhood historic preservation issue in a reasonably positive manner, in the article, "Chevy Chase residents call on developer to give century-old house new life," about an issue in Chevy Chase, where a developer purchased a 1910s house with the intent to tear it down, which some neighbors are protesting.

WTOP covered the story first, "Neighborhood organizes against home 'tear-down'."
  • Had the original owner sold the house to a non-a**hole this never would have been an issue. 
  • Baring that, if the neighborhood had been a historic district, there would be protections and it's extremely likely that the building wouldn't be in the position of being demolished.  But the neighborhood isn't designated and
  • DC should, but doesn't, have basic demolition protections in place for houses that are at least 75 years old, whether or not they are located in a historic district.
One problem with the article was the extended quote from a Realtor who opined the building wasn't worth preserving.  From the article:
Reid Butterfield, a real estate agent, pulled up in his car. Butterfield said he had had his eye on the house for years and had written to the previous owner’s family inquiring if they would sell but had never gotten a reply.

Butterfield said he thought it would cost more to restore the house than to replace it, and that a new house would probably sell for more than a restored historic one.  Although he said he sympathized with the protesters, he added, “What about property rights? He bought it; it’s his.”
But the guy doesn't know any of that for a fact and the article didn't include necessary cost information to be able to make a judicious comparison.

A teardown at this location makes little sense, because a new house will have to sell for more than $2 million to break even--purchasing the house and running costs so far are at least $900,000, it will cost about $50,000 to tear the house down, it will cost $65,000 or so to build a new foundation, and $200/s.f. or about $1 million to build a new house at 5,000 s.f., plus Realtor commission, carrying costs, and profit.

Houses don't sell for that in Chevy Chase DC, at least not right now, making this a likely debacle.  Not to mention that the developer isn't known for constructing houses of a quality equivalent to that of turn of the 20th century houses.

2.  It's worth watching the DIY Network/HGTV show "Rehab Addict," featuring Nicole Curtis, who grew up in Metropolitan Detroit and now does architecturally-sensitive rehabs of problem properties in the Minneapolis and Detroit areas, which are featured on her show  ("Nicole Curtis of 'Rehab Addict' no ordinary house flipper," LaCrosse Tribune; "DIY Network's new 'Rehab Addict' tackles burned-out Detroit home," Detroit Free Press).

I like the show because most of the others on those networks are all about new construction and ripping the guts out of houses (although "Property Brothers" and "Income Property" do a decent enough job on that dimension).

.. yes, I know that there is the "This Old House" program on PBS and the companion magazine (which is great), but that show is a lot more hoity-toity in that they do projects that cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the projects that Nicole Curtis does are much more typical of a normal person's budget and capability.

It amazes me to no end that the National Trust for Historic Preservation isn't a program sponsor and doesn't work to "utilize" Nicole Curtis and the Rehab Addict show as a way to increase the awareness of the value of historic preservation-based approaches to housing improvement and community revitalization. 

This comes up because Nicole has a Facebook page, which sometimes unfortunately for her, isn't run by a publicist, but she writes it herself.

And as a person in business, but with a tv show, she gets lots of plaintive contacts from people asking her to fix up problem properties in their communities.  Her response was you've got to do it yourselves.

I agree of course but I would say three or four things.

a.  While it's not her responsibility to lay out the process or information sources people need, DIY Network could do a better job providing support material on its website--for the most part it doesn't--for this show (and others) giving people more in depth information or at the very least a link list of resources.

E.g., I did a search for the term "National Trust for Historic Preservation" on the DIY Network website and it returned only one hit and seven hits on the HGTV website.

b.  Of course, as mentioned, the National Trust for Historic Preservation should step up and offer to do it or at least work with them in helping to provide information.  For example, on this webpage in the right sidebar I have a few hundred historic preservation links, although none specifically lay out the process on how to fix and old building, create a historic district, etc.

HGTV and NTHP used to work together a few years back before I started watching the channel, but it appears that this relationship has run its course. 

c.  DIY Network/HGTV Network could work out a couple of special episodes for "Rehab Addict," in association with preservation organizations and building materials salvage groups, that aren't the normal "how to" shows that she does for each episode on a specific part of the house, but are more about the "back story" about how preservation works in terms of taking a project on and rehabilitating the house (e.g., with manuals like the now out-of-print "Rehab Rochester" and similar publications as good resources), how the historic designation process works at the state, local, and national levels, how to create a historic district and what it means, short features on different historic preservation organizations, projects, and resources, etc.

Left:  25 West Strawberry Street before it was renovated in Lancaster, PA.  Lancaster Newspapers photo.

For example, in Lancaster, PA, the Lancaster Housing Opportunities Partnership does the same kind of work that Nicole does.  See "Nonprofits work to rejuvenate a Lancaster city neighborhood one home at a time."   In Cleveland, both the Cleveland Restoration Society and the Famicos Foundation--a Catholic charity--do amazing work.  In Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation is amazing as is Design Center Pittsburgh, which provides assistance to homeowners seeking to do quality renovations, etc.

d.  DIY Network/HGTV ought to create a form of "public service commercials", switching out an occasional network promotion spot (called a "bumper") in favor of spots that promote historic preservation organizations, projects, resources, etc.

Right: 25 West Strawberry Street after it was renovated.  Lancaster Newspapers photo.

3.  On the same thread of rehabilitating historic houses, Lancaster, Pennsylvania has a large number of historically designated properties, and one section of the city asked that the protections be removed, because it made it too expensive to renovate, so instead of renovating many people just let their properties deteriorate.

The city did not accede to their request ("Cabbage Hill blocks to stay in historic district" and "Retaining city's historic district," Lancaster Intelligencer Journal) but the obvious response is to create assistance programs, including revolving funds, to help the people who need help in maintaining their properties to architecturally and historically accurate conditions.

4.  The Engaging Places blog has a "Recap of Historic House Museum Symposium at Gunston Hall." A big issue in "the trade" is that there are lots of historic house museums and many are underfunded and neglected, and that most such properties need to reposition and rethink what they are trying to accomplish.

A couple of related articles on the topic include:

-- "The Future of Local Historical Societies," American Historical Association
-- "Historic houses take note: innovate or die," Art Newspaper

5.  I found the historical societies article interesting because the problem with historic house museums is more  widespread than just about house museums. The problem more generally is a lack of interest or concern about history.  This affects historic preservation and local history museums too, something I have written about enough to not repeat myself here, but it's important to think about comprehensively.

One way to do so would be to deal with the History Channel, Smithsonian Channel (run by Fox), Travel Channel, AWE, and other programming networks in a similar fashion as it relates to their program as suggested in section 2 above with regard to HGTV and DIY Network.

6.  Museums professional Rainey Tisdale has a number of publications on the topic of making local history and city museums more interesting and was guest editor of a special section of articles on the topic of City Museums and Urban Learning in the Journal of Museum Education and is co-author of Creativity in Museum Practice.

7.  And related to underfunding house museums,  properties owned by local governments and other institutions typically are neglected as well.  This has come up locally with regard to the Mary Terrell House in LeDroit Park, which is owned by Howard University ("Once home to civil rights pioneer, historic house is now worst on the block in LeDroit," Washington Post) and is a problem in Greater Los Angeles too, according to the Los Angeles Times article, "Most L.A. County cities failing to protect historic sites, study says."

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