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.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Historic preservation month post: building the capacity for self-help and "Rehab Addict" as an example of how more could be done

The first section of this post is an extract from a March entry. It comes up again because Suzanne and I just "argued" about this issue, and how Nicole Curtis (see below) keeps writing on her facebook page that she can't be the savior in response to all the plaintive queries she gets about helping people save historic houses in their various neighborhoods across the country. (S is a fervent believer in tough love...)

I keep saying that Nicole Curtis, and especially DIY Network and the HGTV Network, should step up and provide more information and resources so that people can better help themselves and build their own capacity to do what historic preservation minded house rehabbers do....

-----------------Reprint with augmentation --------------------

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 (even though I am generally appreciative of the quality of work done on the "Property Brothers" and "Income Property" shows, and the hosts of "Flip or Flop" are reasonably respectful of historic qualities in certain of the houses that come into their possession).

.. 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--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 is "You've got to do it yourselves."

Of course she is right but at the same time I would argue that this is an opportunity to step in and step up and provide more in the way of guidance and resources... explain the process, the back story, of how things work, so people can begin to figure things out for themselves without having to start absolutely at square one.

First, 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., a search on the term "National Trust for Historic Preservation" yields one hit on the DIY Network website and seven hits on the HGTV website.  The hits have no real actionable information.

Second, the National Trust for Historic Preservation should step up and offer to work with DIY Network/HGTV to provide this information.  For example, on this blog 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. 

Third, DIY Network/HGTV Network could work out a couple of special episodes for "Rehab Addict,"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.

This should be done 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" and process.

Right:  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.

But there are many great preservation groups across the country and hundreds of positive examples that can be used.

Fourth, 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.

Resources for historic preservation (new)

There are many resources. Sadly, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is seriously dialing back on their publication programs. They have published hundreds of manuals and materials (including the Main Street commercial district revitalization program) over the years which are incredibly helpful. Now these items are very hard to find and I regret tossing old copies of their annual bookstore catalog to use as a reference for finding materials.

Here are three examples of the kinds of resources that the NTHP used to make readily available (from 2006):

-- "How to Preserve a Historic Home," National Trust Resource Center, Information Sheet #1
-- "How to Preserve a Historic Building," National Trust Resource Center, Information Sheet #2
-- "Working with Contractors and Architects; Finding Supplies and Furnishings;. Interior Design and Decorating, National Trust Resource Center, Information Sheet #32

2. The National Register for Historic Places, the unit of the National Park Service tasked with managing the federal historic preservation program, publishes many useful materials about the process of creating historic districts and different types of cultural resources and themes, as well as on the technical process of historic preservation.

3. Many great resources are produced by local and statewide historic preservation organizations. Although one of my favorites, the Rehab Rochester manual, published by the Landmark Society of Western New York, is out of print (but still available via the miracle of

DC's own Capitol Hill Restoration Society has produced many bulletins over the years about various elements of historic houses, architectural styles, etc.

The guide on creating a historic district published by the Historic Districts Council of New York City is specific to NYC but I think very helpful for understanding the overall process.
Anatomy of a Main Street building
4. Local and state historic preservation agencies publish important resources. For example, I mention from time to time particularly great examples of local historic preservation manuals, such as from Montgomery County Maryland, the Richmond, Virginia, and Roanoke, Virginia, along with the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual.

I have always found useful materials published by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency on "Main Street Design" and the Illinois Main Street program, but there are many such resources available to us.

5.  Including international resources published by programs in other countries, especially the UK, as well as by UNESCO and other organizations.

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At 2:26 AM, Blogger Bill said...

NTHP has enough of their own problems to worry about. As far as such a show providing resources, that seems a daunting task since so much restoration work is very local in terms of the resources and incentives available, not to mention housing markets, labor/expertise availability, etc.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

NTHP has their own problems because they lost a sense of what they are supposed to be doing, how they fit within the field and movement.

WRT variances between places, the specifics aren't the issue as much as the general process.

People need to be made aware of examples of how to go about it.

I hope that people aren't so narrow in their approaches to learning that they can't figure out the differences (compare and contrast) with their own situation.

At 5:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine (whom you know) who is very particular about historic preservation and very talented in the field, said he gave up on NTHP when the Mass. Avenue building was sold and the organization decamped to the Watergate Office Building.

He did say--sardonically, of course--that it was an apt move given the sorry state of the NTHP activities in recent years and I'm inclined to agree wholeheartedly with him.

At 11:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Btw, I am not a believer in or of tough love, simply not true. -Suzanne

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...


At 1:53 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

And yes, wrt NTHP, granted I considered disclosing that over the years twice I applied for jobs at NTHP and was blown off quite cavalierly each time, even though I had a national reputation within the preservation community (e.g., "Preservation Forum") positively about outreach, communication, and transformation issues.

So I don't have much sympathy for their current plight.


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