Urgent Issues in American Heritage Conservation

Climate Change

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 12.00.09 PM
The remains of the Balinese Room, Galveston, Texas (balineseroom.net)

Cultural resources across the United States are already experiencing the decimating effects of human-influenced climate change.  The resulting rising sea levels, increasing intensity of rainfall, hurricanes and wildfires have become a threat to our built environment, growing in power and frequency each year.  Here are some examples of how climate change has affected historic places:

  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, has been inundated by flooding by the neighboring Fox River numerous times in the last 20 years, causing thousands of dollars in water damage that the buildings’ stilt-like columns were designed to prevent.  A technical advisory review panel found that the most promising choice to mitigate future flooding was to integrate a permanent hydraulic system into the building’s foundation that can be mechanically lifted as the Fox River rises.  Preservationists have cried foul over this plan, as well as others to move the house to higher ground, as a compromise of integrity.
  • The 1920 Balinese Room, a Galveston, Texas nightclub designed by the Chicago-based architectural firm Rapp and Rapp, hosted entertainers like the Marx Brothers and Frank Sinatra.  Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, the Balinese Room was completely destroyed as Hurricane Ike barreled through Galveston Bay on September 12, 2008.  Only a few wooden dock posts remain.
  • Before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, the tourist economy boomed in Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding encouragement to the frequently repeated argument that historic preservation makes economic sense.  While the 16th and 17th century buildings in Old San Juan sustained minimal damage, nearly 60 percent of the island is still without power, and thousands of Puerto Ricans struggle daily with housing and economic uncertainty.  Justifying the funds and assistance to replace windows and streetlights in a historic district is nearly impossible when the island faces an unknown future.

While heritage conservation cannot control an Act of God, we need to put a complete stop to asking the question: “is climate change relevant to preservation?” and instead head towards a prompt sense of urgency for present and future cultural resources to plan and implement hazard mitigation at the local, state and national levels.  This conversation must happen in tandem with advocacy, landmarks listing and rehabilitation, as every dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation prevents four dollars in average losses.

Monuments

General Robert E. Lee Memorial, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2015.  The statue of Lee was removed in 2017.

In August 2017, a 1924 statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia was used as a symbolic rallying point for a “Unite The Right” event, drawing hundreds of white nationalists, including Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute and known white supremacist, and David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

The City of Charlottesville had voted in February to remove the statue, following suit with other American cities like New Orleans, rejecting the early 20th century narrative of Confederate monuments as innocuous representations of a noble, old cause and embracing their frightening reality as objects constructed to manipulate the historical interpretation of the Civil War to stave off the impending threat of equal rights for people of color.  Two distinct surges in construction of Confederate monuments occurred in America, one during the nineteen teens and twenties, and another during the nineteen fifties and sixties.  These surges correspond to the enactment of Jim Crow laws and later, the Civil Rights Movement.

There is a broad range of solutions suggested for Confederate monuments.  Those who are passionate about retaining the statues in situ without additional context often cite personal or familial connections to the Confederacy.  Many preservationists consider these monuments from a static historical viewpoint, for their artistic quality, connection with a significant craftsperson or designer, or material composition.  Others advocate for removing Confederate monuments from the public sphere, and placing them in the private hands of the organizations that erected them, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Monuments could perhaps be properly contextualized in museums.  Others believe the best way to equitably address Confederate monuments is to destroy them, yet even those that may denounce white supremacy may object to the removal of Confederate monuments, likening it to European attempts to erase Soviet-era history by destroying them.

As terrorists of all types continue to radicalize American symbols to deadly effect, the public looks to historic preservation for guidance as the proclaimed stewards of built heritage and saving places.  From the nation’s governmental bodies to non-profits to educational institutions, historic preservation’s overall dialogue lacks conviction, and brings about the old adage that we “cannot and should not erase our history.”  Historic preservation has remained largely silent in the public sphere, adding to the idea that the field is archaic and bends to the whim of the old and the privileged.  Our weak stance on this issue is antithetical to the core values of the original movement as one that responds to social issues via addressing how they relate to the built environment.  In all of the ways historic preservation takes irrational stances on architectural significance over community health or property rights, it is unable to take a strong stance on the removal of Confederate monuments.  We have an opportunity to directly influence the course of a vital and timely national topic that we are not taking.

Historic Tax Credits

IMG_7500
The Westin Book-Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, Michigan.  The hotel was renovated in 2008 using the Federal Historic Tax Credit.

With decades of bipartisan support since its inception in 1976, the Federal Historic Tax Credit is the most powerful tool available to encourage saving historic buildings.  Once an income producing building is certified as a historic structure by the National Park Service, the owner may apply for a 20% credit on their income tax.  A 10% tax credit is available for the rehabilitation of non-historic buildings constructed prior to 1936.  These federal credits can be used in tandem with state historic tax credits, creating enormous financial incentives that stimulate private investment, particularly in older cities, small towns and neighborhoods where disinvestment has occurred.

Underutilized schools, churches, factories and theaters have been transformed into apartments, offices, retail stores and hotels.  In 2016, 57% of completed projects using the HTC included housing, with a third of those units made affordable.  Here are some examples of rehabilitation projects that have taken advantage of historic tax credits:

  • The former Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul, Minnesota ceased brewing operations in the early 2000s.  With generous use of the federal historic tax credit, it now houses 247 lofts, all with household income limits.
  • Long a fixture of the decline of Detroit’s downtown, the Book-Cadillac Hotel underwent a renovation in 2008 using tax credits, creating a halo effect on the surrounding area.
  • The Trump Organization received a $40 million tax credit towards the rehabilitation of the 1899 Old Post Office and Clock Tower in Washington D.C., adaptively re-using the former office building into a hotel.
  • New Orleans has one of the highest number of completed rehabilitation projects using tax credits in the country, with over 560 projects completed in the last two decades.

With two versions of tax reform in the works, the House version eliminates the historic tax credit completely, and the Senate Finance Committee version retains the 20% tax credit, but eliminates the 10% tax credit.  Eliminating or diminishing these financial incentives will make renovating historic buildings across the country financially unjustifiable, leading to increased numbers of underutilized and vacant buildings, as well as teardowns.  As important as developing a cultural or social case for saving historic buildings is, terminating these incentives jeopardizes the ability for old buildings to net a benefit for developers and owners.

Postmodernism

The postmodern James R. Thompson Center, Chicago, Illinois.

Threatened postmodern architecture is national news.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art plans to demolish a 1986 postmodern addition by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer.  A dramatic alteration to the granite archway of Philip Johnson’s 1984 AT&T Building in Manhattan has been proposed by Snohetta, threatening its integrity.  Helmut Jahn’s 1985 James R. Thompson Center in Chicago is the victim of decades worth of willful neglect at the hand of the State of Illinois.  Applying traditional eligibility status to these buildings can be tricky as they hover near the 30-year mark; too old to be considered serviceable but too young to be historic.  Preservationists have fought hard and uphill time and time again to convince the public of the value of everything from Mount Vernon to the French Quarter to Prentice Hospital, yet the threat to postmodern architecture seems to have come on faster than threats to any other architectural style in American history.

The relative newness of postmodernism, coupled with its reputation as ugly and loathsome makes it difficult for some to recognize its place within the fluidity of history.  Yet ‘ugly’ is too subjective of an adjective to use in the case of postmodern buildings, as it is just as rational to believe that the molded cornices and mansard roofs of Second Empire are ugly, as they once were considered to be.

At the forefront of advocacy for postmodern architecture are a robust group who are building the case for saving these buildings by pulling from the cultural value of the buildings, and their connections to core events in the history of the historic preservation movement.  While these arguments aren’t perfect, they are worlds away from past demands that buildings are important because professionals in architecture say they are.  Advocates for retaining the integrity of the AT&T Building have used a combination of traditional protest, yielding signs that proclaim, “Hands off my Johnson” and social media exposure, inspired by the advocacy to save Pennsylvania Station in the 1960s.  At the heart of the effort to save the Thompson Center is the original objective of Helmut Jahn’s design to express the need for governmental transparency through architecture, and how the treatment of the building over time is in direct contradiction with the buildings’ intention.

Not engaging in or supporting these advocacy efforts presents the message to the public that historic preservation and heritage conservation feels that no buildings are worth saving that haven’t already been researched, advocated for or listed as landmarks.  Without critically considering future historic buildings, historic preservation will die.  Lead primarily by young people, the charge to save postmodern architectural heritage is the future of the field in body and spirit.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s