Preservation Music Video: The National Register Rap

Somehow I missed this floating through the waves of the internet in recent weeks, but it is still worth sharing. And if you haven’t seen it, make sure you check it out.

The current HISP405 students in the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Mary Washington composed and created a music video for their final project. Their professor, Andi Smith (a fellow UVM HP alum), shared the project on her blog. Andi writes this:

It’s no secret that HISP405, the preservation capstone course, is a beast. We cover Cultural Resource Surveys, preservation planning issues, and then top it all off with theNational Register. To lighten the mood a little after what is always a very tough semester, I encourage students to make their final presentation a humorous one. They get points for content, of course, but also for making me and their classmates laugh. In past years, I’ve had pretty much everything: gameshows, poems, fairy tales, props, costumes, accents, you name it. Videos, too. One particular video made it big (or at least big for preservation) on the internet yesterday. Here it is:

Awesome job, Mary Washington. You guys are on to something! You make me proud. And thank you for including Prof. Gary Stanton. Made my day! (If you know of other preservation music videos in existence, please share.)

One Girl Scout + One Rosenwald School = Inspiring Youth in Preservation {Guest Post by Julia Bache}

While attending the National Trust Conference in Indianapolis, I had the pleasure to meet Julia Bache, a high school student who recently completed a successful National Register nomination as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award, and presented at the conference. She is delightful and quite impressive! At Julia’s age, I had not heard of historic preservation and here she is already writing National Register nominations. It’s so encouraging to hear high school students are interested in the field. I asked Julia if she’d be willing to share her story with Preservation in Pink readers. Below is her guest post. (Of course, I recommended the University of Mary Washington’s Historic Preservation program to them).

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By Julia Bache

I was so excited to meet Kaitlin at the National Trust Conference in Indianapolis a few weeks ago! I have enjoyed following her posts here on Preservation in Pink and am honored to share my preservation efforts with you!

Julia Bache and Kaitlin O'Shea in Indianapolis, pictured at a display in the conference expo hall.

Julia Bache and Kaitlin O’Shea in Indianapolis, pictured at a display in the conference expo hall.

At the conference, I spoke about the Rosenwald Schools and about how to engage youth in historic preservation. I also learned from other speakers and met many inspirational preservationists. Kaitlin and the other professionals showed me that historic preservation is something that we can always take part in, putting out talents and passion to work!

Julia presenting at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in  Indianapolis, 2013.

Julia presenting at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in Indianapolis, 2013.

As a sophomore in high school, I was ready to begin my Girl Scout Gold Award Project. Scanning the web for possible projects, I found a nomination form for a Rosenwald School that had just been listed on the National Register. Reading this form, I knew that I wanted to help preserve these endangered sites for my Gold Award project.

Buck Creek School, the subject of Julia's NR nomination.

Buck Creek School, the subject of Julia’s NR nomination.

 I decided to nominate a Rosenwald School in my area, the Buck Creek School. I began diving into the remarkable history of the Rosenwald Schools. I read about the builders of these schools, Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, and how they teamed up with so many communities to provide children with better education.

Julia conducting an oral history interview for historical research.

Julia conducting an oral history interview for historical research.

 I was amazed to find that over 5,000 Rosenwald Schools were built in 15 southern states, serving about one-third of the African American students in the south. They set new standards for African American education by providing nicer facilities, dedicated teachers, and a longer school term. I found it incredible that Rosenwald and Washington were able to break the racial barrier during the Jim Crow era to start this program and improve the education for so many children.

After writing the NR form, I presented the nomination to the Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board. In March 2013, the Buck Creek School was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places!

Julia's presentation at the Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board.

Julia’s presentation at the Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board.

I wanted to do more to educate the public about the need to preserve the Rosenwald Schools. As the second phase of my Gold Award Project, I created a traveling museum exhibition to share the Rosenwald Schools’ history. My traveling exhibition has been displayed in museums, historical societies, and public libraries across the state and will continue to tour into my senior year.

Julia in front of her Rosenwald School exhibition.

Julia in front of her Rosenwald School exhibition.

My project has taught me that people from varied backgrounds can come together through a common love of history and make a difference by preserving it for the future.

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Thank you, Julia. You are an inspiration; I hope there are many students like you. Readers, are you a youth in preservation with a  story to share (or do you know any)? I’d love to hear about your passion and projects. 

Historic Preservation Month, Big Box Stores, Preservation Tools

{Author’s note: an earlier version of this post has been altered for the purpose of education and advocacy rather than partial rant. This method – as in, not a rant – of writing is much more effective for the mission of historic preservation; I apologize for straying from the PiP mission on such important issues. I hope that the information in this post will encourage you to consider historic significance of our built environment and how to engage your community members along with how to appreciate and employ preservation regulations where appropriate.}

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May is National Historic Preservation Month. This year, four of the largest big box chain stores – Walmart, Target, Kmart and Kohls, turn 50 years old. These chain stores have changed the face and culture of America, so Preservation Month seems like a fitting time to discuss some related issues, including: (1) big boxes reaching 50 years in age and potential significance; (2) big box and chain store sprawl; and (3) the power that citizens have through historic preservation regulations to fight sprawl and poor development.

{This is a long post, but such length is necessary for this discussion.}

From the National Trust Main Street Center’s Facebook page. Click to visit.

First: Big box stores? 50 years old? Wouldn’t that mean they are old enough to be evaluated for significance and eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places? Technically, yes. Don’t get too excited, however. While the original stores may be eligible for evaluation, this does not mean that every single big box chain store is or will ever be historic. You will recall that a determination of historic significance is based on an evaluation of the seven aspects of integrity as related to criteria of eligibility. In other words, these original stores would need to have a high level of integrity in order to be historically significant. So, it is my opinion that yes, the flagship stores of chains that changed America, might be historically significant. Why? Because significant resources are not limited to the rose-colored-glasses-view standard. As for the hundreds and thousands of subsequent chain stores? Probably not. What do you think?

Ironically, the first Walmart store – Waltons five and dime – now serves as the Walmart visitors’ center in Bentonville, AK, which is a historic district.

Related to big box stores, though different, are strip malls. I’ve recently come across blogs, such as Pleasant Family Shopping, that are dedicated to preserving the history of strip malls. An interesting concept, yes? America would not be the same without strip malls, for better or worse. I’d venture to say that the history of the strip mall is more important than the physical building itself. Do you agree? When is history more important than the actual place? Thus, those thousands of big box retail giant buildings are not significant, even though the story is. In the case of defunct and empty box stores, the argument for reuse is best left in the environmental and sustainability playing field.

Second: Big boxes exist and will continue to exist for a while; but, let’s hope that the National Trust Main Street Center analysts are correct and main street businesses will find resurgence in the next 50 (or fewer!) years. Small business ownership, local economics and downtown shopping are gaining popularity in conversation and practice. Unfortunately, big boxes and sprawl continue to invade and threaten our towns, villages and cities across the country, whether you live in Vermont, Montana, California, Iowa — anywhere.

The Vermont Forum on Sprawl defines sprawl as, “Dispersed development outside of compact urban and village centers along highways and in rural countryside.” If you live in an area where village and town centers remain intact and distinguishable from sprawl and strip malls, then consider yourself lucky. Many people are not so lucky. Read more sprawl definitions on the Sprawl Guide from Planners Web.

Sprawl includes big box retailers such as the big four mentioned above who turn 50 this year; drugstores such as RiteAid, Kinney Drugs, Walgreens, CVS, Duane-Reade, etc.; other large retailers such as Best Buy, Toys R US, Dicks Sporting Goods, Staples, Dollar General, Family Dollar, etc. Currently, dollar stores are threatening Vermont left and right. Why are these stores contributing to sprawl? Simply put, most insist on constructing their own building and parking lot on undeveloped land, outside of village centers, targeting areas with weak zoning controls. Seldom will you see a box chain store nicely fitting into a historic downtown or village center.

The thing about sprawl is that anyone who has studied community development, land use planning, historic preservation, local economics or any related field, can automatically tell you that sprawl causes negative impacts to historic downtowns and local businesses. There is no question about it. And it is completely avoidable. So why are we still fighting the same issues? Do a quick web search; you will find countless studies, such as this one from the Sierra Club or this listing of reports from Planners Web.

Third: How can we prevent sprawl and big box development that destroys the vitality and vibrance of our historic downtowns, those same downtowns where Main Street is starting to find its resurgence? You and I can shop in local businesses religiously (as we should!), but there is absolutely no guarantee that development pressures do not exist or will not arise. Big box stores and outside-of-downtown development does not come because of a lack of downtown. It comes because a developer wants to, some people agree and local politicians agree.

Sprawl and poorly planned development near a historic district will negatively effect the downtown business district. In fact, a big box store/super center may eventually kill the local businesses and the local (as in locally owned, small business) economy. And then what? People are forced to shop at that store. Downtown is abandoned. The buildings are neglected. Quality of life and sense of place decrease. The historic business district is dead, and yet another, rare, formerly successful downtown is no more. Successful, sustainable downtowns are so critical to our economy and quality of life, and big box development can ruin everyone’s hard work in a matter of months or years.

How can you fix this? How can you preserve your town’s vitality?

The answer you will hear time and time again – because it’s true – is to insure that your town/city has proper zoning regulations. In brief, zoning classifies parcels into use categories (commercial, residential, industrial, etc.). Zoning can also dictate the size of a commercial establishment, which is often what precludes big box development out of a particular area. Unfortunately, many municipalities do not have updated zoning (out of date zoning can be just as bad as no zoning) because it has never been an issue or because people are misguided and are not in favor of zoning. How do you work around this? You have to start at the local level. Talk to your local officials. Use the Big Box Tool Kit website as a reference: it is one of the best of its kind.

The greatest changes happen at the local level.

Aside from local policies, our country is shaped by state and federal policies and laws, which include historic preservation regulations, particularly Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act, both 1966 (see HP Basics No.2 for overview). The nuances of each vary, but it is important to know that state and federally funded projects must consider the project effects to historic resources and avoid, minimize or mitigate those effects. Both protect historic properties.

In addition to knowing the function of the laws, it is important to know that, as member of the public, you can be involved in the process of Section 106 and Section 4(f) through public and community meetings.  The Citizen’s Guide to Section 106 produced by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation is incredibly helpful and is easy to understand if you are unfamiliar with such regulatory processes (see page 12 for public involvement).

Working with Federal Agencies – page 12 of the Citizen’s Guide to Section 106, produced by the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation. Click for original source.

Section 4(f) does not have quite the reader-friendly print edition as Section 106; however, the interactive Section 4(f) training website, produced by the Maryland Department of Transportation, is user and reader friendly (with only the necessary amount of regulatory speak). Enjoy both!

The federal regulations protect historic properties. In other words, proper building infill, appropriate building renovation, sensitive roadway improvements — all federally funded projects in, through or adjacent to a historic property are required to be reviewed by qualified professionals, in order to prevent adverse effects. These laws are effective.

Do you disagree with a project or an aspect of the project? How can Section 106 and Section 4(f) apply to you? Here are some important sections of the laws that relate to determining effects of a project:

As part of Section 106 regulations, step one is to identify the Area of Potential Effect, which is defined as: “The geographic area or areas within which an undertaking may directly or indirectly cause alterations in the character or use of historic properties, if any such properties exist. The area of potential effects is influenced by the scale and nature of an undertaking and may be different for different kinds of effects caused by the undertaking” (36 CFR 800.16(d)).  “Effect means alteration to the characteristics of a historic property qualifying it for inclusion in or eligibility for the National Register” (36 CFR 800.16i). An “adverse effect” has a longer definition, but “Adverse effects may include reasonably foreseeable effects caused by the undertaking that may occur later in time, be farther removed in distance or be cumulative” (36 CFR 800.5(1)).

Section 4(f) is more complicated, but essentially says that a transportation project cannot “use” a historic resource (or recreation resource, waterfowl or wildlife refuge) if there is a feasible and prudent alternative to doing so. An intriguing “use” under Section 4(f) is constructive use, meaning, “A constructive use occurs when the transportation project does not incorporate land from a Section 4(f) property, but the project’s proximity impacts are so severe that the protected activities, features, or attributes that qualify the property for protection under Section 4(f) are substantially impaired. Substantial impairment occurs only when the protected activities, features, or attributes of the property are substantially diminished” (23 CFR 774.15(a)).

When my UVM classmates and I first learned about 4(f), we thought it was the golden ticket. Proximity impacts?! That sounds like everything, we said. Only not. We learned that what we may consider an adverse effect in our academic bubble, was not necessarily articulated in the law. In other words, sprawl didn’t exactly apply for the application of this law. Every law has its place. Think of it as checks and balances; we need laws to work together, no matter what field or sector. Obviously, right? After all, no one resource is in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected. Are you with me?

So, for issues such as sprawl; let’s assume that it is clear that there are no historic properties in the project area. Therefore, no historic properties are affected, adverse or otherwise, under application of the laws. How will you protect your community from sprawl now? Where would protection against strip malls and poor development apply? In such a case where historic preservation laws do not reach, you need to employ other regulations. After all, one set of laws cannot solve everything, no matter how badly some of us might want them to.

The best protection of the economics of your community and the health of your community are local ordinances and local zoning (with concerned, dedicated citizens working in front of and behind these regulations). See how important this is?! Combined with historic preservation regulations, zoning and planning will preserve your historic properties and districts, which will preserve the economic sustainability and health of your community.

Can you make the argument that sprawl = negative impacts to your community? Of course. Learn how to prevent the negative impacts of sprawl. The answer: zoning, planning, community involvement, education! Our country, our states, our municipalities follow regulations and laws. It is important to understand the full strength and applicability of our laws to protect historic resources (and other resources). Where one set of laws does not meet your needs or does not apply to your concerns, you have to go other routes. Be an informed citizen and you will have a better quality of life and sense of place.

What do you think, about any or all of this?

Preservation Photos #129

The Miss Bellows Falls Diner located on Rockingham Street in Bellows Falls, Vermont. The interior is a step back in time and the food is excellent!

The Miss Bellows Falls Diner is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, significant as, “the only completely intact example in Vermont of the barrel-roofed Worcester Diner produced by the Worcester Lunch Car Company, a leading manufacturer during the first half of the twentieth century.” Read the National Register nomination here. (And by the way, I recommend the chili.)

Historic Preservation Basics No. 5

Series introduction. No. 1 = Ideas You Should Not Believe About Historic Preservation. No. 2 = Vocabulary for Translating and Holding Your Own in a Preservation Conversation. No. 3 = Let’s Talk about Architecture / The Very Beginning of Describing Buildings. No. 4 = Let’s Talk about Buildings A Bit More.

No. 5 = The National Register of Historic Places (What You Should Know)

If you find yourself standing in a group of historic preservationists, you’ll probably find that half love the National Register and writing nominations and the other half are not so keen on writing nominations. It’s likely that they’ll answer that while they appreciate the National Register, they’d rather find other avenues of preservation besides writing nominations. I’ll admit, I never thought much of the National Register in my undergrad days. I found the nominations difficult and when I learned that the NR couldn’t guarantee that a historic building would be saved, I wondered why even bother?

Things change. Preservationists mature. No, the National Register will not protect your historic building from eminent domain. But, the National Register will guarantee that your property will receive state and federal review on projects that require evaluation of the effects of projects on historic resources. And an NR listing can provide help in winning grants. If we revisit the core of the National Register, it can also be considered a record national pride and heritage. Soon enough, I changed my tune when it came to the NR, particularly for property protection in state and federal projects.

Is every NR eligible property listed in the National Register? No. There is endless work. It is quite possible that your property is eligible, but not listed in the National Register.

Consider this post an overview crash course of NR basics for everyone, as well as clarifications about the NR.

Definition

Officially, the National Register of Historic Places is defined as:

“The National Park Service administers the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register is the official federal list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. National Register properties have significance to the history of their community state, or the nation. Nominations for listing historic properties come from State Historic Preservation Officers, from Federal Preservation Officers for properties owned or controlled by the United States Government, and from Tribal Historic Preservation Officers for properties on tribal lands. Private individuals and organizations, local governments, and American Indian tribes often initiate this process and prepare the necessary documentation. A professional review board in each state considers each property proposed for listing and makes a recommendation on its eligibility. National Historic Landmarks are a separate designation, but upon designation, NHLs are listed in the National Register of Historic Places if not already listed.”

Restrictions

Most often people have questions about restrictions that a nomination or a listing on the NR places on their properties. The short answer? A listing does not change your ownership rights or restrict what you do to the property unless the project is funded by federal (or state) money. Local ordinances may have restrictions, so it’s best to ask your local officials, such as the Design Review Board or the Architectural Review Board. And you can always contact your State Historic Preservation Office. I assure you that they are more than happy to help you understand your historic property and get the answers that you need.

Evaluation for Listing

In order to be listed on the National Register, a property must be evaluated and nominated. Properties are buildings, sites, structures, objects, and districts, which must pertain to at least one of our criteria:

A. That are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

B. That are associated with the lives of significant persons in or past; or

C. That embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

D. That have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.

The National Register nomination can be thought of as making a case for your property. So how does that property exemplify the significance of one of the above criteria? You have to establish a historic context in order to judge significance. The National Register Program uses areas of significance in order to build context. For example is the area of significance transportation? You’ll need to narrow it down (highways of the 1920s, perhaps, or metal truss bridges in Vermont pre-1927 flood) and develop a context for the area of significance. 

Yes, it sounds complicated. I will not pretend to be an expert. After all, even experience professionals that I know will tell me to constantly refer to the National Register Bulletins. The Bulletins go over every part of the nomination. Essentially, if you can make a strong enough, thorough enough, sensible discussion/argument for your property’s significance, then it has a good chance of being listed on the National Register. Some properties may be more difficult (like, say, a ski area) than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

50 years?

The 50 year rule is not a rule; it is a guideline. For example, the Cold War related historic properties are exceptionally significant and have achieved their significance in less than fifty years.

Myths

The Louisiana Division for Historic Preservation has a succinct list of myths and facts about the National Register. The myths are as follows:

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    • DOES NOT restrict the use of the property. (For example, an owner can continue to live in a listed house, convert a listed property to another use, continue to farm ground where a listed archaeological site may be located, conduct new construction on the site, etc.)
    • DOES NOT restrict the sale of a property; unless under the jurisdiction of a federal agency.
    • DOES NOT require continued maintenance of private property.
    • DOES NOT require that any specific guidelines be followed in a rehabilitation (unless the owner is using federal funds or receiving the Investment and/or Homeowners’ tax credit). (For example, the owner of a listed property may paint his building any color he chooses.)
    • DOES NOT require the owner to give tours of the property or open it to the public.
    • DOES NOT guarantee funds for restoration.
    • DOES NOT require or guarantee perpetual maintenance of the property.
    • DOES NOT provide a National Register plaque or a state historic marker for the property (although property owners are eligible to acquire such markers at their own expense)

Clarification: Historic/Eligible and Old/Ineligible

Suppose your property is 100 years old, but is not eligible for the National Register. Why not? It would mean that integrity has been lost (the seven aspects of integrity). Perhaps too many renovation projects have erased the historic fabric and the building cannot be read as historic. If its character defining features are lost or if the historic property is out of context, then it will not be eligible.

This is where we revisit historic v. old. Professionally, historic means eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Old means a property that is ineligible.

However, do not take this to mean that an “old” building is unimportant.  It may not be important to the entire region, state, or nation, but all old buildings have meaning to those in and around them. Existing buildings should be cared for and maintained. Existing buildings are existing resources – embodied energy. While the National Register is an excellent foundation for historic preservation and determining what is significant, historic preservation goes beyond the NR. Old buildings are members of sustainable environments and communities. Old buildings are wonderful, whether historic or not. Old buildings can be beautiful old homes up and down the street.

So, why the distinction? Well, in a society that is constantly building new and bigger, it is important to recognize what snapshots of our heritage should be preserved. For the purposes of historic preservation, not every building age 50+ can be saved. Some are just old, without National Register significance, no integrity at all — and quite often we are forced to choose. In that case, it is important to know which resources have a higher significance to the heritage of our culture. But in terms of loving buildings and using existing resources, old buildings are much more plentiful and worth the love.

“Historic” is tossed around by everyone, but if you’re dealing with preservationists, consider which is appropriate: old or historic.

Got it?
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Still have more questions? The easiest way to answer your questions about the National Register is to visit the FAQ page of the National Park Service National Register page. Check out this list of questions — click to head to the NPS NR FAQ page.

Frequently asked questions about the National Register of Historic Places.

Want to share your love of the National Register? Check out these new, stunning posters made by the National Park Service. You can download a PDF for free, print it, and display it in your office or classroom or anywhere. (And if you’re lucky like me and you have a mother who likes to laminate, then you’re all set!)

National Register poster page 1. Click for original.

National Register poster page 2. Click for original.

Old House v. Historic House

Is that an old house? Is that a historic house? Is that the same question?

Well, they are often used interchangeably in passing, casual conversations, but actually there is a definite distinction between the two: old & historic.

Work in historic preservation is defined from the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 (since amended) (legal code 16 U.S.C 470). In the law, “historic property” or “historic resource” means any prehistoric or historic district, site, building, structure, or object included in, or eligible for inclusion on the National Register, including artifacts, records, and material remains related to such a property or resource.  In other words, a “historic” house would be one only if it is on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Historic means “historically significant.”

The brief explanation of how properties are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places is that they (generally) must be at least 50 years old and they must have contributed to or played a significant role in national heritage. The longer explanation involves four criteria for evaluation and seven criteria considerations, which can be read here or in National Register Bulletin 15. A side note, most houses are not on the National Register, although they may be listed on a local or state register.

What about the definition for old? That can be a house that has reached the 50 year mark, but is not historically significant. Of course, that is not the say the house is insignificant to its occupants, but in terms of the National Register and the NHPA, it doesn’t count. The distinction is made to assist rulings of the NHPA as well as to assist with tax credits from the National Park Service.

While “old” and “historic” could certainly be discussed more, those are the easy definitions. Still, old houses, even if not historic by NHPA standards, are still important to our heritage and deserve to be loved and maintained. A building not on the National Register doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not eligible – maybe it hasn’t been nominated. If research reveals arguments for national significance, give it a try!

Any other thoughts on the definitions of old or historic?

A Lost Historic School: Francis M Drexel School

Exterior of the Drexel School. Click for source.

Take a look at the picture above. What comes to mind? Most observers would be able to say that this building was beautiful in its heyday. It has an impressive institutional feel about it. So, what will happen to it? Doesn’t it look like the perfect subject for adaptive reuse? Why does it look like that? Clearly it is not respected by its neighbors.

What was it? This building, the Francis M Drexel School was built in 1888, designed by architect Joseph Anshutz and financed by Anthony Drexel. Francis M. Drexel was an artist, a banker, a family man, and a philanthropist who wanted to provide education to all regardless of race, gender, or social class. His son Anthony Drexel realized his vision with the construction of approximately 75 schools across Philadelphia, all similar to the one above. It served the Philadelphia city schools until the 1970s, after which is was declared a surplus property. Very few survive intact or survive at all today. The Francis M Drexel School is the oldest extant Drexel School and it does not have a promising fate either.* In December 2009 it demolition was ordered. It will be replaced with brand new luxury town homes. Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything, and demolition will begin next week.

The Francis M Drexel School in Philadelphia, PA.

This building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visit the exterior and interior photo sections of the Drexel School website to feel the beauty of such a school and the impact of its current condition. It’s heartbreaking, even for someone who has never heard of the building. Trust me, but see for yourself, too. You can also find the blueprints of the school in the blueprints section of the sidebar.

And it is the case of another historic school lost. And perhaps a reminder that it is never too early to advocate for saving a structure — empty buildings never fare well. Was there anything that could have been done? How can we learn from this lesson? Readers, what can we do? This is a situation we find across the country, all of the time. What are your thoughts? A use could easily have been found – it is in the center of a neighborhood, like most historic schools. There is not a resident of that neighborhood who has seen the cityscape without the Francis M Drexel School. Sadly, since it has been surplus since the 1970s, most people have not seen it as an active part of the community. Perhaps they have had trouble looking beyond the neglected building. And with all that time of neglect, it had become unsafe and deemed ineligible for rehabilitation.

What sort of mitigation would be appropriate? Suggestions? Do you have advice or know people in Philadelphia to help, those who care about the school’s memory? Leave a note here or email drexelschool [at] verizon [dot] net. Your help is much appreciated.

*Historical information provided by the Drexel School website: http://www.thedrexelschool.com

Collecting Buildings

In one of my classes we spent some time talking about the history of historic preservation and the ways which it has evolved over centuries, internationally and nationally. Part of preservation’s history, particularly in the United States, lies in a phase of collection. People interested in the past collected items and sometimes began their own miniature museums. If you have been to Monticello, think of the walls in Thomas Jefferson’s house- my what conversation that must have sparked among guests. Yes, people have always collected objects.

Think ahead to those people and places that have collected buildings in one way or another – Henry Ford (Greenfield Village, MI), Electra Havermeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, VT), Historic Deerfield, Storrowton Village, Old Sturbridge Village, and even Colonial Williamsburg.

Collecting and moving historic buildings can be a controversial topic. On one hand, the buildings will be “saved” when moved and shared with the public, but on the other hand, once a building is moved from its setting, its historic integrity is lost. It is like finding an arrowhead in a plowed field – without the stratigraphy, it means nothing because there is no context to tell the story.

However, it is important to understand that not every “old” building has historic integrity. How do you judge historic integrity? As always, refer to the National Register of Historic Places criteria. There are four basic criteria, but there are also considerations for exceptions. Basically, the property is significant if it can be argued (on the nomination form) that it has been associated with a signficant event in history, is associated with a significant historical figure, it embodies characteristics of a certain period or a high style or work of a master, or it yields or could yield important information about the past. (But read the link above for the exact wording.)

I started thinking about building integrity when I was reading an article in the New York Times titled “The House Collectors” (September 16, 2009 by Sarah Maslin Nir). A couple who lives on a large piece of property (10,000 acres)  in Texas fills their time by buying “wooden country houses” (as the article calls them). They move the houses to their property, fix them up, and decorate them in period style. Most of the houses they buy are in delapidated condition and falling down in pastures, hidden by brush. On the property, the Elicks have three ranches where guests come to stay for a weekend or so. They stay in one of the houses, for a fee of course, and can participate in the working farm activties. The Elicks rent out the ranches for special events, corporate events, for film locations, and to everyday people just wanting to spend some time in the Texas countryside.

Back to the houses… they are moved and restored to a certain time period (the article did not explain how Mrs. Elick decides on the period). The houses, when purchased, are in terrible condition and are just sitting out on the prairie. Did they have no use on their past property? What is their history? How much is lost by moving them? How much is gained? These houses are not for museums, but for a business.

How do you feel about this? Not every old house should be a museum and not every house has historic integrity. However, every house has history and a setting. When is it okay to move a building? It’s a difficult question to answer.

Alabama #7: Ave Maria Grotto

A series of weekly posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area. See Post #1,  Post #2, Post #3, Post #4, Post #5, Post #6. This is Post #7 of 7.

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Before visiting Ave Maria Grotto I imagined it to be a collection of folk art in a farm field in the middle of nowhere, a true roadside attraction. In my defense, my friend described it as such, though he had never visited. Intriguing folk art, roadside America, and the fact that someone said I should definitely see it (being a preservationist) was all the convincing I needed. We drove 45 minutes north of Birmingham, AL to Cullman, AL, a town that was sleeping on that Sunday or more likely at church and brunch.

After navigating our way through Cullman with only a few u-turns (it took one driver, one navigator, and two backseat drivers) we found our way to the St. Bernard Abbey, where the Ave Maria Grotto is located. To our surprise, we didn’t find a farm field; but rather a parking lot and large visitor’s center / gift shop.

What is the Ave Maria Grotto? It is widely known as “Jerusalem in Miniature”. It is a four-acre landscaped park that is home to the lifetime work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, a Benedictine Monk at the St. Bernard Abbey. His work is 125 miniature replicas of historic and famous buildings throughout the world, constructed of stone, concrete, materials such as glass, marbles, cold cream jars, costume jewelry plate chips, tiles, and more.  

Brother Joseph Zoettl (1878-1961) worked on the Grotto from 1934-1958, always studying photographs of places (he had never visited the places he replicated) and working with the materials with extreme patience and commitment.  The Ave Maria Grotto is 40 years worth of Brother Zoettl’s work. After his death, a man who had worked with Brother Zoettl continued the artistic tradition, adding new miniature replicas to the site.

Ave Maria Grotto is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for Architecture/Engineering with a historic and current function of landscape as well as recreation and culture.  

When visiting, you may take a self guided tour or a guided tour.  We were able to do a bit of both tours, beginning on our own but reading the plaques in front each replica as well as the pamphlet we received with our tickets. Towards the end, the man who currently works on the Grotto was giving a tour, so we followed along to listen. The entire experience is fascinating; especially when you imagine Brother Zoettl working years on these pieces and moving them and deciding on how each structure relates to another. 

You may think that it’s a destination for those who would consider themselves religious, since it is in the St. Bernard Abbey.  However, visitors can make it whatever they want. To some, it is a religious experience, but to others it can be a cultural or architectural experience.  Many of the buildings are from Jerusalem, but just as many are not. There is a memorial to Red Cross workers, Hansel & Gretel’s house, a fairy cottage, the Roman Coliseum, the tower in Newport, Rhode Island, and others. Regardless of your religious background and beliefs, it is a unique site to see and well worth it.

See the gallery of images below. Click on a picture for a larger version.