Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Historical Preservation Stories: coming attractions

As I considered the issues showing up on the Amherst Historical Commission's docket and began to prepare my preservation class for the fall semester, it seemed to me that the question of demolitions of historic structures would furnish material for several brief posts as well as a longer, more synthetic one.

The immediate impetus was the destruction, this past spring, of a notable mid-nineteenth century house in the center of town, for creation of a private parking lot.

 The demolition was, to my mind, and in the opinion of many, senseless, from the standpoints of both preservation practice and sounding town planning.  That said, not only did the building not suit the plans of the property owners: its condition was only fair to poor, and no one had been able to develop an economically viable use for it.  This epitomizes the dilemmas that preservationists and planners face. The image of a dramatic battle pitting heroic and idealistic preservationists against mercenary developers and philistine property-owners is a caricature or a fantasy.  In very few cases are the issues so clear—and even when they are, the choices are not.  Usually, in fact, the choices are difficult, and many end up as proverbial "judgment calls," in which one's verdict hangs not just on subjective preferences, but on contingent factors such as finances, the need to prioritize or triage, and so forth.  Just the other day, when describing one such example to an acquaintance, she replied with a sigh, "Yes, reminds me of the days when I worked for the National Register of Historic Places, and we'd say to one another, 'so, what's your painful choice of the week?'"

I'm now more convinced than ever of the need for such a longer piece because, as chance would have it, the Historical Commission joined the list of town bodies that have been making the news in recent months.  Demolition delays imposed on a wooden trolley-car barn and an extensive ornamental fence have generated some controversy.  In the meantime, plans for creation of a local historic district—which would provide stronger but more subtle tools than just demolition delay—move slowly forward. And just this week, we took up the issue of whether an old farm property purchased by the town for purposes of open space/recreation and affordable housing should entail repurposing or demolition of the farmhouse (a brief note on the latter in a moment).

At any rate, more on all this soon. I've got to finish preparing for an outdoor class session in our historic 1730 West Cemetery and the later Wildwood park cemetery.
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