Sunday, October 10, 2010

Amherst Historical Commission and the Demolition Delay: The Devil Incarnate, or Just Doing Its Duty?

proposed demolition of Clark (Hitchcock) house fence: 
the devil's in the details

The editorial painted a frightening portrait of an out-of-control organization that “does not have a sense of proportion in exercising [its] power,” and, having “tested the boundaries of common sense,” is “overstepping its authority.”

The Nixon White House in 1972? The Bush war cabinet in 2002? No, Amherst local government in 2010.

It was only to be expected: Having boldly spoken out against the school system and Jones Library Board of Trustees, it was time for the editors of the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Amherst Bulletin to turn against the most dangerous body in town: the Historical Commission. Yep, we’re Satan’s legion.

The editorial was so ill-tempered and ill-informed that it was hard to know where to begin: with the lack of basic understanding of preservation philosophy and practices (much of the latter anchored in local, state, and federal law), or with the willful distortion of the context, which attempted to stir up controversy by tarring us with the brush of an anti-“development” ideology that had nothing to do with our decisions.

Since the piece appeared, other preservation issues have made the news here, as they have been doing elsewhere in the state: in North Andover and Salem, for instance. Back in Amherst, a couple of irate and misinformed residents took the editorial as an invitation to denounce our work toward creation of a local historic district ordinance, even though it is mandated by the town's new Master Plan.

The editorial really deserves a good fisking. As I’ve mentioned, I also have in mind a longer piece on the more general question of preservation policy and demolition delays. For now, I’ll just post the original piece and the various responses without commentary. The rest will follow in due time. These issues are not going away. I wish one could say the same about our historic structures.

The editorial [1]

In Our Opinion: For love of a fence
By Daily Hampshire Gazette
Created 08/27/2010 - 04:00

The Amherst Historical Commission tested the boundaries of common sense Monday when it ordered Amherst College to wait a year before it demolish an old wooden fence around one of its buildings.

Last month, the commission imposed a similar delay on demolition of a century-old barn in North Amherst that is leaning to one side and is at risk of collapse. With more owners of old structures applying for demolition permits, the commission needs to be realistic about what should be preserved and use its power to order delays more judiciously.

The commission seems to be overstepping its authority in the case of the Amherst College fence. This is the first instance of the commission ordering a delay in demolishing anything other than a building. And while the purpose of the bylaw giving the commission this power is to provide an opportunity to preserve a structure, Amherst College has made it clear it has no intention to do anything other than demolish the fence.

So why did the commission order the delay?

Chairman James Wald said it was a matter of principle, noting, "We're making a statement that preservation is important." Another commission member called it "a handsome, handsome fence." We think that when a public board has the power to stop a private property owner from doing what he wants, it needs a better reason than that.

Amherst College does not need to be told historic preservation is important. It is spending about $14 million to renovate the Lord Jeffery Inn, and has spent about $5 million since 2002 on the Emily Dickinson Museum. It has also undertaken the expensive renovation of the 1790 house on the corner of South Pleasant Street and Hitchcock Road.

The fence in question is about 80 years old and is rotting in several places. It is not representative of the era in which it was built, because at the time it was intended to look older. The college plowed a lot of money into it 10 years ago and it needs more attention. Now that the commission has declared it to be "historically significant," it will continue to deteriorate over the next year.

The maintenance costs are not the only reason the college wants to remove the fence. It believes that college buildings should be integrated into downtown and wants to remove overgrown vegetation between the fence and the building, which is used for offices and classrooms. The college views the fence as a vestige of the time before 1966, when it was a private residence.

The college has offered to dismantle the fence and find ways to reuse it elsewhere.

The bylaw giving the commission this power says that if it is clear that there is no possibility that a building will be salvaged, it can recommend issuing a demolition permit.

We think that's what it should have done in this case.

Amherst's demolition delay bylaw can have a useful public purpose in encouraging the preservation of historic buildings that contribute to the town's cultural heritage. But if the commission does not have a sense of proportion in exercising this power, it is merely promoting the notion that Amherst is hostile to business without achieving anything in terms of historic preservation.
* * *
The Responses [2]
Protecting history a must
Published on September 10, 2010

Regarding your editorial "Historically significant fence continues to decay" (Bulletin, Sept. 3), your attack on the decision of the Amherst Historical Commission to save a historical fence in the town center and a barn vitally linked to the history of the street railway of the Amherst region is misguided. Your assertion that somehow this is proof that "Amherst is hostile to business" is laughable!

Anyone with an appreciation of historical architecture knows that since the time of the Renaissance buildings and fences were inextricably linked -- the latter meant to enhance or complete the spatial aesthetic. Bernini's colonnade of St. Peters is perhaps the most dramatic example. All over America in the Georgian and Federal periods ornate fences meant to frame the design of the building were commonplace. (The fences of architect Samuel McIntyre of Salem were widely copied.)

The earlier owner of the Amherst fence in question, obviously influenced by the Colonial Revival, correctly believed that his fence was appropriate to the classicism of the building.

Far from the Historical Commission "overstepping its authority," it judiciously and responsibly executed its statutory obligation to protect Amherst's historical assets and monuments. During the past three years the Commission has granted innumerable requests for demolition to properties of little or no historical import. Was the Commission's refusal several years back to approve the demolition of the brick Federal mansion at 575 North East Street the right thing to do?

That decision -- enthusiastically received by Amherst townspeople -- appears to be in conflict with what the Bulletin laments -- "to stop a private owner from doing what he wants."

Unfortunately Massachusetts law limits the rights of the Historical Commission to a one-year reprieve during which Amherst College and the owners' of the North Amherst trolley barn might have time to reflect that ownership of historical properties carries the responsibility for their maintenance. Both barn and fence are restorable. The Commission found no structural engineer who agreed with the owner's warning of the barn's imminent collapse. Nor does investing millions for the expansion of the Lord Jeff Inn count as spending for historical preservation.

Owners have no moral right to degrade, and, yes, even to demolish historical property of value to the community because they are unwilling to pay the cost of maintenance or choose a more lucrative use of the land. In that sense Jim Wald and his colleagues of the Historical Commission are absolutely right in advocating preservation for the common good.

At no time in Amherst's history has preservation been more important. Amherst citizens are reminded every day of the possible demolition of not merely buildings but of whole neighborhoods for the sacred cause of economic development -- the Patterson fields, Gateway project, Atkins and North Amherst Village Centers and widespread rezoning to attract business.

Many citizens have already spoken out to defend the integrity of our neighborhoods and the way of life that old barns and fences symbolize the beauty, charm and continuity of community culture, and a shared respect for public artifacts that should not be ravaged for the sake of the Almighty Buck!

Louis S. Greenbaum of Amherst is a former member of the Historical Commission.
* * *
Letter:  Dickinson Museum raises all its own funds
Published on September 17, 2010

To the Bulletin: An editorial in the Gazette (Aug. 27) and Bulletin (Sept. 3) concerning historic preservation stated incorrectly that Amherst College has provided $5 million to the Emily Dickinson Museum since 2002. Although the Museum is owned by the Trustees of Amherst College, it is overseen by a separate Board of Governors and, by formal memorandum of understanding, charged with raising its own operating and capital funds.

Since its creation in 2003 the Emily Dickinson Museum has taken this responsibility very seriously, and has earned or raised independently of the College most of the funds needed for its operations and restoration projects. For example, the recent restoration of the hemlock hedge and decorative fence fronting the Homestead and Evergreens was funded entirely by private contributions raised specifically for that purpose.

Amherst College is an encouraging parent to the Emily Dickinson Museum and does much to enhance its standing as one of the world's most significant literary landmarks. However, the site of Emily Dickinson's poetic genius thrives because of the generous support of friends in the local community and around the world. We hope to count on their continued support.

Jane Wald
Executive Director
Emily Dickinson Museum
* * *
Panel is acting prudently
Published on September 24, 2010

Members of the Historical Commission were dismayed to find their actions caricatured in your recent editorials. You charge us with "test[ing] the boundaries of common sense" and "overstepping [our] authority" in imposing demolition delays on a barn and a fence. The baseless accusations rest on a misunderstanding of both our official role and the two cases.

Under Massachusetts General Law (Ch. 40 ᄃ 8D) historical commissions are responsible for protecting local historic and archaeological resources. Article 13 of the Amherst Zoning Bylaw, which -- following established state and national policies -- allows us to impose a delay on destruction of such resources, is the only real preventative tool. As I make clear at each hearing, we take the interests of property owners seriously and, even when we find a structure historically significant, we impose delays with equal seriousness: which is to say: rarely, and in hopes of finding a mutually satisfactory solution.

If the "century-old barn in North Amherst" were indeed "at risk of collapse," we would have voted for immediate demolition, as we did in another case earlier this month. The commission imposed a delay for the simple reason that this may be the unique surviving example of a wooden trolley-car barn -- reflecting a crucial phase in our economic and technological history -- in the commonwealth. The Cowls Company had no plans for immediate new construction and the delay sensibly allows time for further research and consultation with parties interested in restoring or relocating the structure.

You also chide us for the unprecedented application of the bylaw to an "old wooden fence" and mock a commissioner's description of it as "handsome." The U.S. government has long listed fences as key features that contribute to the integrity of historic structures and cultural landscapes (see the 2004 Dept. of the Interior handbook). Aesthetic value is moreover a legitimate criterion affirmed by federal court decision and enshrined in our own Demolition Delay Bylaw.

You further complain that the 80-year-old fence "is not representative of the era in which it was built because at the time it was intended to look older." The same could be said of the house itself as it now appears. In the 1930s, the owners remodeled this fine Italianate structure by famed architect William Fenno Pratt (who also designed Austin Dickinson's "Evergreens" and the two Hills mansions on Main Street) in the Greek Revival style of a century earlier. The imposing 310-foot fence erected at that time was an integral aesthetic and historical element, one on which the builders clearly lavished particular attention. It is perhaps the only example of such in town, a more complex and elegant cousin of the one in the North Amherst Cemetery.

In imposing a delay, we both affirmed our role as guardians of the public interest and sought time in which to forge a compromise with Amherst College, with whom we have always had a congenial and productive working relationship.

In both cases, then, the commission exercised its authority legally and prudently. What is most regrettable is that you chose to portray our decisions as emblematic of some anti-business and anti-development ideology. They were no such thing. The government offices and citizen bodies trusted with protecting our historic, environmental, and agricultural resources work hard and responsibly to balance the public and private interest. As the chair of the Comprehensive Planning Committee, I was proud our diverse membership was able to forge a consensus on the future direction of the town. Facile judgments such as yours divide us just when we should instead be uniting to address the real crisis of economy and resources that we all face.

James Wald is the chairman of the Amherst Historical Commission.
* * *

And, finally, there was this piece by frequent commentator Richard Bogartz.
A Sideways Glance: Preserve the fence, but let it rot
Published on October 01, 2010

Some advocate historic preservation. Anything old should be saved, they say. That way we preserve the tokens of our culture and so we better know who we are by knowing who we were.

Lately it has even been claimed that preservation promotes sustainable development which benefits the environment. The argument goes that the reuse of buildings successfully reduces pollution and promotes the conservation of nature. (For more, put "Renovating vs. Building New: The Environmental Merits" in a Google search.)

I never got it. In my view the rotting and decaying of old buildings was just an instance of the general rule that changeables change. Other familiar instances are that breakables break, ageables age, spoilables spoil, stainables stain.

The world is constantly subject to change. So buildings get old and fall down. What's the big deal? You put up new ones, fully knowing that they will fall down in their time. (full article)
In the end, he comes around to supporting us, . . . er, sort of.  Because I have no idea what he is really trying to say (confusing the Historical Commission with the Historical Society doesn't help) I'll let you struggle with the rest yourselves, if you are so inclined. I think he was trying to be philosophical and humorous at once, or something of the sort.  Dunno, though Immanuel Kant never tried to pull that off.

* * *

For what it's worth, the fence controversy has been generating some interest in and questions about historic preservation.  Several town residents have told me how much they valued the fence as part of a familiar viewscape.  Some students, after reading the exchanges in the paper, even reported that they made a special trip or detour to see what all the fuss what about.

The fence was one of the stops on the tour that I led as part of the lecture series that my colleague Max Page organized in conjunction with the new historic preservation initiative in the architecture and design program at the University of Massachusetts.

Students from Max Page's UMass graduate course on public history and historic preservation examine the notorious fence.
* * *

[1] The version published in the Bulletin was entitled, "'Historically significant' fence continues to decay."

[2] The titles of the responses are the creations of the paper's editors, not the authors.

No comments: