Sunday, March 23, 2008

The meaning of the National Register

OK, here we go with the Dispel Myths About the National Register Post (tm).

First of all, it's the National Register of Historic Places, or National Register for medium, or the NR for short. It's not the National Registry or the National Historical Register or the Historical Registry or whatever inaccurate term the realtors and historical-society-plaque folks are coming up with these days.

Why am I writing this? Well...I can't even count how many times the topic of NR listing has come up with random people I meet (both through work and elsewhere) and the person says, "Oh, I would never want to be on the National Historic Registry (sic) because I don't want anyone telling me what color to paint my house!"

The universality of this response makes me want to call up my fine friends at the National Park Service and tell them they need to call up some swanky New York PR firm (or get on Oprah) and start spreading the word to people nationwide that being on the NR is ACTUALLY A GOOD THING. It's an honor if your property is listed, or if someone who is a professional preservationist thinks it is eligible for such listing. It is in no way a burden on you.

Here is what being on the NR means:
  • Your property is historically important; so much so that not only your state preservation office, but the National Register office of the entire country is impressed by it;
  • Your property is an example of a significant time, place, and/or person in history;
  • It is an extra line of defense against any government-funded project that might impinge on your property. Federal law protects NR-listed and NR-eligible properties;
  • Tax credits! As owner of a listed property, you can get some excellent tax credits both through the federal government and the state to help finance major restoration work;
  • You can still paint the place chartreuse or cover it with vinyl siding or knock the dang thing down (not that I encourage this!). Nobody will stop you. There are no government spy cameras watching NR properties, and no preservation cops who will bust you for desecrating a historic site. Eventually someone will notice and the property will be de-listed for "loss of integrity." Which, if you were responsible for the "loss of integrity," you probably won't mind too much.
Here is what being on the NR does NOT mean:
  • You have to pay money to be listed or stay listed. You only have to pay if you're hiring someone to write the nomination;
  • You must restore your house to perfect condition. Nope. It got listed because despite its condition, it has historical integrity;
  • Someone will tell you what you can or can't do with your individual listed property. Certainly people who appreciate its historicity would prefer that you not do much to change it, but nobody's going to stop you if you're really intent on "modernizing" it;
  • Your house is famous because some dead white guy slept there. The NR honors the homes of white, black, dead, living, famous, not-so-famous, completely obscure, rich, middle-class, poor, American-born, foreign-born, architect-designed, or built by some guy who couldn't even read. And it's not just houses either. Name pretty much any building type, and you can probably find an example on the NR. Factory? Water tower? Covered bridge? Insane asylum? All there!
Another important distinction to make is between individual listing on the NR, and being listed as "a contributing resource" in a historic district. If your property is a contributing resource, it could be anywhere on a scale from near-slum to something so amazing that it shows up in shelter magazines and passing history buffs drool over it. A contributing property may not be a spectacular example of anything in most people's eyes, but it still forms part of the overall historic atmosphere. If your property is deemed "noncontributing," this means it is newer than most in the neighborhood, more altered than most in the neighborhood, or it doesn't fit in for some other reason.

Some historic districts have historic architectural review commissions and design guidelines and other controls to prevent people from making really drastic changes and eliminating the character that makes these districts historic and special. I will be the first to admit that sometimes these groups can get a little too control-happy, and that they can be the biggest "hysterical preservationists" in the community. A lot of people hate them, and even people who are preservationists support them in theory but secretly worry that they give historic preservation a bad image. But I have to give them some props too, because they're often the last defense in a community against the evil Vinyl Window Invasion, and they are passionate about preserving the neighborhood so that future generations can enjoy the same atmosphere we enjoy now.

What's important to point out is that being part of a neighborhood that is listed on the NR does not mean you automatically get a historic review commission or design controls on your property. The NR has nothing to do with that at all. Nada. Squat. It's just a list. It has no power to create or administrate such a thing. Depending where you live, your town or township or local government would need to create or authorize creation of a historic architectural review body for one to exist. In other words, saying yes to NR listing does not mean you'll suddenly be subject to design review when you want to redo your storefront or add a few more rooms to your house.

A township near me came up with a great web page further dissecting the NR myths. The NR itself has some excellent informational resources. Read up, and please spread the word.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Odds and ends

Little did I ever imagine when I worked as an office temp years ago in some of these vast corporate parks near my hometown that their architecture would someday be appreciated as "midcentury modern." I just remember being in this dungeonlike archive at IBM making copies and thinking there was no way on God's green earth I was cut out for big-corporation life.

Some interesting vernacular tidbits have come my way of late. I always enjoy hearing about quirky homemade or folk architecture and landscape elements. For instance, the Beer Can House. And a group in Baltimore has gotten a grant to write up promotional materials for East Baltimore row house arts, like Formstone, wood-graining, painted screens and "tire and appliance gardens."

I still have not made it to the Holy Grail of southeastern Pennsylvania idiosyncratic built environments. I'll have to plan a lengthy stop in Doylestown next time I'm heading to upstate New York.

Vale-Rio gets moving

Those Vale-Rio Diner owners weren't kidding around. They had that diner jacked up and moved
almost immediately. It didn't even have ten days for the dust to settle. So now it's sitting in their back yard awaiting its fate.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Cross Keys Tavern/Chrome Hotel

HABS 1959

Same view, 2008

Say you're driving down a pretty country road. You cross from northern Maryland into southern Pennsylvania, and up at the top of the road you see this massive, hulking old stone house that looks like it came out of a time warp. Its decrepit condition is disturbing, and when you do some poking around, it seems that this building has an unusual level of historic significance. Built in three sections, it served for many years as a tavern and dwelling. Among its more unique features, the old inn has a rare diamond-pattern carved front door, and the second floor has an unusual early folding partition between two of the rooms.

It appears that the Cross Keys Tavern, also known as the Chrome Hotel, hasn't changed much at all since it was documented by HABS in 1959. It's a lot more run-down, the front-yard sapling has become a handsome tree, and the road has inched closer, but no obvious alterations. It does not appear to have been occupied in 1959 or since then. On one hand, this means nobody has updated it for modern-day lifestyles, and it probably remains in a state of high historic integrity. On the other hand, it is probably pretty useless to its owner, and is deteriorating at a rapid rate. But what incentive would your average property owner have to put money into its upkeep?

I don't know the story behind this house and its owners, but I've been driving past it for nearly four years and watching it steadily decay. The roof has growing holes and is failing rapidly at one corner, a few upstairs windows are broken, one fascia board is coming off, and the exterior stucco is disintegrating. Once the water gets in, it's the beginning of the end. The interior is now at high risk of being lost forever. A couple of years ago, someone tied a huge green tarp over the entire roof, but within a few months the wind had torn it to shreds, and there has been no further attempt to protect it from the elements.

When I see something like this, it really bums me out, because even as a preservationist, I'm not sure how to fix a situation like this. The Cross Keys is so valuable from a historic and architectural perspective--it could teach us so much about life in the 1700s and 1800s. But most property owners today would see this thing as a giant eyesore, or a money pit, or a candidate for Extreme Makeover - Home Edition. If you approached them to ask them to take care of it, they just might resent the intrusion and bulldoze the entire thing. Maybe the family wants to hang onto it but can't afford to keep it up. Maybe it's tied up in someone's estate dispute, or family members can't agree what to do with it. Maybe it's subject to legal conditions we don't know about. For all I know, people have been trying for years to purchase and save it, but have been prevented from doing so. There doesn't seem like there's a lot you can do as a concerned bystander in a rural area like this, in a county (with one historic preservation employee) that is being overtaken by developers, in a state with hundreds of threatened resources. How do you stage an intervention for a neglected building?

As the old house crumbles, the current owners of the property seem to have built up a spiffy business complex in back selling fireworks. I'm not a fan of fireworks, and it's not even legal for me to buy them, but I'd go in there and buy them out of Roman candles if it meant they would put a good new roof on the old tavern, and get some glass back in the broken windows. If I had the money, I'd buy it a roof myself. If the owners can't find a use for the Cross Keys and cannot care for it adequately, I would hope they might just seal it up as best they can against the elements, and find a new owner. It could be an incredible house museum, or study house, or (why not?) a tavern, or even a restored private home...if you don't mind being a few feet from a busy intersection.

Until then, it's an intriguing time capsule, containing secrets of the past until the elements prevail.