More historic buildings are here by chance than you think. Consider this. According to census data, there are over 330,000 Rhode Island buildings over 30 years old, with maybe 250,000 in the 50 years or older category of “historic”. There are 800 National Register buildings (largest per capita in the nation), 45 National Landmarks, and over 150 historic districts, totaling maybe 8,000 recognized buildings.
These various historic designations can strike fear in people. The concerns of oversight and influence by “preservationists” create illusions of conflict and preventing change. But fear not the preservationist. Preservationist interests are preserving the continuity of the building’s appearance, not in telling people how to live or what color to paint. Really, they want to help owners be good house stewards.
But what do these designations mean? The only buildings under protection, design review, and/or intervention are properties with easements, National Historic Landmarks, or building inside historic districts. National Register buildings or districts do not always have protection. Wakefield recently underwent a harsh reality of how little protection historic buildings have. The Larchwood Inn, an 1831 Federal style building, was recognized as an historic asset by the town and it was just outside a National Register District, but the owner still maintained the right to tear the building down. But even without protection, there are benefits of being designated historic, such as tax credits, and even programs, advice, and professionals at the local, state, or federal level.
Preservation started early in the US, when in 1816 Independence Hall was saved from demolition by the city of Philadelphia. In 1853, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association saved the home of George Washington. The first centennial created awareness for greater protection of federal historic resources, and the result was the Antiquities Act of 1906. Through the first half of the century, states and counties began protecting buildings by using land use based protections like Local Historic Districts.
The National Preservation Act of 1966 provided even more resources towards preserving significant historic sites. The act established the Federal advisory commissions and State Historic Preservation Offices, as well as the National Register of Historic Places, a Federal listing of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects worthy of preservation. While the Act did not automatically prevent damage or destruction to all recognized buildings, it did provide needed resources, grants, loans, and tax incentives.
Widespread historic site protection does not exist. The preservationists are not chaining ourselves to bulldozers. But we are imploring historic homeowners not to be THAT owner who puts a death stamp on a building that has survived for hundreds of years. So the 322,000 buildings are up to you. But we get it. The building’s have pressure to conform to modern life, but there are good and bad ways to do it. We may cringe, scoff, or criticize; but know it comes from the heart. We love what is here, and wallow in what is not. We are fascinated in that they exist, that they are beautiful or simple, or maybe that one little thing that is amazing to us. So it’s not you, it’s your building.