Historic Preservation Conference Report

I attended the State Historic Preservation Conference in Faribault on September 22 and 23 on behalf of the Little Falls Heritage Preservation Commission and the Morrison County Historical Society. Here’s my report of the event.

Notes from the State Historic Preservation Conference
September 22 & 23, 2011
By Mary Warner

The opening session on September 22 featured an introduction by Stephen Elliot, the new Director of the Minnesota Historical Society and State Historic Preservation Officer. There was also a presentation by Bonnie McDonald, Executive Director of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Bonnie’s presentation was called “The Good, the So-So, and the Ugly” regarding preservation in Minnesota. The ugly included the demolition of the Dewey-Radke House in Little Falls, along with the demolitions of two other historic properties. It was only the Dewey-Radke demolition that garnered an audible groan from the audience.

The keynote address was by Bob Yapp, founder of Preservation Resources, Inc., in Hannibal Missouri. Bob is also known for a syndicated radio show called The House Doctor and a PBS series called About Your House with Bob Yapp. His address at the conference was fun and dynamic, filled with personal stories about house preservation and advice for encouraging preservation.

In response to the notion that preservation is a liberal thing, he said, “Nothing could be more conservative than preservation,” because of its cost-effectiveness and potential for creating jobs. Further, one of the least “green” things people can do is to build new. He and a group of preservationists paid to have scientific data collected on the energy efficiency of restored old windows (single-pane with storm window) versus new double-paned windows. Old windows out-perform new windows in almost every instance. New windows are meant to be replaced every 15 years.

I attended the afternoon concurrent session, Educate Before You Designate, with Bob Yapp as well. Bob discussed how to encourage preservation in a community, suggesting “unveiling” parties and “rehab-athons.” He said we must use economic arguments to encourage anti-preservationists to move toward preservation. He also encouraged diversity in neighborhoods, open front porches, enforcing preservation ordinances with fines, and offering free preservation and restoration consultations before permit applications are filled out (technical support is key to heading off building problems before they start). Bob stressed that downtowns don’t belong to the people who own the buildings. They belong to the community. The downtown belongs to everyone because it is the heart of a community.

The second concurrent session I attended on September 22 was Social Networking 101: Does Facebook Have a Place in Preservation? Most of the information presented was not new to me, but I wanted to contribute the Morrison County Historical Society’s recent experience of how people responded to the demolition of the Dewey-Radke House via social media and how MCHS responded to them.

On Friday, September 23, I attended a concurrent session called Modernism on Main Street presented by Anthony Rubano of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Anthony gave a fabulous run-down of the history of modernism, starting with the Bauhaus style of the late 1920s. He explained how store fronts evolved over time, from the flat fronts of Victorian buildings to the arcade fronts and recessed doors seen in modernist buildings. Store fronts are typically replaced every 25 years. Large signs came into being with these modern store fronts because the signs were considered part of the overall design.

Anthony stressed that if we’re going to do preservation right, we can’t play favorites with style. We can’t treat modern buildings different from those of the Victorian era. One woman in the session referred to a slip-covered building as a “monstrosity.” Anthony said that attitude is one that we have to get over. Eventually, every building style becomes historic given enough time (even lit plastic signs will become historic). All across the nation, however, we keep turning our downtowns into a romanticized version of a traditional 1910 downtown. Modernism continues elsewhere in our towns, but not on Main Street. We are actually working to de-modernize our Main Streets, which works against historic preservation.

The last session I attended was on the new Minnesota Historic Structure Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which is for income-producing historic properties. Much of the session involved a discussion of how to sell the tax credit and included jargon that was over my head.

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