Matthew Gilson The National Trust for Historic Preservation, at work since 1949, generally gets one headline a year: when it releases its list of “Most Endangered” places in the U.S.
This year’s list of 11 includes many rural sites: Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in Billings County, North Dakota; the bridges of Yosemite Valley; “historic post offices buildings,” with special emphasis on Geneva, Illinois’s PO.; the village of Zoar, Ohio; and vulnerable old courthouses across Texas, more than thirty of them in small towns.
Monumental and humble, historic buildings are deteriorating, and historic lands continue to be encroached upon by both sprawling cities and runaway enterprise, principally the current oil and gas boom. Meanwhile, preservation funding has been pinched like everything else in the recession.
Under these harsh conditions, the National Trust has made its choices judiciously. The group has cast a spotlight not only on particularly valuable structures and landscapes but on the grossly powerful and entrenched policies that are squandering hundreds more of the nation’s cultural treasures.
The threat to historic post offices is so widespread that even the dogged advocates of Save the Post Office (STPO) can’t completely determine all the buildings under threat. “Over the past year, the Postal Service has embarked on a plan to dispose of its vast real estate holdings, and many of these New Deal post offices [containing original murals and sculptures] have already been sold," reports STPO.
"Last July, the Postal Service entered into a contract with the largest commercial real estate company in the world, CB Richard Ellis, to manage lease negotiations and sales.” Late last year the U.S. Postal Service and Ellis began displaying some of the buildings and lands for sale on a website. “There are about 80 listed right now, a good number of them historic properties,” reports Save the Post Office. STPO itself lists 38 post offices that have been sold over the past year.
Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told STPO: "We don't quibble with the post office having to do what they have to do to manage their business, but we do want to make sure there's a thoughtful process in place for managing the historic resources."
“Thoughtful” is good, and “legal” would be even better.
In its “Most Endangered” announcement, the National Trust underscores its goal to “work with the U.S. Postal Service and other federal agencies to develop a consistent, sensitive, and transparent process that follows established federal preservation law for protecting historic post office buildings targeted for disposition” (italics added).
Ohio Historical Society via Columbus Dispatch
The National Trust also raises alarm over The Village of Zoar, Ohio, one of the first communal settlements of European immigrants in the U.S. The Society of Separatists of Zoar left southwestern Germany to pursue their religious beliefs in the New World, founding their town in 1817 in east-central Ohio. The settlers paid back the loan with which they’d purchased the town’s land by helping dig the nearby Erie Canal.
“As of spring 2011, the future of the Village was threatened by a Tuscarawas River levee that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given its lowest safety rating. The Village sits at the base of the levee, which was built by the Corps in 1936 as part of its water management program in the region. The levee is failing….”
The National Trust writes that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, now studying how to handle the weakened levee, is considering removing it entirely, “which could require the relocation or demolition of 80% of this remarkable historic village,” reports the National Trust.
If the Corps removes the levee, Zoar would be flooded. The 200 residents have organized to fight that plan. Now with the National Trust bringing national attention to the issue, maybe the town and the characteristic German structures its residents' ancestors built can be preserved.
Again, the National Trust’s selection of Zoar as “endangered” illuminates a widespread problem. It sheds light on the far-reaching and often devastating consequences of the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision-making. In the past year alone, such decisions have brought ruin to farmers in northern Missouri and wiped an entire southern Missouri town off the map. In choosing Zoar, the National Trust asks the nation to keep a critical eye on the Corps as it exercises tremendous power over the physical and cultural landscape.
Dickinson State University
Naming Teddy Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch as endangered likewise draws the battle line between contemporary power and history, though in this case, the historical elements are personal and presidential and the forces arrayed against preservation are commercial.
The National Trust writes, “the serenity of the ranch, which lies on both sides of the Little Missouri River, is threatened by a proposed new road that would introduce a visual disruption, as well as traffic, noise, and dust.” With the boom in natural gas production, livelihoods and landscape in North Dakota – and elsewhere -- are changing fast.
More than any other U.S. president, Teddy Roosevelt is associated with the conservation movement. And his former ranch-retreat in the North Dakota Badlands thus serves as a symbol of conservation – the birthplace of an American ideal. By choosing Elkhorn Ranch for its Most Endangered list, the National Trust invokes a historical authority, one able to muster bipartisan respect even from the grave. Elkhorn Ranch’s vulnerability also points to the rapacious facts of energy exploration, which is impinging on places as far flung as West Virginia mountaintops, the aquifers of Nebraska, and the coastline of Massachusetts.
Lee Rentz via National Trust for Historic Preservation
Three bridges of Yosemite Valley are also among the 11 Most Endangered structures named this year: the Stoneman, Sugar Pine and Ahwahnee bridges, built between 1928 and 1932, over the Merced River in Yosemite National Park. The National Trust writes, “In 1864, Yosemite became the nation’s first park devoted to the protection of natural scenery. Today, nearly four million visitors a year journey to its spectacular centerpiece, the seven-mile-long Yosemite Valley, framed by the world-famous Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls.”
In 1987, Congress declared the Merced a “wild and scenic river” and authorized the National Park Service to protect its flow and ecology. The Park Service’s plan has already been more than ten years in the making and faced one legal challenge; more recent plans point to removing the old bridges, which some environmentalists say “are hampering the free-flowing conditions of the Merced River and causing the destruction of natural resources downstream.”
The National Trust’s inclusion of the Yosemite Valley bridges in its Most Endangered list is a bold step that highlights conflict between the values of strictly environmental conservation and the preservation of historic structures. This issue is awkward to note in that it demonstrates how two modes of conservation may find themselves at odds, especially at a time when monies for conservation – whether for natural or cultural resources -- are declining.
Anthony Veerkamp of the National Trust’s San Francisco office told the Union Democrat that compromise is possible, that the parks service need not remove the bridges to improve the Merced’s free flow. But of course, meeting both those requirements will cost money, and the Parks Service budget has been cut sharply; the NPS’s Historic Preservation Fund alone took a $25 million cut last year. By including the three Yosemite bridges in its Most Endangered list, the National Trust spotlights the high price to be paid for underfunding the national parklands.
The National Trust also includes the endangered historic courthouses of Texas, again. These buildings made the National Trust Most Endangered list in 1998: “The following year, the Texas legislature and Governor George W. Bush created the Texas Historic Courthouse Program. Administered by the Texas Historical Commission (THC), this program has provided $247 million in matching grants to fully restore 62 historic courthouses and partially assist 21 more,” the National Trust writes.
But more than 72 of the state's courthouses have not been restored. More fundamentally, the entire Texas Historical Commission nearly disappeared last year when Gov. Rick Perry proposed dissolving the commission altogether. After tremendous public outcry the state legislature restored some funding, yet the THC budget this year decreased by 35%. The surviving agency lost funding for the Preservation Trust Fund for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.
This map provided by the Texas Historical Commission shows the courthouses that have been restored (in blue) and those still in need of rehabilitation (in red). Most of the ailing courthouses are in rural counties, including the Karnes County Courthouse, featured in the National Trust’s announcement.
Texas Historical Commission
The National Trust writes, “Texas' historic courthouses include some of the finest works of public architecture in Texas – and the nation. Constructed over a 100-year-period from the 1850s to the 1950s, these buildings come in almost every style, from Romanesque to Art Deco. Some 139 Texas courthouses are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”
Especially in rural counties, many courthouses are the architectural and historic centerpieces of county seats and surrounding towns. By once again highlighting their significance, the National Trust reaffirms its commitment to protecting venerable structures in vulnerable communities, places that often lack the local resources to maintain their historic buildings.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has done an exemplary job this year of singling out important causes. These selections point not only to valuable lands and structures but to the broader social and political trends that, unless checked, will bring further degradation of treasured places. The “Most Endangered” list is -- sadly but significantly -- not restricted to 11 spots worthy of preservation; it’s representative of a much longer list of lands and structures that, unless current business and government practices change, will disappear.