Historic preservation seems simple at first glance. Take old places of historical significance, record their past, fund their preservation, and keep these buildings and sites available for future generations. America saw a massive increase in support for the preservation of natural resources as the 1976 bicentennial approached, and several laws and agencies were created during this time to catalog, document, and preserve America’s historic resources. The most prominent of these programs is the National Register of Historic Places, a list of more than 96,000 sites across America that has received the National Park Service’s seal of approval. There are many tax incentives and grants for preservation, and most of these are made eligible for a site when it is listed on the National Registry, encouraging people to list their properties if they are eligible.
However, like anything involving large sums of money, it’s not that simple. Heritage tourism – tourism linked to history – is rapidly gaining popularity across the country. Areas with a high density of properties designated as historic are seeing their property values rise rapidly. When property values increase, property taxes also increase. These are used for community resources, but also cost the owner more for the exact same property. On a small scale, when people list individual properties in an effort to preserve their historic value, these tax increases are small and offset by the tax incentives available to them. However, higher land values incentivize those wishing to make a profit without regard to the best interests of the community to use historic preservation as a tool for profit, sometimes at the expense of communities. Higher real estate values justify higher rental prices in an area, and sometimes real estate companies buy cheap properties in older areas of US cities, have those buildings and neighborhoods listed as historic, look at property values increase and increase the rents at the same time. When this happens, people who were already living in the community also see their property values rise, raising their taxes to such an extent that many cannot afford to stay. They find themselves in a push-pull scenario, being removed from a community with the promise of a high sale price on their property and evicted with high property taxes. Eventually, many are forced to sell to the real estate company, which then leases these properties at a high rate. When all of this is done, the community has lost its inhabitants, only the wealthy can afford to move in, and corporations control the area. This is a simple explanation of how historic preservation can easily be used to gentrify neighborhoods.
If the purpose of historic preservation is to build a community’s culture and connectedness, but it can be used to drive out the inhabitants (the most important part of any culture), then that seems counterproductive, and the simplest conclusion would be to abandon historic preservation altogether. Preserving a community is more important than preserving buildings, because buildings are just wood and stone without the people who use them. As a historian, this is an unacceptable response. Fortunately, communities across America have found ways to use historic resources in ways that benefit local residents instead of driving them away. Springfield itself has several resources that can be considered examples of responsible historic preservation.
The Abraham Lincoln House in Springfield is a clear example of a site that has been preserved and used to increase local tourism without harming the area around it. It is a house museum, and one of the most famous in America. This style of preservation aims to keep buildings as close to their historic times as possible and is open to the public to visit and learn about how ordinary people lived in the past. Although Abraham Lincoln is larger than life in modern times, when he first purchased the house he was over a decade away from his presidency and was an upper middle class individual with a family. The additions he made to the property while he lived there highlight the class mobility pathways available to people in the 19and century and when he left, he had every intention of returning after his presidency. This site is not used for profit, but rather for educational purposes and is a source of tourism for the city.
Another Springfield site that has been placed on the National Register and is being used creatively is Edwards Place Historic House in Springfield. Unlike Lincoln House, Edwards Square is used for purposes other than historical education and represents the direction in which historic preservation should be used in the future. Edwards Place is used as one of the buildings of the Springfield Art Association (SAA), which bills itself as “a non-profit community organization that promotes and supports the visual arts, provides arts education opportunities for the greater Springfield area. , and preserves and interprets historic Edwards Place and the SAA collections.” Edwards Place is the center of a non-profit organization in Springfield dedicated to promoting the life and culture of Springfield residents, which is the opposite of the corporate gentrification that can result from preservation.This site is used to further the mission of the SAA, which aligns closely with the overall goals of historic preservation, and shows that with a little creativity, historic buildings can be preserved and used to foster the growth of the modern community.
Historic preservation of buildings should not be limited to non-profit organizations or educational tours. As long as the integrity of a site is preserved, historic buildings can be used for almost anything. The ability to transform into anything from high-income housing, corporate offices and expensive tourist destinations to homeless shelters, community cultural centers and local gathering places shows that the power of historic preservation is not in the sites themselves, but what people choose to do with them. It is the responsibility of every community to ensure that these powerful tools are used for the development of people and not for the development of investors.