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Preserving historic buildings

Preservationists argue that restoration is not only a means to protect and retain our culture but also the most sustainable option for redevelopment. However, if nothing is constant but change and if we are dedicated to a progressive economy, where does historical preservation fit in?

There are four approaches to preservation/restoration:

  • Preservation is the maintenance and retention of existing historic property as it has evolved over time;
  • Rehabilitation alters or adds to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses;
  • Restoration changes property to emulate a particular period of time while removing evidence of other periods; and
  • Reconstruction re-creates changed portions of a property.

What tools do preservationists and concerned citizens have in their efforts to save threatened buildings or structures from the wrecking ball and set them on the path to adaptive reuse?

GCBL spoke to Cleveland Restoration Society for an overview of options for preservation of Northeast Ohio’s architectural and cultural treasures.

Section 106 reviews

When historic properties will be harmed by a federal agency, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act offers a public review process that holds that agency responsible for gathering information on the properties, explores alternatives to harm, and reaches an agreement on measures to deal with any adverse effects.

If a project is on federal property or seeks federal funds, grants or loans–such as a transportation project–it must comply with federal policies such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which includes a Section 106 review. The following are some action steps you can take:

  • Review local newspaper for notices about projects being reviewed under federal statues, such as NEPA
  • Write the agency to request a project description and inquire about the status of project planning
  • Ask how the agency plans to comply with Section 106, and begin to voice your concerns
  • When the agency provides you with information, let the agency know if you disagree with its findings regarding what properties are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places or how the proposed project may affect them.
  • Tell the agency – in writing – about any important properties that you think have been overlooked or incorrectly evaluated. Be sure to provide documentation to support your views.

Protecting Historic Properties: A Citizen’s Guide to Section 106 Review

Understanding preservation tools

Two of the most important legal protections for historic properties are local landmark designations and the National Register of Historic Places.

Local landmark designation offers local governments the most strength when it comes to protection unless it’s a large federal project and then the National Register is more important.

Not all ordinances upholding local landmark designations are created equally. Cleveland’s ordinance was strengthened a few years ago. The ordinance used to say if you had a landmark building that you wanted to demolish, the (planning) commission could say, ‘you need more information. Come back in a six months.’ This is how the Humphrey Mansion was lost.

Cleveland’s ordinance would still allow a Humphrey Mansion or a Hulett ore unloader to be dismantled. Other cities with historic properties are moving ahead with strengthening their ordinances. In Shaker Heights, the ordinance allows for economic feasibility and rehabilitation studies when it comes to landmark buildings.

Some cities are leveraging their local ordinance by having them certified by the state and National Park Service, creating what is known as a Certified Local Government (CLG). As a CLG, cities can tap into funds from the State Historic Preservation Office for surveys to create local historic districts, for public education, or rewriting its landmarks ordinance. Currently, Cleveland, Shaker Heights and Parma are the only CLGs in Northeast Ohio. Parma used CLG funds in the process of adaptively reusing the Henninger House.

The process for getting a building listed on the National Register begins with the application from the National Park Service, which administers the register. The building needs to be more than fifty years old, otherwise, it needs be of “exceptional significance” to be listed.

The application has to follow the format established by the National Historic Register, which includes a physical description and its significance. Then, it's sent it to the State Historic Preservation Office for review before heading to the National Park Service for final review.

Making the case for the recent past

Significant architecture from the recent past is particularly vulnerable since it doesn't qualify for the National Register until it's fifty years old (unless a special exception is made). National groups like the Recent Past Preservation Network and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have suggested that local conservation districts might limit demolitions or drastic alterations. For example, a group of Cleveland architects, led by Ted Sande, began cataloguing downtown highrises in 2007 to consider a historic highrise district.

Some cities have established Modern Committees (or "ModComs") as part of their restoration society. ModComs can be volunteer-based but in cities like Dallas and Los Angeles, they have taken a leading role by hosting tours, workshops and educational series to explain the importance of often underappreciated but significant work from the Modern era. They see preserving significant buildings from the recent past as an effort toward establishing an appreciation for our contemporary buildings as they age. By 2030, half of the built environment in the U.S. will come after 2000, the Brookings Institution reports, making it imperative that we have an organized modern preservation network.

Preservation funds

Public and private grants and loans are readily available, however, most are earmarked for feasibility studies rather than capital improvements (i.e. hands-on restoration work).

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has smaller grants that can be used for stabilization of a building or to remove asbestos or to conduct adaptive reuse studies that include charettes and hiring historians.

Cuyahoga County’s Home Loan Program offers loans at 2.5% for historic preservation work on any house more than fifty years old. It’s basically Key Banks’ Community Reinvestment Act money, available in Cleveland’s CDBG-eligible wards, if a ward buys into it.

Restoration/preservation resources and links

Heritage Ohio's Downtown Assessment Resource Team (DART)
Preservation Ohio
Cleveland Restoration Society
Recent Past Preservation Network
DoCoMoMo U.S.
Ohio cemetery preservation society
Partners for Sacred Places
Scenic Ohio
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