The Important Role of Historic Preservation in Placemaking: A Conversation with Fairleigh Jackson
This post is by Camille Manning-Broome, CEO of CPEX.
The April fire at Paris’s iconic Notre Dame is a poignant example of how a sense of place can be felt by millions of people, even those who had never visited the cathedral in person. That sense of connection was enough to compel many to donate to rebuild and preserve the famed building. “I think it's a phenomenon that is truly human, that we can actually feel the impact of the destruction of something so culturally significant from so far away,” says Fairleigh Jackson, executive director of Preserve Louisiana.
More than $1 billion has been donated to preserve the cathedral. People may be less aware, though, that the fire also motivated individuals to donate $1 million to help three historically black churches rebuild from arson here in Louisiana. “That sense of place and appreciation can be contagious and advantageous to other causes,” Jackson says.
I sat down with Jackson to discuss why preservation is so important to building community and sense of place. What follows are highlights from our conversation.
Why is it important to preserve places?
Preserving structures preserves the story of that place. It's almost like having a conversation across a continuum of time, so you're not only taking into account what the needs and desires are of a community today, but you're taking into account the important stories that these buildings tell about the history of that area.
The Crawford House, a historic Baton Rouge home built in 1956 by Miami architect Whal Snyder for Hamilton Crawford, is a perfect example. The house matters to many people because it is such a classic example of mid-century modern architecture and for how perfectly it tells the story of that time period. But it matters to other people because Hamilton Crawford pioneered the construction of partially prefabricated “Crawford Homes” across Baton Rouge and New Orleans after World War II. And for others, it matters because he contributed to affordable housing for African Americans in New Orleans in the postwar era. There are so many reasons that spaces and places matter to people.
How does this kind of preservation impact a community economically?
Historic preservation and the renovation of even one building has a proven catalytic impact on an area. Donovan Rypkema with PlaceEconomics did a wonderful study for the Lieutenant Governor's office outlining the impact when one building on a block is renovated using historic tax credits. All of a sudden you've got a once-again thriving Main Street, or block or a revitalized area of a downtown. There's absolutely a positive economic impact from that revitalization.
We're lucky to live in a state where we have multiple tools for historic preservation, and many communities have access to local districts and designations, which often have more teeth than national designations. We have the state commercial historic tax credits and access to the federal historic tax credits in our National Register districts and for individual listings. And our cultural districts are also eligible for our state tax credit for historic preservation.
What challenges does Louisiana face when it comes to preservation?
Preservation is a key component in placemaking, and the first step for both of them is planning. Establishing a historic district is based on conducting a historic asset inventory. Luckily in Louisiana, we have many historic places and buildings worth preserving.
One of the challenges is that in areas that have not been designated as local districts or federal National Register districts, there's been razing of structures, and we've lost some of that inventory. In Mid City Baton Rouge, we've seen a lot of razing of older homes, with three new construction properties built on the lot in its place. That’s what almost happened to the Crawford house. While I'm a fan of density in certain areas with thoughtful planning, this can be detrimental to a community both because of the loss of historic structures and other issues such as poor drainage and various other problems due to hasty construction.
We need to focus on dispelling some of the myths about what historic listings and districts mean and focus on educating people about the benefits of them so that more people will get behind creating districts. Louisiana prizes individual property rights, and people often think such designations limit homeowners in ways they, in actuality, do not. And there's evidence that listing houses on the National Register and creating a historic or cultural district actually increases property values.
What can members of the community do to support historic preservation?
Preservation is generally a grassroots movement. We were successful in saving the Crawford house because community members got involved. They had an appreciation for its architecture, its history and its story. And they were committed to preserving that. The public outcry over losing such an architectural and historic icon helped successfully put pressure on the developer to sell it rather than raze the structure and build multiple homes on the lot as they had planned. And now we’re working with the buyer to list it as a local landmark.
For people interested in preserving their community, they can look into either local district designation or National Register district designation. They can also advocate for changing zoning requirements to make it more difficult to raze historic homes and buildings and elect city officials who support our historic preservation commission.
And the best thing you can do to support historic preservation is to use your voice. Come to our educational event on May 16 that outlines tools for historic preservation that you can use to preserve the places you value.