Wall Street Journal
May 13, 1993
This Is No Way to Preserve History
By James Bovard
This is National Preservation Week. While Americans have
commendably become more interested in their past, historic
preservation itself has unfortunately become a pretext for mass
confiscation. In hundreds of locales, the older a house becomes, the
less right homeowners have to control their own property. Unless
current trends are reversed, the historic preservation movement
could seize control of millions of American buildings.
Preservationists have "progressed" from targeting specific
buildings, to targeting neighborhoods, to targeting entire cities
for strict, government-enforced controls. Escondido, Calif.,
designated all buildings more than 50 years old historic structures
and prohibited owners from demolishing them without paying a large
demolition fee to the city government. The owner of one rickety,
boarded-up old shack was stopped from selling it -- even though the
owner three times offered to donate the shack to the city, as long
as the city would pay to move the shack away. (The city government
rejected his offer.)
In the 1950s, intellectuals denounced prevailing suburban
architectural styles as proof of the soullessness of American
culture. In the 1990s, activists on historic preservation boards are
decreeing that 1950s neighborhoods are so special that local police
must prohibit any homeowners from improving their homes' exteriors.
In Hanover, Va., the local government imposed strict preservation
controls over a 43-acre tract surrounding an old courthouse. One
outraged woman retaliated by placing tacky pink flamingoes on her
front lawn. Elmyra Taylor complained, "I cannot paint my house, I
cannot paint the fence, I cannot remove trees or tree limbs without
permission from an architectural review board and county
supervisors, who have been most unreasonable."
Historic preservation has also become a tool to drive out poor
minorities. A HUD investigation concluded in 1988 that a decision by
Alexandria, Va., to designate a 50-block black neighborhood as a
historic district "was specifically intended to displace low -- and
moderate -- income blacks" from their homes "in order to upgrade
properties and . . . to promote the rise of property values and
attraction of new residents." In Arlington County, Va., blacks in
the "historic" Maywood neighborhood bitterly protested in 1991 about
being required to submit 10 copies of forms to get permission to
install air conditioning in their homes.
In January 1991, the Washington, D.C., Historic Preservation
Review Board imposed historic landmark status on a boarded-up,
deteriorating four-story apartment building on a stretch of
Massachusetts Ave. long since gone to urban hell. The board hailed
the apartment building as an "excellent example of the popular
transference of many of the forms . . . of the traditional
Washington rowhouse to early apartment house design." But the
building is now a crumbling flophouse that has long been used by
vagrants, drug users and prostitutes; nine fires occurred there over
a two-year period. (Ironically, the building sits across from a
boarded-up fire station.) The building's owner seeks to tear it down
and replace it with commercial office space, but is tied up in court
battles stemming from the building's historic status.
Historic preservation judgments increasingly threaten freedom of
religion. In 1991, Washington, D.C., effectively imposed a
preliminary injunction against a Christian Science church to prevent
it from modifying a bunkerlike church and office building built in
1971 while the structures were being considered for historic
designation. The church exemplifies the depravity of the "brutal
school" of architecture. The Christian Scientists have already spent
tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting this case.
Chicago passed a Landmarks Ordinance that allowed religious
properties to exempt themselves from historic designation. The
National Trust for Historic Preservation was outraged, and warned
that such an ordinance was unconstitutional because it "has the
purpose and effect of endorsing religion, in violation of the First
Amendment establishment clause." In other words, if the government
is effectively persecuting property owners in general, it is
unconstitutional if it does not also persecute churches.
In 1991, Texas passed a statute requiring any owner who intended
to damage a designated historic landmark in any way to get
permission from the local government or from the Texas Historical
Commission before acting. As Anice Read of the commission wrote,
"Those not securing the required permits would be required to
reconstruct the structure or to make just compensation to the city
or to the Texas Historical Commission of an amount equal to the
value of the structure." The Texas statute vivifies the real meaning
of historic preservation: Once controls are imposed, government
becomes the de facto owner -- and the property owner must compensate
the government for any damage he does to the property.
Power lust sometimes appears to be at the bottom of the
preservation movement. Laurie Beckelman, chairwoman of New York
City's Landmarks Preservation Commission, hailed a court decision as
affirming the commission's "absolute power . . . to designate and
regulate religious properties as landmarks." Chuck Geitner, chairman
of the Naperville, Ill., Historic District Commission, with
jurisdiction over a 60-block area, announced in 1991, "We listen to
people, and, when we think it's appropriate, we grant them the power
to do what they wish."
Preservation advocates sometimes sound as if they simply wish to
summon the local police to enforce their own sentimentality.
Washington Post architectural critic Benjamin Forgey wrote last
year: "There's a simple test one can apply to determine whether
government should impose preservation controls: Stand in front of
such a building, close your eyes and picture it gone. If the result
is that you would really, really miss it, then it may need help."
Many historic preservation commissions appear so eager to sweep
more houses under their jurisdiction that they have little or no
idea how many homes' exteriors they already control. Mary Ann
Rolland, a historic preservation planner for Montgomery County, Md.,
could not provide even a rough estimate of how many homes are
covered by historic preservation restrictions in the county, though
she was enthusiastic that the county had just imposed historic
controls on 900 homes in Takoma Park, Md.
Some preservationists have advocated that buildings routinely be
deemed historic when they become 50 years old. Yet, according to the
U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 18 million housing units in
the U.S. built before 1940 -- almost 20% of the nation's housing
stock. Does an individual's right to control his own property
automatically decline by two percentage points a year?
America's churches and homeowners have enough problems without
being subjected to a dictatorship of gadflies. Trampling the Bill of
Rights -- perhaps America's most important historic achievement --
is no way to preserve history.
Mr. Bovard writes often on public policy.
(See related letters: "Letters to the Editor: Landmark Decisions"
-- WSJ June 10, 1993)
The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, June 10, 1993
Letters to the Editor: Landmark Decisions
James Bovard's diatribe ("This Is No Way to Preserve History,"
editorial page, May 13) constitutes a distortion and a disservice to
the thousands of communities working reasonably and successfully to
protect their heritage. Contrary to his outrageous assertion that
preservationists seek to "seize control of millions of American
buildings," most preservationists do not believe that all old
buildings should be saved simply because they are old. Rather,
preserving and using old buildings is an essential part of creating
stable, livable communities for all Americans.
While preservation ordinances do require property owners to
comply with clear procedures before unnecessarily or unwittingly
destroying unique historic, cultural and architectural resources,
they also include economic hardship provisions to ensure that
owners' property rights are not unduly burdened. Even such zealous
guardians of private property rights as Justices Rehnquist and
Scalia agree that landmark laws are a valid exercise of the state's
police power and are fully constitutional.
It is a principle of jurisprudence even older than the
Constitution that an owner must not use his property to damage the
property of another. This reasoning is the basis for zoning laws
that prohibit a neighbor from converting his residentially zoned
property to industrial uses, even if the conversion would bring a
higher economic return. For more than 100 years, up to and including
last year's Lucas decision, the Supreme Court has consistently held
that government regulation that merely diminishes the value of
private property is not a violation of the Fifth Amendment's
"taking" clause or any other provision of the Bill of Rights.
Mr. Bovard claims that preservation laws violate the principle of
church-state separation. But the courts have made it clear that
churches are not exempt from the law by virtue of their religious
activities. They must comply with fire codes, for instance, as well
as landmark protection laws. This is not "trampling the Bill of
Rights" as long as churches are not singled out for any special
treatment because of their religious practices.
Preservation of historic communities helps to stabilize
neighborhoods, reverse urban blight and engender citizen pride in
home and community. In pursuit of these goals, preservationists
sometimes make mistakes. But generalizing from isolated instances of
error or misjudgment to indict the entire preservation movement is
National Trust for Historic Preservation
I take exception to Mr. Bovard's quoting me to help support his
views that preservation is equivalent to confiscation.
My statement was taken out of context from an article describing
action taken by the city of San Antonio to deal with flagrant abuses
by those who would flout existing laws. In this particular case a
developer had cynically willfully demolished an outstanding local
landmark under cover of darkness -- knowing full well that his only
punishment would be a relatively modest (to him) $25,000 fine.
The state legislation enacted reflected the statewide outrage
Texas Main Street Program
My thanks to Mr. Bovard for lifting the velvet curtain off the
historic preservationists and revealing their malevolent attitudes
and confiscatory actions. Scorning constitutional guarantees of
property rights, this arbitrary amalgam of obstructionists has
twisted a reasonable sympathy for truly historic buildings and
places into a fascist attack on virtually all development and
change. Looking back on a quarter century of architectural practice,
I have seen few rivals to the preservationists for insidious acts of
de facto appropriation and seizure -- with the possible exception of
their equally twisted sisters, the zoning boards. Perhaps we could
set these groups at odds with each other by parking 50-year-old
camper-trailers in our driveways.
For 10 years I have been a preservation advocate in Chicago,
working principally with minority communities and church
congregations seeking to preserve their buildings. I have worked in
these areas not because they were targeted, but because our job is
to respond to communities that ask for our assistance.
If you are worshiping in a landmark church in Chicago, you are
most likely African-American. Many such churches were designated to
prevent their demolition by the large-scale urban renewal plans of
the white establishment. Holy Family Church in Chicago was to be
demolished because its small, poor minority congregation "needed"
social services rather than a Gothic cathedral. The only hitch was
that the small, poor minority parishioners did not agree. They
fought the decision, formed a coalition that included the mayor, and
restored the church. Chicago's landmarks ordinance excludes churches
simply because once a very wealthy Presbyterian church was concerned
that landmark status would impinge on its ability to sell its
valuable site for millions of dollars. This is not an inference, but
the justification stated when the presbytery voted against
Churches in Chicago can now join other property owners in
assembling land for speculation, and their property-tax exemption
gives them a competitive advantage not enjoyed by homeowners.
Generally, historic areas see an increase in value after
designation, because buyers know that the area's character -- and
hence its value -- is protected. Developers screamed in Chicago in
1872 when the city banned wooden buildings after the devastating
fire of 1871. But the city was safer, and so were real estate
This is why people in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods
seek landmark designation. They have seen the vagrants and drug
users and prostitutes in the abandoned buildings, and they have seen
those buildings demolished. Half the buildings in their historic
neighborhoods have been lost.
Schoolteacher Floyd Butler has formed Young Urban
Preservationists for at-risk inner-city youth. Children without hope
are shown the value inherent in neighborhoods that only looked
negative before. When they see the potential for value in their
community, they see potential in themselves. Historic preservation
has progressed from a hobby of aesthetes to a model for community
empowerment. It has progressed from a circle of architects and
socialites to a cross-section of democracy ranging from the inner
city to the farm. It will continue to progress, no matter how often
Mr. Bovard writes about public policy issues he does not understand.
Vincent L. Michael
Chicago Programs Director
Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois
In his references to the Third Church of Christ Scientist, in
Washington, D.C., Mr. Bovard suggests that only the most traditional
of buildings can be landmarks. Such is not the case. This
provocative, award-winning complex was designed by I.M. Pei &
Partners, one of the most celebrated U.S. architectural firms of the
post-World War II era. The Commission of Fine Arts noted that it was
the only modern structure included in the commission's series of
books documenting the architecture of Massachusetts Avenue and 16th
Mr. Bovard is also incorrect when he states that a "preliminary
injunction" was imposed against the church to prevent it from making
modifications. D.C. law requires the Historic Preservation Review
Board to act within 90 days upon a landmark application when an
owner files an application for alterations or demolition. No such
application has been filed, and in fact, the owner of the complex
requested a postponement of a hearing while the owner and the
applicants for landmark designation have been working toward an
agreed upon solution for the site.
Mr. Bovard attempts to paint historic preservationists as
power-crazed, irrational zealots. I sit on the board of the D.C.
Preservation League with real estate developers, bankers, corporate
lawyers, architects and accountants. Decisions to file landmark
applications are made after careful deliberations -- usually
following a comprehensive, citywide survey of a particular building
type. Over the years, successful solutions for the redevelopment of
numerous landmark buildings have resulted from negotiations between
the League and building owners. Contrary to Mr. Bovard's statement,
this is the way to preserve history.
James F. Rogers
D.C. Preservation League