Embracing the Endangered: Making the Most of Statewide Endangered Places Lists

  

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Located in communities across the country, endangered historic places are a source of both inspiration and woe to preservationists. Faced with deteriorating schoolhouses in rural Colorado or the disposition of an archdiocese-worth of historic religious complexes in Massachusetts, efforts to build support for these sites can be as daunting as their much-needed restoration work. Today, 16 statewide preservation organizations use endangered historic places lists to draw attention to threatened buildings, landscapes, regions, and structures and to help find ways to save them.

The National Trust launched its first list of America’s11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 1988, and since then, dozens of state and local organizations have followed the Trust’s lead and developed and publicized their own lists of threatened historic places. An endangered list can provide an effective way for a statewide organization to harness its stature and credibility to focus on a series of sites, often in creative ways. Because they are broader in scope than a local list, a statewide list can be used to highlight a widespread preservation concern in the state. Historic small town theaters, for example, were included on Preservation Texas’s 2007 list.

Statewide endangered list programs share many similarities. Each organization goes through a solicitation and nomination process, review of the threatened resources, a final selection of sites, and designation announcement. Yet during the decade or so that most programs have been in existence, they have evolved to meet new challenges and have grown in scope to become a constructive education and advocacy tool.

Define “Save”
The phrase “saving threatened places” can have a broad meaning in endangered sites programs. At the state level, playing a role in saving the resource becomes less about hammers and nails, And more about advocacy, education, and inspiration.

Most organizations realize that simply listing a site is not enough; they need to be prepared to follow up with help. At Colorado Preservation, Inc., a full-time staff person provides technical assistance for threatened sites. Other organizations encourage the local community to become an active participant in saving the site.

The Preservation Massachusetts program uses its list to promote overlooked resources to a wider audience and works to inspire a community to take ownership of a resource’s future. For example, the William Russell Allen House in Pittsfield, Mass., was placed on the organization’s 2006 endangered sites list. Since then, the community has become newly aware of this historic gem, rallied supporters, and formed a nonprofit group that is putting a restoration and reuse plan in place.

In Mississippi, being listed among the state’s most endangered places will raise a resource’s standing in review of applications for state preservation grants.

Too Many Places in Need
Far more endangered places will be newly added to such lists than will be removed as “saved.” And so, organizations find themselves struggling with an ever-growing list of critical resources and often not enough time, staff, or funds to fully dedicate themselves to helping each one.

The Massachusetts 10 Most Endangered Historic Resources program was established in 1993 to “save” such places in the state. For many years the list was developed, announced, and the process repeated the following year. The inevitable turnover of staff and leadership resulted in a cabinet full of files on the more than 130 designated sites which the organization was bound to assist. After conducting a review of the program, Preservation Massachusetts has taken steps to amend this model to keep the program effective and viable.

Colorado Preservation, Inc., does not list a set number of new resources each year; rather it adds new resources to the existing list annually. This year five new sites were added to a list of 60 sites.

Mississippi Heritage Trust produces an endangered properties list every other year in the hopes of allowing more time to focus on a particular set of resources before new ones are added. Other states intersperse retrospectives and updates into their lists instead of just adding new sites.

The Endangered Stigma
To preservationists, having a local resource listed among a state’s endangered sites may be viewed as a victory, a step in the right direction. Some property owners, however, see listing as a roadblock, a smear campaign, or an intrusion into their affairs. No endangered list is without its share of controversy. Most organizations tread carefully and try to avoid annoying property owners to the point that they simply demolish the building.

Sometimes listings can inflame as well as inspire. In 2006 Massachusetts listed the entire state park system, to call attention to the need for more funding for a massive maintenance backlog for many historic sites. It was seen by some as a risky designation that would insult the entity that oversees the state parks. And in fact, in a published letter to the editor, the outgoing commissioner of the Massachusetts State Parks criticized the listing for seeming to blame his agency rather than those that fund it. Yet aside from this and some informal negative comments, there seemed to be a sense of relief that the serious budget issues for the state parks were finally being put center stage.

As part of the program’s educational outreach, owners of the dilapidated historic house or soon-to-be-subdivided open landscape should be made aware of the importance of their property. Mark Rodman, executive director of Colorado Preservation, Inc., notes, “Our program is meant as a constructive education tool. It is not meant to shame anyone. Rather we want to work with owners to find a solution.” Offering to work with the owners, as well as the nominators, shows that preservation is a collaboration of many parts and demonstrates the constructive educational value of these programs.

Looking Back
A periodic review is an extremely useful way of gauging the effectiveness of a program. Undoubtedly an organization will be asked how many properties it has saved, how many are lost or still hang in preservation limbo. Massachusetts conducted an assessment of its program in an effort to grapple with maintaining a large list of endangered properties. The results were a much-needed reality check that prompted changes and a new understanding of the true scope of the program.

The resource nominators are now kept involved after the initial listing. They are expected to provide status reports and updates on the endangered properties, to work with Preservation Massachusetts to formulate feasible preservation initiatives, and to solicit other support when needed. Preservation Massachusetts, for its part, has reconsidered its role. Realizing that simply listing a resource as endangered is not enough to effect a preservation success, the organization now better understands and appreciates its capabilities as a vehicle for promotion, support, and “behind the scenes” work toward saving these threatened places.

Enhancing the Impact
Organizations have come up with creative ways to build on the endangered property lists to further promote themselves and their preservation goals. Devoting an entire event specifically to the endangered sites list is one effective way to focus attention on them and to celebrate the possibilities. Mississippi Heritage Trust hosts a fundraiser in a historic building, centering the evening on the announcement of its biennial list. The organization sets a theme for the evening, sells tickets, prints booklets on the importance of the listed sites, and garners as much media attention as possible, with the help of the occasional celebrity. Academy Award–winning actor Morgan Freeman served as an honorary co-chair for Mississippi’s 2005 unveiling event, which was held in a newly restored train station.

Colorado Preservation, Inc., announces its endangered sites list during its annual conference, with the added benefit of having state legislators in attendance. Here the educational component extends not only to the preservation community but also to elected officials who are critical allies in the quest for a broader appreciation and understanding of preservation.

While these media gatherings and fundraisers have an immediate impact, organizations have also found creative ways to keep attention focused on the threatened properties.

Colorado Preservation, Inc., prints note cards with artists’ sketches of the listed properties which are sold locally, providing a benefit to both preservation and the local business economy. The organization also works with the local CBS affiliate to produce and air a 30-minute prime-time special on its listed resources.

Mississippi Heritage Trust commissions an array of local artists to paint its listed sites. The original artworks are then raffled off at its endangered list event, with half the proceeds going to the organization.

In 2006 Preservation Massachusetts, which makes its list announcement the focus of a fundraising event, produced a DVD that features images of the resources and commentary from the nominators and preservationists. The DVD was shown at the event and then sent to all listed sites, giving them the opportunity to have the program aired on the cable channels of their local communities. The results have been positive. A historic farm in Winchester, Mass., utilized its segment of the DVD in a larger documentary on the site produced for the town, which just approved the purchase of the farm and open acreage.

To promote the properties on its list, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota developed a photographic exhibit featuring the 10Most Endangered Historic Places, which was displayed at museums, libraries, and other public spaces throughout the state during 2006.

Weighing the Pros and Cons
Like every advocacy program, statewide endangered places lists have their pros and cons. Some organizations do not produce a list because they feel their efforts may be best focused and used in other areas.

Yet in spite of the programmatic foibles, the endangered sites list offers an organization a creative and engaging platform on which to promote and advance its mission. Many statewide organizations find that their endangered places programs are among their best and most popular activities, due in no small part to the emotional impact they have.

And while it may not be a program for everyone, it is a useful tool that allows a statewide organization to have a direct impact on particular communities and to reach its grassroots constituents. The program lets the organization expand its horizons by promoting its mission, educating its constituents, and helping to “save” the inevitable endangered places.