Rainmakers

Grants from the Preservation Services Fund have seeded projects for 35 years.

By Salvatore Deluca

Getting the ball rolling is the hardest part of almost any project. This is particularly so with preservation undertakings, many of which die even before they are born, from disorganization, lack of money, or waning interest.

Well aware of this predicament, the Trust in 1969 started the Preservation Services Fund (PSF) to help communities move projects forward early in the game. The fund provides matching grants to organizations or governments to lay plans of attack for raising money, evaluating a historic structure's integrity, garnering publicity, or carrying out a restoration. "It's not the bricks and mortar," says Bruce Yarnall, business manager for the Trust's Center for Preservation Leadership, which oversees the grants in partnership with regional offices. "It's the strategy for completion down the road."

The PSF comprises national funds as well as those targeted to specific geographic or subject areas. Of the 263 requests submitted last year, totaling more than $1.4 million, 145 grants were made for nearly $530,000. (In its first year, PSF gave $4,100.) The awards benefited an eclectic array of organizations and structures?from Russian Orthodox Sacred Sites in Alaska (Anchorage) to the Society for the Preservation of Weeksville & Bedford-Stuyvesant History (Brooklyn) and Project Row Houses (Houston). The Trust can also help out in a crisis with "intervention" funds so that communities can stop the razing of buildings damaged by natural disasters while their soundness is evaluated, pay lobbyists to push preservation legislation, or rescue buildings facing imminent demolition.

Although the grants are modest, ranging between $500 and $5,000, they have proven potent in leveraging money and success. Take, for instance, the $2.4 million interior and exterior restoration of the 1873 Chase County Courthouse, the centerpiece of Cottonwood Falls, Kan. Built of local limestone, it is the state's oldest courthouse still in use and possibly the oldest in continual use west of the Mississippi River. By 1995, it had needed major renovation. With a population of about 3,000 and a small maintenance budget, the county realized it would have to be creative. So it formed the Chase County Courthouse Restoration Committee, which secured a $2,500 PSF grant to hire a consultant to study structural and financial feasibility and outline the restoration of the exterior.

"Not only did the grant get us funds, it gave us access to people who knew the information we needed to move this ahead," says Charles Rayl, the committee's chairman. "It was the catalyst." The committee went on to raise $1.2 million from a variety of state and federal sources, private donors, foundations, and a special sales tax targeted at travelers on the Kansas Turnpike that yielded $500,000.

The county finished the exterior work several years ago. Last year, it received another PSF grant?$3,000, to plan fundraising for the interior?and a $7,500 grant from the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fund for Historic Interiors to map the restoration itself. That work is in progress, but with the courthouse more than half restored, the PSF grants demonstrate that money accumulates exponentially. "It proves that big things can be done with small amounts of money," Yarnall says.