Trust Me: Inside the National Trust

By Arnold Berke

Berke at Work

Credit: Art by Richard Thompson

With the nation buzzing about the new 11-Most list, here are happy tidings on two alums. In April, the St. Lawrence Cement Co. scrapped plans to build a plant towering over historic sites and landscapes in New York's Hudson River Valley. The Trust declared the valley endangered in 2000 and worked with a coalition of local and state groups against the factory, one of many kinds of growth menacing the scenic area. (See "Seeing the Big Picture" in the March/April 2004 Preservation.) In St. Augustine, Fla., rehab has begun of the decaying 1927 Bridge of Lions, listed in 1997 after the state transportation department called for a wider, "safer" replacement. Opposition to that idea from the Trust and local stalwarts Save Our Bridge, Inc., led to the plan's being dropped in 2003. Even better, the bridge won't be reduced to pedestrian-only use, superseded by a new structure, but will continue to carry traffic. And the two marble lions that guarded the span's west entrance will be fixed up and returned to their posts.

... Recent research is piecing together a fascinating history for a dwelling on the grounds of Nantucket's African Meeting House. (See "Letter from Nantucket" in the May/June 2003 Preservation.) The Florence Higginbotham House, dating to the 1770s, was built on land bought by Seneca Boston, a weaver and ex-slave who married Thankful Micah, a Wampanoag Indian. For the next two centuries (except for less than one year) the property remained in the hands of African Americans, including Seneca's son Absalom, a famous whaling captain. Higginbotham, a formally trained cook, purchased the property in 1920 and lived there until 1971. She also bought the meetinghouse in 1933. Symbolic of the long and stable presence of blacks on the island, the saga "is full of deep roots and extraordinary accomplishment," says Beverly Morgan-Welch, who directs the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston. The findings come from a study of the house by architect John G. Waite and from research by historian Frances Karttunen. Waite is preparing a restoration plan for the meetinghouse property, a Trust historic site.

... What to do with shuttered religious buildings remains a problem nationwide. If your community faces this quandary, you should read the case studies on reusing these buildings, posted on the Trust's Web site. A project of the Northeast Office and Partners for Sacred Places, the studies show how houses of worship and related properties can live on usefully as schools, housing, cultural centers, and other neighborhood fortifiers—proving there are many choices instead of decay and destruction. Each study explains the process through which a new use was realized and gives project details and local contact information. Go to houses_of_worship/index.html.

... Houses and gardens, wine and food. These heaven-blessed pairings are the lure for a new set of journeys that the Trust's study tours program is planning with corporate partner HGTV. Debuting next spring, Home and Garden Tours will take small groups (25 people, tops) to assorted sections of the country for behind-the-scenes tours of historic sites and private houses and gardens, plus talks on and tastings of regional cuisine. Three destinations open the series: Charleston, S.C., and countryside; coastal California from San Francisco to San Simeon; and New York City. Each four-day trip includes Historic Hotels of America lodging.

... Lincoln's summer sanctuary is getting more press these days, including a book just out on the president's life at his Washington, D.C., retreat, now a National Trust historic site known as Lincoln Cottage. With anecdotes that bring in a full cast of characters, both well-known and not, Lincoln's Other White House: The Untold Story of the Man and His Presidency, by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein (John Wiley & Sons), chronicles the 13 months he spent at the house on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home. In Brownstein's words: "[I]t is the only site in the country that encapsules Lincoln's life experience as father, husband, commander in chief, [and] greatest, and most beloved, president."