Trust Me: Inside the National Trust

By Arnold Berke

Trust Me: Inside the National Trust

Credit: Art by Richard Thompson

There's more to downtown Detroit than loss. In fact, many buildings and theaters have been restored there. These gems are part of a splendid but unsung architectural legacy getting its due in a new book, American City: Detroit Architecture, 1845-2005 (Wayne State University Press). The album of photos by William Zbaren with text by Robert Sharoff highlights commercial and civic building, much of it from the early decades of the 20th century, when the Midwest thrived as the Sunbelt of its day. Just two prizes from that era: the Penobscot Building (1928), a mountainous art deco skyscraper, and the massive, ghostly, and vacant Michigan Central Railroad Station (1913)—in the words of Sharoff, "Detroit's most magnificent ruin." Yes, many of these landmarks are still underused or endangered. But a better future is stirring. The Trust's Midwest office and local activists have started a group called the Greater Detroit Historic Preservation Coalition, which hopes to encourage city government and private interests to embrace preservation in Motor City revitalization plans.

... Preservation pioneer Walter Mathis died in San Antonio in December. Mathis, 86, was well known for his decades of devotion to the cause—buying and restoring a Victorian mansion in the 1960s, then doing the same for 14 other houses in the 25-block neighborhood that ultimately became the King William Historic District. He filled the first house, an 1870s limestone Italianate that he dubbed Villa Finale, with vast collections of historical and decorative items. In 2003, the Trust honored him with its Crowninshield Award, the preservation movement's highest tribute. Mathis bequeathed Villa Finale to the Trust, which will open the house to the public as one of its historic sites, focusing interpretation on his life as a preservationist and collector.

... You might assume that most American presidential sites are in fine financial shape. But you'd be wrong. According to Trust public policy vice president Emily Wadhams, two-thirds of the 130-plus such birthplaces, homes, museums, memorials, and tombs—those owned by state and local governments and private groups—are fiscally stressed. To better their lot, she testified to a Senate committee in November in support of the Presidential Sites Improvement Act, which would grant $5 million annually to these nonfederal venues, favoring the neediest among them. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) is sponsoring the Senate bill, a companion to which was introduced in the House by Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio).

... Thanks to $1 million from Lowe's, Northeast region restoration projects will get a boost. Selected by the Trust and the home improvement giant, bricks-and-mortar grants from $25,000 to $100,000 are going out to 10 landmarks open to the public. These include a bedchamber at Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House in Concord, Mass.; the garden and gatehouse at Camden Harbor Park and Amphitheatre in Camden, Maine; the Pearl S. Buck House in Perkasie, Pa.; and the Robert Sherman Windmill in Newport, R.I. (It's a "smock mill," I'm told, an eight-sided structure that tapers as it goes up.) The money comes from Lowe's new Charitable and Educational Foundation Preservation Fund.

... In case you hadn't noticed, Preservation Month will be soon at hand. The all-May merriment will embrace activities and events on both local and national stages. Hometown revels include tours, open houses, work projects, parades, awards ceremonies, anti-razing rallies, and a host of other happenings. For guidance, go to the Trust's Web site at (hit the link under "get involved"). While you're there, inspect the Trust's own roster of events, especially those at its 24 historic sites open to the public. If you haven't looked into attending—or better yet, helping organize—the Preservation Month celebration in your town, now's the time to do so.