Design Notebook: What Price Preservation?
By Patricia Leigh Brown
New Yorkt Times, July 23, 1998

THERE were no suntanned, silver-haired corporate angels on hand on July 14, when Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the Dutch Reformed Church here to talk about historic preservation. Her backdrop was the derelict Greek revival temple by Alexander Jackson Davis, completed in 1835 [1837 - ed], once an uplifting symbol of the city's material progress and now an evocative, camera-ready testament to urban decay.

''What does it mean to save a building?'' Mrs. Clinton mused before a large crowd assembled in the sweltering heat. ''When a town like Newburgh is able to revitalize its history, you become a beacon of economic development and tourism.''

By saving landmarks and living with them daily, ''you begin to tell yourselves and your children the story of Newburgh,'' she observed. ''That makes America more real.''

The day before, the President and the First Lady shared the dais at the National Museum of American History with Ralph Lauren, announcing with much hoopla the designer's $10 million rescue of the flag that inspired ''The Star-Spangled Banner,'' (presumably this flag is off-limits for Mr. Lauren as a style phenomenon).

The dueling images -- Mr. Lauren as patriotic savior and a vacant city church without a patron -- underscored the paradox of Mrs. Clinton's ''Save America's Treasures'' tour: For every million-dollar pledge by a Ralph Lauren or G.E. to rescue a star, there were humbler places like the Dutch Reformed Church or the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, Mass., waiting for deliverance. Who should pay to preserve them?

The First Lady made a pledge herself, donating royalties from a coming book of letters to the First Pets to the National Park Foundation. (The nonprofit foundation announced this week that the Coca-Cola Foundation was donating $1.5 million to pay for hands-on discovery centers at nine national parks.)

In an interview, Mrs. Clinton said that government -- Federal, state and local -- should bear a large part of the financial burden for historical preservation, supplemented by public-private partnerships. ''Government has the primary obligation,'' she said. ''But there are also many people with resources who might not have thought about the contribution they could make.''

Although state and local governments made forays into preservation at least as early as 1816, when Independence Hall in Philadelphia was purchased and restored, ever since the Mount Vernon Ladies Association rescued George Washington's mansion and grounds, preservation in the United States has relied on contributions and philanthropy.

The most notable Federal exception, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, created the National Register of Historic Places, which now has nearly 80,000 entries, and a program of matching grants for their preservation.

But practically from the beginning, preservationists have had to be skillful quilters, piecing together funds from public and private sources. The private role in public monuments was perhaps most strikingly illustrated by Lee Iacocca's successful campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, which raised more than $400 million.

A leader in public preservation has been the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has received money from Congress since 1966, but will lose its financing next year. Three years ago, after Congress threatened to pull the plug, the National Trust negotiated a three-year $7 million phase-out and has since been building a war chest to privatize itself. ''We're comfortable with it,'' its president, Richard Moe, said. ''The funding fight became a preoccupying thing that distracted us from the issues. We want to be more effective and entrepreneurial.''

At the national parks, the repair backlog for historic buildings is more than $1 billion. Three years ago, an experimental program began that returned park entrance fees to the parks; it will generate about $400 million in the next several years, said Edward Norton, vice president for law and public policy for the preservation trust.

The House Appropriations Committee is considering a bill to increase funds for rehabilitating historic buildings in the national parks and to stabilize the deteriorating south side of Ellis Island.

''We're definitely making progress,'' Mr. Norton said.

But in places like Newburgh, when the tour bus pulls out and the bunting is folded, financing will probably depend, as it always has, on the grit of a determined few. ''Preservation is the most underrated catalyst for urban rebirth nationwide,'' said Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of ''Cities Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown'' (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). ''The most desirable neighborhoods from Atlanta to Seattle are historic districts. But preservation hasn't gained the star status that big stadium and casino projects have because it happens in small increments.''

The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, for example, a model of creative financing, has spent three and a half decades cobbling together reinvestment in formerly low-income, redlined historic districts, neighborhoods that Jane Jacobs once compared to ''a working man's Georgetown.''

The Pittsburgh foundation, said its president, Arthur P. Ziegler Jr., has set up a partnership with 11 local banks to provide low-interest loans to community-development corporations for low- and moderate-income housing and small businesses in the historic district. The foundation also provides architectural assistance. It set up a $25 million endowment by developing (and then selling) Station Square, a historic railroad station, now housing a hotel, restaurants and other businesses. The project, developed over 20 years, began with seed money from the Allegheny Foundation, heirs to the Mellon fortune.

On a smaller scale, Newburgh is beginning to use the same financing tools. On Lander Street, a block long plagued by drugs and abandonment and which Mrs. Clinton visited, Arnold Moss, a New York developer, is rebuilding 33 vacated 1850's row houses. Working with the Enterprise Foundation and Rural Opportunities, a nonprofit organization that manages affordable housing, he is knitting together private financing (about 80 percent of the $9.5 million needed), state, city and Federal funds and Federal tax credits for low-income housing and historic buildings.

The row houses are being designed as two-family duplexes, which will rent for $500 to $750 a month. The sight of old buildings beginning to look new gladdens Margie Peacock, who has lived on the block for 15 years. ''It's not a bad place to live,'' she said, sitting on her porch, where a sign that says SANTA IS ALWAYS WELCOME HERE hangs on her doorknob. ''I love to see it kept up.''

THE monumental Dutch Reformed Church, modeled on an Acropolis temple and considered one of the finest Greek revival churches in America, may have a tougher go. Davis, the 19th-century architect, wrote that the design, with its giant Ionic columns and 30-foot-high entrance door, was meant to be ''indicative of the refined taste, discrimination and sense of classical beauty of the inhabitants of Newburgh.'' But the church lost its congregation in 1964 and has been vacant since. ''It is one of the noblest buildings in the city,'' said J. Winthrop Aldrich, New York's Deputy Commissioner for historic preservation. ''But it looks so derelict today, it's hard to imagine what it was or might be.''

The preservation of religious properties is ''one of the most difficult issues we face,'' said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan, which has provided grants and loans to about 500 religious properties statewide. ''Cities seldom know what to do with them or how to raise money for them,'' she added. ''Churches don't just affect the people who go there. They are the truest sense of landmarks: they mark the land, anchor the community.''

Right now, the church, which is owned by the city, is in limbo, Mayor Audrey Carey said. Volunteers from the Newburgh Center for the Arts have replaced the roof and tend the grounds. ''We'd like to see it become an arts center, or something compatible with community use,'' Mayor Carey said.

While this church awaits salvation, Target Stores recently bought a six-page insert in Time magazine, proudly hailing its role in helping restore the Washington Monument. (Target gave $2.5 million.) Some preservationists worry about the possible next step: corporate ads a la the Olympics, and logos flying from national landmarks.

On this potentially slippery slope, ''it's a question of maintaining a balance,'' said Tony Wood, a New York City preservationist and founder of the New York Preservation Archives, a nonprofit group. ''Our goal is to keep what's been here for 100 years standing,'' he said. ''If you have to choose between corporate sponsorship and losing history, you'd be a fool not to take the check.''