New Deal Site Preservation

Trying to preserve a New Deal site, structure, or work of art?
Here are some practical tips from The Living New Deal

Below are several strategies for preserving New Deal history from threats of demolition, sale, or other types of loss. We have categorized the strategies, but you should read the whole list to see which ones might apply to the particular situation in your community. The first few suggestions are proactive: these are actions you can take to highlight the importance of local New Deal history before threats arise. As you go down the list, the tips become more applicable to urgent preservation problems.

Make New Deal History Visible

Apply For A Historic Marker or Plaque: Try to get your local government, state government or a non-profit organization to place a historic marker at the site. As examples, see the Florida Historical Marker Program and the Norwalk Historical Society House Plaque Program.

Get It Registered: Try to get the historic site listed on a state or local registry of historic properties. As an example, see the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places.

Obtain National Recognition: If this is a major site or building, consider applying to the National Register of Historic Places or as a National Historic Landmark. Instructions can be found at “Where to Start (How to list a property,” and “Learn How to Nominate a Property for NHL Designation.”

Contact Local Experts and Organizations: In almost every case, it helps to have more and better information about the site, building or work of art, such as who designed it, which agency paid for it, and when it was begun and completed. Your state historic preservation office (SHPO) or local historical society ought to be able to provide useful assistance and advice. The National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers has a directory of SHPOs. Additionally, local history or architectural organizations may be willing to help draft applications for markers and applications to historical registries.

Suggest Practical Alternatives, Compromises, and Incentives When a Site is Threatened With Sale or Destruction

Tax Credits: Check to see if the historic site is eligible for any type of historic preservation tax credit; if so, it can be used as an incentive to preserve or rehabilitate the site instead of destroying it. See, for example, the National Park Service article, “Tax Credit Basics.”

Conservation Easements: Suggest to the owner the possibility of a conservation easement. In these types of arrangements the owner retains possession of the property, but gives development or alteration rights to a preservation trust in exchange for tax benefits. See, for example, the National Park Service article, “Easements to Protect Historic Properties: A Useful Historic Preservation Tool with Potential Tax Benefits.”

Adaptive Reuse: Older buildings can often be modernized on the inside to accommodate present-day uses and technology, while having their exteriors preserved. This may be a point of compromise with those advocating for demolition due to ‘obsolescence’. For more information, see “Best Practices in Adaptive Reuse,” by the Kraemer Design Group, and “How to Support Adaptive Reuse of Historic Buildings,” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Environmental Benefits of Preservation: According to a 2011 report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality.” Hence, environmental protection might be a key argument in your overall strategy, and you may want to solicit or demand an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the site from your local or state government. Indeed, EIRs are often required for major projects, especially those involving public spaces.

Cost-Benefit Analysis: Consider commissioning a study to determine if preservation would be less expensive than rebuilding or relocating. According to the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas, “Historic preservation conserves resources, reduces waste, and saves money by repairing and reusing existing buildings instead of tearing them down and building new ones.” For example, several historic buildings at the West Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind were saved, in part, because building a new campus at a different location was deemed more expensive (see “School for deaf and blind to stay put,” WV Metro News, October 10, 2013).

Go on the Offensive

Meet with Your Political Representatives: There are likely to be sympathetic members of city councils, county boards, and state legislatures, not to mention staff members of Congressional representatives and local offices of US senators. Do not hesitate to make appeals to these people and insist on meeting with them; they are normally very open to meeting their constituents. Be sure to have your arguments in order before you go, and take along local experts, if possible.

Gather Local Support: If you find that owners or local government are not responsive, devote time and energy to recruiting public support. Many community members and organizations (e.g., museums, historical societies and preservation groups) have a passion for protecting local history. Consider a petition, letter-writing campaign, newspaper ads, community rally, etc.  See how a grassroots effort recently saved a historic house: “South Windsor Main Street Residents Save Olcott House From Demolition,” Hartford Courant (CT), May 19, 2016.

Create a Campaign: In some cases, a small group of people, or even just one person, can accomplish a surprising amount. However, depending on your time and resources, and the importance of the site, consider creating (or joining) a wide-ranging campaign to preserve your New Deal history. This might include the creation of a website and working with preservation advocates outside your area. For examples, consider campaigns that have been created to save Post Office history(both structures and art): Save the Berkeley Post Office, The National Post Office Collaborate, and Save the Post Office.

Legal Remedies: Search for state laws or local ordinances (including conservation easements, see above) which might protect the property. See “Local Preservation Laws,” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Consult with local and state preservation organizations for advice. Some law firms will work pro bono or for reduced rates on such public-spirited cases – but beware of running up legal fees!

If New Deal Artwork Is Threatened, Contact the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA): Threatened New Deal artwork may be the property of the federal government. Many such artworks were lost or inappropriately sold off in the past. If the art is indeed government property, it is not legal to sell or destroy the piece, and the GSA can demand its return to public hands. For more information, see, “New Deal Artwork: Ownership and Responsibility,” U.S. General Services Administration.

Buy It: Perhaps your organization or community has the resources to buy the New Deal site or structure in order to save it. See how a non-profit organization and a church worked together to save a historic house from demolition by purchasing it: “Cross-town: Greeley church buys historic home, prevents destruction,” Greeley Tribune (CO), November 29, 2015. Also, see the interesting case of a WPA-built governor’s mansion that has been bought, relocated, and then purchased again through auction: “Old governor’s mansion sells at auction,” Rapid City Journal (SD), August 23, 2013.

By applying one or more of these strategies, you will become a proud defender of the public domain and the historic legacy of your community!