Why historic preservation? (Updated)

Nearly thirty years of archaeology and historic preservation fieldwork have given me a memorable collection of quotations that I’ve scribbled in various notebooks. One that has stuck with me was posted above the bar in the Port Matilda Hotel in rural Centre County, Pennsylvania: “Language: use it right or you’ll be asked to leave.”

Another one is, “It’s old but it will never go historical.” That was how the fourth-generation owner of a 19th-century St. Mary’s County, Maryland, tobacco farm described her property as I surveyed it in the summer of 2004. I frequently draw on this quotation when I try to explain to people why seemingly ordinary — vernacular — buildings and landscapes are historically significant. Sometimes I’m successful, many times I’m not.

My new neighborhood: an anti-historic district sign from 2007. Photo by author, August 2011.

Throughout my career I have had to grapple with evaluating the historical significance of a range of things from prehistoric camp sites to Colonial farmhouses to Cold War microwave relay systems and entire towns and regions. One of the most difficult tasks in historic preservation is defensibly distinguishing between something that is significant and something that is not.

Historic preservation professionals and regulatory authorities often find it difficult to explain to preservation advocates and the public why seemingly stunning buildings do not meet legally established criteria for designating something “historic.” More often, historic preservation debates revolve around the opposite, when preservationists want to designate ordinary, or in some cases “ugly,” buildings as historic.

Last year we moved into a neighborhood that in 2007 went through a year-long conflict over whether it should be designated a local historic district. There’s nothing particularly stunning about the architecture in our new neighborhood. It’s an ordinary, vernacular former streetcar suburb with a diverse array of period revival homes, Craftsman-influenced bungalows, ranch homes, and plain small houses. Local builders and others with a financial stake in the booming real estate market — yes, this is metropolitan Atlanta and it is thriving — mounted a vigorous campaign against designation and the effort failed.

We knew little about this prior to buying our 1925 bungalow. All we knew was that the neighborhood had architectural diversity trending towards the older, historically authentic buildings and landscapes we value, and its residents appeared to be a mix of folks like us — well-educated, middle class, young and middle-aged homeowners — as well as senior citizens and African Americans who had lived in the neighborhood since its desegregation in the 1960s. We value diversity and wanted to live in a neighborhood that had a rich ethnic, economic, and age mix.

Prior to settling on the house we ultimately bought, we made an offer on another, similar house, a few blocks away inside a locally designated historic district. We withdrew that offer because of concerns we had over storm water coming from the neighboring house that had been allowed to get a certificate of appropriateness for a second story addition. Both houses shared a surfaced driveway and the house with the new addition didn’t have gutters and downspouts. When it rained, water flowed from the roof into the driveway and across the property line towards the house we wanted to buy. An engineer we hired to inspect the property found serious water-related structural issues with the house so we backed out and kept on looking.

My wife and I found the house we bought just a few weeks later. It is located on a quiet street with other contemporaneous homes: one-story bungaloids and vernacular small houses. There was one new two-story “historically inspired” home built on a teardown site across the street and we were told that it had been built before the city enacted new infill standards.

Two doors down, on the day we tendered our offer, there was a vacant lot where just two years earlier there had been a house built at the same time our new home and its neighbors had been built. By the time we moved in, two months later, a two-story “historically inspired” home had been completed in the vacant lot and the view from our kitchen window was dramatically different from the view we had when we decided to buy the house.

The view from our kitchen window. December, 2011.

Since moving into our house the first week in September, there have been at least half a dozen teardowns within a quarter-mile. At least three more are planned, according to builders’ signs and property owners I’ve spoken with. Two of the slated teardowns are former HUD urban homesteading sites, properties that are part of an out-of-pocket research project I’m doing that looks at housing in South Decatur and how the 1970s Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program contributed to the revitalization of the neighborhood into which we moved.

Perhaps I’m hyper-sensitive to the markers of a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying in ways that I find troubling. Or, it may be that I am disappointed that the very characteristics that inspired us to invest in the neighborhood are rapidly disappearing. Because of the 2007 effort to designate the neighborhood historic, there are raw feelings and much animosity towards historic preservation.

We live in a neighborhood with a compelling history and an interesting built environment. The drive to explore that history and landscape is just part of my DNA. Questioning the existing historical narrative is just part of who I am. I’ve devoted an entire career to doing historical research for clients and to evaluating the historical significance of old places. Asking me to don blinders and mute my opinions, as some of my new neighbors have suggested I do, when I cross into to my own neighborhood is sad. One person suggested on a local blog that I’m not the type of neighbor they want. Another accused me of suffering from “wealth envy” because I’m critical of the new buildings in the neighborhood.

So how do these events bring me back to the two quotations that have stuck with me throughout my historic preservation career? I feel like I’m in the Port Matilda Hotel bar using language that the locals don’t like and I’m being asked to leave. And, regrettably, my home and new neighborhood are old, but they’ll never go historical.

Informal and partial neighborhood survey of teardown sites, many with McMansions built on them. The teardown trend in Oakhurst began in the late 1990s and has accelerated since 2007 when local efforts to create a historic district were defeated. Not mapped are infill construction and properties with significant alterations and additions.

Update (March 11-12, 2012):

I had been warned that trying to talk historic preservation in Oakhurst would paint a target on my back. They were right.

An Oakhurst resident who tweets anonymously under the handle “OakhurstGossip” sent these tweets.

The person tweeting as @OakhurstGossip appears to have taken the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association‘s logo without permission. According to group’s spokesperson, “This is not an ONA sanctioned site and I will be contacting them immediately asking them to remove our copyrighted image.” When asked if the neighborhood association knew @OakhurstGossip‘s identity, the spokesperson replied, “A copyright infringement complaint about this account has been submitted.  Thank you David for bringing this infringement to our attention.”

@OakhurstGossip’s Twitter profile. Screen capture, March 11, 2012.

And over on Nick Cavaliere’s Decatur Metro blog, folks left comments like these posted below. Cavaliere’s site is a popular hangout for people to post anything they wish without taking ownership for their comments. Cavaliere himself, a CNN employee and Georgia State University Masters in Historic Preservation degree holder, even posts anonymously by signing all of his posts “Decatur Metro”; he uses the email address decaturite@gmail.com and his name appears nowhere in the blog.

Comment left by an anonymous reader using the alias “Chewey” and my reply.

Comment left by anonymous poster using the screen name “Smalltown Girl.”

Comment left by anonymous writer using the alias “DawgFan.”

Comment left by an anonymous writer using the alias “Warren Buffett.”

Comment left by Angela T., an Oakhurst resident who uses the screen name “NellieBelle1197.”

Another “Smalltown Girl” post.

Comment left by Jeff L., a local Decatur attorney using the screen name “J_T”.

And, shortly after this post was updated, this appeared in Decatur Metro:

Anonymous writers “Marty” and “W Poncer” comment on this blog’s update on Decatur Metro.

“Marty,” I’m not sure what planet you live on but none of these people are “allies.” At least I showed Angie (Nelliebelle1197) & Jeff (J_T) the decency to omit their last names. By the way, you wouldn’t want to identify yourself, would you?

By 9:00 PM, the new comment thread included these posts, including one by Deanne T., a Decatur Heights community activist:


I had an email exchange with Cavaliere in 2011 about anonymity on his site. Here’s what he wrote in response to my question about a freelance writer’s calls for him to identify himself:

A lot of people know who I am already. Including her. She just wants me to put my name on the by-line. Which I won’t. Anonymity allows for all sorts of interesting discussions that wouldn’t happen otherwise.

Late in the evening of March 11, 2012, Cavaliere sent me this email:

David, what have you done? If you had an issue with some of the comments made towards you, I wish you had contacted me directly and at least I would be aware and we could have discussed it.

As it is, I’m dealing with a very difficult illness/death in the family and I have only had a very limited amount of time to dedicate to DM the last few days – let alone moderate a million comments. If there’s something really egregious that was said please point it out to me. From the back-and-forth I saw, I thought you were giving as good as you were getting.

I don’t understand why it needed to be escalated to this level. You’ve made a terrible weekend even harder for my family.


I replied,

I’m sorry for your loss. What your anonymous posters did was go way beyond the bounds of good taste and conduct. We are working with a realtor to sell our Oakhurst house and move elsewhere. This was not what we thought we were buying into. What your commenters did is appalling – they attacked the messenger, viciously, and didn’t stick to the merits or lack thereof of the issues.

You wrote on the site that the comments were to have ended yesterday; instead they escalated. If you want to run a site like that and foster the anonymity, then you need to ensure that you babysit your brood. What got posted at your site is but a fraction of the overall damage. Perhaps you would also like to see the hate emails, etc., I received that were not posted.

By 10:00 PM many of the ad hominem posts had been removed from Cavaliere’s site. My final letter to Cavaliere is reprinted in this follow-up post.

Update: Cavaliere restored all of the anonymous comments on his blog:

I don’t understand why I can raise the issue of teardowns and mansionization in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and have a civil debate on the pros and cons while in Decatur, Georgia, the folks who disagree with any perspective other than their own go straight for the jugular. So much for the myth of Southern civility.


Another Oakhurst home still displays an anti-historic preservation sign from 2007. Photo by author, March 2012.

Update: In April 2012, several anonymous Twitter handles appeared, created by Decatur residents. They used clever names like @DavesSphincter, @DecaturHulk, and @OakhurstVillain. The latter locked his account down but his tweets are preserved in Topsy.

© 2012 D.S Rotenstein

9 thoughts on “Why historic preservation? (Updated)

  1. I love my historic home in Decatur. I am also dismayed by neighbors’ seeming indifference to the rate at which neighborhoods are being torn to pieces so more and more children can be stuffed into the only good school system around. But folks around here choose to turn a blind eye to the reality of the situation. Instead, they call names, questions agendas and say, I’ve been here 2, 5, or 10 years longer than you, so you are an outsider. Although, which ordinance is it that gives a citizen a right to vote or to voice an opinion proportional to the number of years they’ve lived in a municipality? Other people just quake in their boots and hope they bought into the middle of the ponzi scheme. David, I think you are right – the Emperor is not wearing anything.

  2. Excellent commentary on a thorny issue! (loved your quotes too!) I am not sure how preservation can survive when it is in conflict with economic trends. Unless there is a perceived value (heritage tourism, property value protection, etc) in having a historic district, it seems we are doomed to ride the currents of the real estate market. If residents think that they could benefit financially from the chance of a tear down — more money for their properties on the market, greater perceived value for all homes in the area due to new expensive home construction, etc.,, it will be difficult to impossible to sell the idea of historic district control. Also, this type of historic resource tends to be under valued–early to mid 20th century houses seem a dime a dozen to many people. Many depressed, population draining communities would give anything to have the tear down problem – sure beats the fall down trend they are currently riding! Thanks for some interesting thoughts to ponder.

  3. David,

    I can’t say as I’ve ever considered myself to be an activist, but I do actively seek to build connections between all of the neighbors in Decatur Heights. Like you, I’ve mistepped a time or two while trying to do good things to benefit my neighborhood. I’ve had to learn that when it happens, I need to take a long pause, regroup, then go at it again in a different way.

    It’s understandable that your feelings have been badly bruised, but until you look within and admit (at least to yourself) your role in the situations you’ve gotten yourself caught up in since moving here, it’s going to continue to happen wherever you go. For what it’s worth, there’s many of us who think you have real talent and much to offer our community if you can somehow find your way to not lashing out against those who see things differently than you do.You owe a few folks an apology for things you’ve done, but in your heart you know that. You’d be pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the very folks you’ve mistakenly perceived as noncaring have contributed greatly to Oakhurst. They’d be good allies in doing good works should you decide to stay.

    As far as Southern civility goes, we’re as gracious and warm as can be… until you cross us. Above all else, we’re fiercely protective of those who’ve earned our respect and love. We also tend to be pretty forgiving when folks who’ve messed up seek to make amends.

    David, I hope that whatever direction your life takes will be one that brings you peace.

    Deanne Thomas

  4. Decatur just seems to be only Mayberry – no Berkeley at all. Rereading the re posted FFAF from 3-9-12 on Decatur Metro makes me ill. I had checked it earlier in the day, but not over the weekend. While Deanne and Nelliebelle1197 call David out for rejoining the precious message board, they fail to note that “Chewey” drew him back into the discussion by posting a link to his blog. Unable to resist the pointed and personal attack, he jumps back in. Which gives that online “community” one more chance to bait him, rake him over the coals and scapegoat him. David has shown plenty of interest in getting to know people IRL – but when you’re anonymous – we’ll how’s that supposed to work. The DM secret handshake?
    I was here in 2007, I have talked to David as have many others. So he knows the truth many of us learned. A lot of lying was done by people with a vested interested in development; lying designed to pit neighbor against neighbor. People in Oakhurst were USED (although some of you were on board with that.) And how does one get to the truth? Research. Which he has a knack for.
    And those of us who were here, defending the historic houses got bullied. It seems like the same forces are at work and the group mentality which allows repeated attacks on one person is fomented in a small minded town which refuses to discuss the real issues and what this is costing Decatur.

  5. David, thanks so much for posting the picture of my house on your website. I’m sorry that you feel we have spoiled the view from your kitchen window. I have no desire to inflame this discussion further as you are surely entitled to your opinion as are others who live in the neighborhood. I only want to point out, for you and others that are reading, that the former house on our lot that was torn down in order to construct our new “historically inspired” house was beyond saving. The foundation had been compromised by a leak in the sewer line into the crawl space that went unnoticed by the homeowners for decades, finally resulting in a sinkhole in the front yard and a vacant house that was literally collapsing in on itself and becoming a magnet for petty crime on our block. I know all of this because, as you know, we lived next door for several years before moving to the new house shortly after you moved into yours. I have no objection to your expression of your opinions about teardowns and infill construction. This is an issue that clearly resonates in Oakhurst. However, the issue is not always as black and white as those on both sides of the argument have a tendency to paint it. I am sorry that you have decided to move out of Oakhurst and we wish you and your wife well.

  6. In my comment I was actually referring to the folks you’ve stepped on here on your own blog. (I didn’t attempt to clear it up in our private emails because I didn’t want to prolong the exchange. That you’ve opted to re-post these emails weeks later is the only reason I’m revisiting it.)

    Your harsh criticisms of Decatur’s Historic Preservation Commission and Regina Brewer, architect Eric Rawlings, and the Oakhurst residents whose “offending” homes you’ve posted photos of and written about send a clear signal you’re not so much interested in being a participant in a meaningful dialogue on Oakhurst’s evolution as you are in being judge & jury of its people and buildings. Your talents as a historian are sadly canceled out by the negative manner in which you go about things. Truly, it’s the people who make up a community that matter most, and until you come to understand that, you’re going to be forever shaking your head and wondering why no one “gets” you.

    • David- Since you’ve emailed to share your low opinion of me and to say that you alone “control the narrative” on your blog, further exchanges are pointless. You’ll either decide it’s worth it to you to figure out why folks react negatively to your writings or you won’t. I’m good with letting your readers assess things for themselves.

  7. We’re going through something similar out here in Fort Collins – and we’re not even trying to get historic designation! We’re just trying to keep houses a little smaller. (The old rule was that they could be 50% or 40% of the lot space – depending on the zone you were in. That’s been reduced, but only on the larger lot sizes. And we had to fight to get that. There’s one house that is 7 1/2 times larger than the 100 year old house next to it. It’s really grotesque. It’s the poster child in our minds of all that can go wrong when you let the builders do whatever they want.

    The charge that we’re communists, big-government lovers, and poor scum are the usual complaints we’re hearing. 😛 Honestly, people. If you don’t want to live in an old house, then why live in Old Town? There’s plenty of other places to build a 5000 square foot house.

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