Thursday, May 19, 2011

Knock It Down Quick or Let It Rot: The Choice is Yours

Continuing with my book-in-progress on “How to Destroy Historic Landmarks” –

Here are a couple of tips that apply mostly to the demolition of old buildings and structures, particularly those owned or controlled by federal agencies in the United States.

Knock it Down Quick

In the United States, most places regarded as “historic” have been around for at least fifty years, and other countries tend to demand even greater antiquity. The U.S. rule is that a place can’t be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places if it has “achieved significance” only within the last fifty years – unless it is of “exceptional” significance.

This rule presents you with an obvious opportunity if you have a building you want to get rid of that is, say, forty-five years old. If you plan to knock it down before it turns fifty, you’re relatively unlikely to run into problems with laws like the National Historic Preservation Act.

I say “relatively unlikely” because there is that pesky language in the National Register regulations (36 CFR 60) about “exceptional significance.” The language is there to handle things like the 9/11/01 crash site of United Airlines Flight 93, which went into the history books the moment it hit the ground (or before), and to keep the Register open to truly astounding pieces of modern (or postmodern) architecture. But the language is open to a lot of interpretation, and if someone really doesn’t like your project they may find ways to argue – and convince authorities like the Keeper of the Register – that your 40-year-old dairy barn really IS exceptionally significant in the history of milking-machine development.

If your 40- or 45-year-old building doesn’t seem to have anything super-special about it, though, and if opposition to your project hasn’t yet risen to a fever pitch, you’re probably well advised to knock the building down as fast as you can.

Let it Rot

There’s also a strategy that often works quite well at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak. If you’re confronted with a building that’s pretty old – not so ancient that its antiquity alone makes people treasure it, but pretty venerable – and you can neglect it long enough, and badly enough, it can “lose integrity,” in National Register-speak, and no longer be eligible for the Register. Or even if it doesn’t technically lose integrity, it may just become so obviously beyond repair that no one will object too loudly to your proposal to take it down.

Note, though, that if you’re a federal agency official, you’re not supposed to let old buildings you control go to hell. This practice – politely called “demolition by neglect” by preservation people – is pretty clearly forbidden by Section 110(a)(1) of NHPA, which says:

The heads of all Federal agencies shall assume responsibility for the preservation of historic properties which are owned or controlled by such agency. … Each agency shall undertake, consistent with the preservation of such properties and the mission of the agency and the professional standards established pursuant to section 10 1(g) of this Act, any preservation, as may be necessary to carry out this section.

In other words, you’re supposed to – hell, you’re required by law to – take care of your historic properties, including old buildings that may be eligible for the Register. But there are ways to get around this troublesome legality.

Neglecting the building may not have started on your watch; it may have been going on for years, or decades. So who’s to blame? Gee, it’s too bad, but now the roof’s caved in, or the pilings have rotted, and it just wouldn’t be cost-effective to try to fix it up. The preservation authorities may scold you, bemoan the situation, or even insist that you give lip service to considering alternatives or doing better next time, but in the end they’ll probably sigh and sign off on your demolition.

Or maybe you didn’t know the building was historic. Nobody had come along and put a brass plaque on it. It’s not on the National Register (or if it is, nobody told you it was). You thought it was just a rotten old building. In this case you’ll probably get beaten up a bit for failing to consider the building’s possible historicity or architectural merit, and you may have to agree to something like an installation-wide survey to establish what else under your control is eligible for the Register. But again, you’ll probably get agreement in the end; there’s a strong bias among SHPOs and at the ACHP toward reaching agreement, so ignorance of the law is pretty regularly taken as an excuse for non-compliance.

Or maybe retaining the building is inconsistent with your agency’s mission. You have to defend the country, or take care of the sick, or clean up the environment; you can’t be troubled to take care of an old building you don’t need, and whose maintenance is costing you money. This one’s actually pretty weak, because even if it’s true, it’s sort of irrelevant. If you really can’t perform your mission with that stupid old building standing around, then NHPA Section 106 gives you a way to deal with it – you propose to demolish it, and consult with the SHPO and other interested parties about whether and how to do it. And in the end, you get to make the call. There's also a provision at NHPA Section 111 directing that you make unused historic properties available for use by others. But historic preservation people, for all their pomposity and pretensions, tend to cave when confronted with agency missions that have a lot of public (or modestly high-level political) support. Or if they don’t exactly cave, they fall into chest-thumping about historical and architectural significance and how it transcends all other considerations, or into pettifogging proceduralism, which makes them look like irresponsible fools and when all is said and done helps you get your way.

So if you’re a federal official, and you’re responsible for an old building that you can’t use and don’t want to keep, it may be an effective strategy to avert your eyes, defer maintenance, and let the thing deteriorate for a few years before proposing to knock it down. You may even hasten its deterioration by making sure it’s open to infestation by animals, that it’s deprived of climate controls, exposed to the elements, left unprotected from flooding or rising damp, and simply that nothing is done to maintain it. You probably ought not to document decisions about such actions and inactions; such documents could be embarrassing if they come to light when you propose to demolish the sad old eyesore.


Richard W Galloway said...

Tom, you forgot to mention the act of "requesting" funds to maintain the building, but those had to be cut from the budget due to a lack of funds... shows you 'tried' to save it, but there was simply no $ available to do so...

Thomas F King said...

Good point, Richard. I'll work that in to the next version. Thanks.