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Eli Lehrer Headshot

Dear Historic Preservationists: Please Leave Us Alone

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As it has every summer since 1988, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private group with an official-sounding name, has released a list of America's most endangered historic sites.

While nobody disputes that certain areas do deserve preservation or the Trust has done good work in protecting them them, many places on the 2012 list have little to do with actual history and much to do with a busy-body attitude that seeks to diminish private property rights and waste tax dollars on dubious "preservation" efforts.

In many cases, this attitude ignores real human needs. Take, for example, one entire urban neighborhood on the list: Atlanta's Sweet Auburn. There's no doubt that the neighborhood has historic significance since Martin Luther King was born and ministered to a church there. But King's birthplace has become a museum and the church -- which looks much like it did in his day -- remains an active congregation. So the Trust has turned its attention to a mostly vacant nearby commercial strip where King and his family probably shopped. Even though the neighborhood lacks a drugstore, coffee bar, supermarket, or sit-down restaurant -- all things private business might well build if preservationists didn't get in the way -- the Trust wants to "protect" it from inappropriate efforts that might bring in such amenities.

Bad as it is, the effort to "defend" Sweet Auburn's residents from the ravages of CVS and Starbucks isn't the worst item on the list. That prize has to go to an "endangered" designation placed on the Princeton New Jersey Battlefield. The battlefield is already a state park. But some local busybodies still want to prevent Princeton University from building some housing in any area near the battlefield because they believe, among other things, that soldiers en route to the battle marched across it. Really.

And some sites aren't historic by any commonly understood definition of the word. Many courthouses in rural Texas (another item on the list of "national treasures") are in poor shape but it's not clear why they're of any national significance -- most have hosted nothing beyond workaday civil and criminal trials and few are architecturally distinguished. There's no reason why Texas taxpayers should do what the trust wants and shovel millions more into "protecting" them if their own counties don't see a value in doing so. Likewise, there's no reason why a building that once housed a gym where boxer Joe Frazier trained is of any importance at all: while Frazier himself does have importance to sports history, it's not typical or expected to preserve sports figures' practice sites so tourists can visit them. They just aren't very interesting. The same goes for utterly ordinary corrugated steel warehouses in the Port of Los Angles and an unexceptional small town in Ohio. Nothing truly historic happened in either place.

In at least one case, the Trust seems to oppose the idea that people should be able to experience the history that it claims to want preserved. A ranch that Theodore Roosevelt once owned may well be a place of historic significance but the Trust wants to "protect" it from a road being build nearby that would allow more people to visit.

In fairness to the Trust, a handful of places on the list such as a house where Malcolm X once lived and a hospital that treated many immigrants on Ellis Island do seem like they're both historic and genuinely endangered. But most of the places on the list are neither endangered nor of any historic significance by any commonly used definition of the term. Things change and the mere fact that some buildings have been around for awhile shouldn't make them public property or much less require that taxpayers shell out to "save" them.