My affection for history was fostered by places and buildings; it’s very material. And while I appreciate and am often awed by nature, I find the built landscape more accessible–and instructive. I’ve been an ardent preservationist since my teens, and am just passionate (geeky) enough to actually anticipate the release of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual Most Endangered Places list every year. Yesterday brought the big announcement of this year’s list, which includes two New England properties with which I am familiar and nine more which I’m eager to see (most of them anyway, before they disappear). I have helped to create similar lists for our local preservation organization, Historic Salem, Inc., and if our deliberations are any indication, this list is the result of an intensive process: you have to choose places that are threatened but are not too far gone, that possess the potential for recovery, there are always political factors involved, and historical and/or cultural significance has to be readily apparent. I’m sure the National Trust also has to take into account regional representation, as their Most Endangered Places are generally spread all over the U.S. map.
New England Most Endangered Places: Gay Head Lighthouse, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and the Abyssinian Meeting House, Portland Maine.
The Gay Head Light, Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, is threatened by erosion: it’s about 10 feet away from falling over the cliff. It’s wooden predecessor was faced with the same threat in 1844, and this brick structure, outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens, dates from the 1850s.
The Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, Maine was built in 1828 to serve as a school and assembly house for Portland’s African-American community, and it also served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. It is the third oldest African-American meeting house in the country, which is amazing to me given its northern location. If you visit the Abyssinian Restoration Project website, you will see that an intensive preservation effort is ongoing; all they lack is resources.
Properties threatened by Development: The Village of Mariemont, Ohio, and the James River, Virginia.
The Village of Mariemont in Ohio, a Tudor Revival planned community built in the 1920s, is threatened by highway construction. Of all the threats to historic structures, infrastructure development bothers me the most, because it is often short-sighted. Salem was faced with the threat of a road running down its historic center in the 1960s which was fortunately averted; I thought Urban Renewal had ended.
The historic places that line its shores–Jamestown, Williamsburg, and a host of plantations–have given the James River the name “America’s Founding River”. Apparently “inappropriate development” threatens this region now. I’ll take the National Trust’s word on this, but I wish they were a bit more specific about the threat.
Most of the places on the list are quite modern, including Houston’s Astrodome, the Worldport at JFK Airport in New York, and several mid-twentieth-century buildings–all of which face demolition. By contrast, the oldest building on the list and one of the oldest buildings in North America, the San José Church (1523) in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is threatened by the deterioration that comes with time. The notes on its Historic American Buildings Survey record indicate that it was “in need of extensive repairs” in 1935, so you can imagine its condition now.
The Church of San José in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, built by the Dominican Order in 1523. Black and white photographs from the Historic American Buildings Survey (1935), Library of Congress.