Melissa Jest Reveals Preservation’s Best-Kept Secret to Saving Places
Written by Brent Leggs, Author, Preserving African American Historic Places, and Field Officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation
Sitting in the beautiful and historic St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C., sipping on a gimlet, preservation advocate Melissa Jest admires the space:“This place is a wonderful example of preservation in action.”
As we began to sip our drinks and discover the layers of history around us, Jest said: “The tools used to save St. Regis shouldn’t be kept a secret. What if local developers [from diverse communities] had the tools to bring life to vacant and fragile historic resources?”
To Jest, preservation has the potential to go to scale and increase its impact. She says cities with years of disinvestment can recover when preservation tools are used by developers at every level. As we continued to chat about preservation’s potential, I posed four questions that begin to reveal her thoughts for sustaining community character.
What tools are available for preserving neighborhoods and cities?
Generally, we point to federal and state tax credits or local policies that incentivize preservation. But I offer that people are the best preservation tools, specifically local preservation organizations. Local preservation organizations know their cities and their neighborhoods, and can connect the people needed to engineer a successful project.
Local preservation groups are able to harness the will among their members and partners and target it towards important preservation projects. Direct outreach to residents, property owners, and community groups, and subsequent educational programming creates relationships and grow the will to preserve. In fact, local emergency building programs or revolving funds embody that collective will.
These locally supported funds are incredible tools for revitalizing our neighborhood and for rebuilding our sense of community.
Can rehabbing one building in a challenged neighborhood count as sustainability?
Yes. A local revolving fund can take that one stubborn eyesore in a deteriorating neighborhood and make it the catalyst the area needs. That so-called white elephant likely stands as proof of the neighborhood’s heyday. Most times such buildings reflect the historic characteristic overlooked in the other buildings throughout the neighborhood.
A strategic investment from a revolving fund not only preserves that landmark building, but it also revives the confidence of potential developers and supporters. By seeing one building rehabbed, nearby property owners and homesteaders are inspired to repair and reinvest in their own properties. They know their property and its value will be sustained now that problem sites have come up.
When you managed the Revolving Fund program in Savannah, Georgia, how did that tool spur revitalization?
Savannah’s revolving fund leveraged the investment and participation of the local developer into other lesser known historic neighborhoods. This was the same program that saved the city’s National Historic Landmark district -- twice!
The revolving fund presents a “carrot” and spurs real investment in African-American neighborhoods. For example, in the Thomas Square neighborhood of Savannah, Ga., an early 20th-century mixed-use building loomed large within a working class neighborhood characterized by single family homes and multifamily rows. It stood out -- and not in a good way.
The Lincoln Street building became a focal point for Savannah’s revolving fund. It spurred the Lincoln Street Initiative (LSI), a preservation initiative that included the preservation of four other buildings and the construction of three compatible new houses within a four-block radius.
But the fund goes one step beyond reselling such properties by attaching legal covenants that mandate a speedy start to its rehabilitation. This “stick” differentiates this fund from other real estate ventures and makes it a historic preservation tool.
What’s your next dream project?
Neighbors usually shake their heads when they walk past the Dox Thrash House in North Philadelphia, because they can see it wasting away. But several of them stopped complaining the day local preservationists visited the buildings. You could hear the hope in their voices when they asked, “Are you going to fix it up?”
The vacant Victorian row house was the home of Dox Thrash, an innovative printmaker and key figure in Philadelphia's vibrant African-American art scene in the early and mid-20th century. Unfortunately Thrash’s studio has already been lost, and a mural commemorating the artist was destroyed by HUD contractors in 2012. So this row home is the only visible evidence of Thrash’s legacy.
Yet there’s great potential here. The Dox Thrash house sits on a historically significant corridor that is experiencing some reinvestment activity -- just enough to spur interest in this property. The potential for profitable reuse is high and seed money from local preservationists would go far. It would inspire confidence amongst those developers working in North Philadelphia, and it would revive the idea of establishing an emergency fund for Philadelphia’s local landmarks.
Most importantly, saving the Thrash house would reassure neighbors that hoping is not pointless. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is well-positioned to develop an endangered properties or revolving fund to save Philadelphia’s historic sites.
As we signal the bartender for round two, I now know her secret to rebuild communities. Jest says, “I want to encourage local preservationists from diverse communities to save places that matter to them and revitalize their neighborhoods. Resources are available and local developers can make a difference with these secrets in hand.”