May 12, 2015

How to Save a Place: Do Your Research, Know the Threat

Our special toolkit series on how to save a place has touched on why historic places matter and how to manage your personal expectations for a preservation project. Now that you’re in the right mindset, it’s time to take your first steps towards actually saving the historic place that matters to you.

First, you’ll need to do your research on exactly what makes your place historically significant and understand the threats to your site’s long-term survival. These 12 tips will help you develop a strong foundation on which to build your preservation efforts.

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Look around the area for other buildings that could offer clues about the history of the property you are trying to save.

Start with the basics.

Before diving straight into official records, take a look at the site with fresh eyes and understand it within the context of its surroundings.

  • Know the basics about the property. If you don’t already know if it is a designated historic structure, you can check with your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) or other local preservation office. Also, identify any political boundaries or districts that impact the site.
  • Look closely at the property. Leftover building materials can tell you how old the property might be. Closets are great places to uncover clues like old wallpaper or paint -- certain paper patterns or color-schemes can be traced back to a popular period style.
  • Talk to neighbors, local business owners, even the local mailman. People who have spent significant time around a place can often tell you things that printed resources cannot.
  • Explore the neighborhood. Are there other older properties that look similar? How does your property fit in -- for example, does it face a different way? It could have been built on land that was once a farm while the rest of the neighborhood was built later.
  • Learn the history of the area. Was it the scene of a battle? Was another nearby building designed by a noted architect? Answering these questions can offer important clues to the property’s history.

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Property records, census data, tract maps, buildings permits, and other documents can contain important historic information about your site.

Hit the official research resources.

Once you’ve done your homework, go one level deeper with many accessible documents that will help you understand the full extent of your site’s significance.

  • Research land and property records. A simple title search can tell you who owned the property and when. Tax records can tell you how the property has changed over time. Many city or county records offices also have Sanborn maps, which can date back to the 19th century.
  • Consult local census data. If the property is a home, census records can tell you more about the lives of previous owners, such as the number of children in the house, cost of the home, whether the home had a radio, and more.
  • Stop by your local public library and look for a city directory -- a precursor to the modern phone book -- which might offer more details on a previous use or earlier occupants. Other useful documents include tract maps, building permits, and deeds.
  • Contact your local historical society. Ask to see old photographs they might have of the site or the surrounding land, historical maps of the area, or newspapers with specific articles that reference history of the area.

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Making sure you focus your efforts on the primary threat is critical to the success of your preservation project.

Know the threat at hand.

Once you know the historical significance of the place you’d like to save, it’s important to understand just how it is threatened.

  • Outline the issues. Is the threat decay? Development? A combination of both? Or something else entirely? The place you’re trying to save might have multiple issues, so identify and list all of them to help create a comprehensive plan.
  • Prioritize the primary threat. It may sound simple, but making sure you identify and address the most immediate threat first is critical for success. Sometimes you’ll need to leave more exciting work like holding a heart bomb event for later and focus on mundane but important tasks like filling out paperwork or performing legal research.
  • Research others’ successes and failures. Identify other preservation projects that faced the same issues as yours, and talk to participants about hidden challenges and best practices concerning certain threats. Learning from the experience of others will boost your effectiveness and also save time and effort.

Now that you have a full understanding of your site’s historical significance and the threats facing it, you’ll be able to develop a much more holistic plan for how to save it for the long term. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more information on how to save a place.

Adapted from 10 Steps to Start Saving Places and 10 Ways to Research Your Home’s History.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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