Historic act turns 50

Published 12:45 pm Thursday, October 6, 2016

A disturbing number of the rustic 19th-century farmhouses, quaint dry goods emporiums and fascinatingly grimy automotive garages I remember from childhood have, over the years, burned down or met with a wrecking ball.

I’m reminiscing over these structures because Oct.15 marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which created the National Register of Historic Places.

Contrary to popular belief, a listing on the Register does not guarantee that a property will never be demolished or renovated beyond recognition.

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It’s a symbolic acknowledgment that comes with certain tax incentives; but most of the “heavy lifting” is turned over to states and municipalities, which have their own zoning restrictions and historical preservation grants.

Of course the usual “red state, blue state” culture differences make some projects a harder “sell” in different states.

For instance, in one state you might hear, “Yes, a major slave revolt took place here in 1835, but the slaves failed to post a copy of the Ten Commandments on their website, so…”

And in another state you might hear, “Yes, a prolific ragtime composer did most of his work in this brownstone; but he failed to consider the impact of his music on the mating rituals of the hairy-eared, double-uvula salamander, so…”

There are more than one million properties on the National Register. Many of them are Frank Lloyd Wright houses. There should probably also be a plaque that declares, “Home of the only average American who can name an architect other than Frank Lloyd Wright.”

The stereotypical historical site is an inn claiming, “George Washington Slept Here.” After enduring umpteen dubious claims of “George Washington Slept Here,” one can only hope for a sign proclaiming, “George Washington was treated for narcolepsy here.”

Red tape abounds, but any individual can nominate a property for listing on the Register. This populist touch can lead to some really wild results if there’s a lapse in the vetting process. Watch out for plaques that begin, “Bigfoot conducted an alien autopsy as part of an Illuminati bake sale on this site…”

Surprisingly, as a general rule, cemeteries, birthplaces and moved structures are not eligible for the Federal Register. Ditto for properties used for religious purposes, reconstructed properties and properties that have gained historical significance only in the last 50 years.

Of course that raises questions about the exceptions, such as the six-week-old LEGO version of a mosque. (“Hey, I just work here. All I know is Bill Clinton discussed golf and grandchildren on a plane with my boss.”)

The National Park Service administers the National Register (which may explain the deer and antelope playing in otherwise inconspicuous opera houses).Sometimes inadequate staffing leads to embarrassing situations, such as the plaque that announced, “On this site in 1964, Sonny “One Lip” DiMarco entered the Federal Witness Protection Program after testifying against the Mob. What? He still lives here? BOOOOM! My bad.”

As ISIS continues its campaign of destroying archaeological sites and antiquity museums, we as Americans should embrace the intangible benefits of staying close to our history.

Maybe we could even enhance the experience by installing interactive electronic plaques that announce, “On this site, Junior is about to get smacked upside the head for staring at his handheld device instead of spending two lousy minutes looking at a law office used by one of America’s Founding Fathers. Three…two…one…”


Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at tyreetyrades@aol.com and visits to his Facebook fan page, “Tyree’s Tyrades.”