Preservationists, it’s a two-way street
February 21, 2014
As I was working in Calanan Park today, I thought about the hard work and years of effort many of you have put into protecting and maintaining Nevada City's historic charm. As a result, we have a very picturesque historic district ably representing the "Queen of the Northern Mines." Thank you for your work.
We can all step back and admire the collection of Gold Rush buildings, but while looking, we should realize the vibrancy of the town derives from more than the preservation of structures. The town is a living place, not a museum. The creativity and enterprise of many different groups and individuals have made it the lively community it is today. The historic district is vitally important to the identity and economic success of the town, but it serves no purpose without the community functioning within and around it. It's a community task to keep this collection of buildings relevant and useful in the future.
Right now, what I see is a number of (mostly) "old-timers" who are very fearful that all their hard work is going to be squandered. Minor additions to the streetscape, like the boardwalk, are described as a "slippery slope" leading to rampant modernization. Stop. Take a breath. A deck is just a deck. Think back and ask, "For whom did I save these buildings?" Presumably, it was for future generations.
The Nevada City Historic Ordinance was created in 1968 to protect the Gold Rush identity of the town and encourage heritage tourism. To further this goal, in 1985, the City's Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The town would look very different today if it weren't for those actions of the past. It is worth noting, however, that entry in the national register is not the same thing as designation as a historic landmark. The register is a centralized data bank of historical information about buildings, districts and other cultural resources "worthy of preservation." It provides historians with detailed information, gives communities opportunities to apply for federal tax credits and grants and aids in planning matters in order to protect the "contributing" resources listed there. The National Park Service Office of Historic Preservation, which administers the register program, anticipates rehabilitation of buildings and districts for modern uses and provides standards and guidelines for needed changes. Contrary to what many think, they do not prohibit modern street furniture, public art and murals, bike racks or other manifestations of contemporary society, although they encourage additions to be respectful of the historic surroundings.
Younger people are joining the movement because they are interested in revitalizing downtowns; decreasing dependence on cars; and creating safe, interesting and walkable cities.
Parts of Nevada City's historic zoning ordinance conflict with some of OHP's standards. Most notably, Nevada City's zoning requires new construction and additions to conform to "Mother Lode" architecture. The Mother Lode is a distinct geographical area running from Georgetown south to Mariposa. Nevada City is in the "Northern Mines" area.
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In any case, the OHP standards require new additions and construction to complement and defer to the style of historic significance, not to faithfully replicate it or pose it as authentically historical. By insisting on adherence to architecture of the Gold Rush era exclusively, Nevada City is eliminating the possibility of new construction in a modern style (which in time becomes historical) like the City Hall and county courthouse. These "Art Moderne" structures, both built in 1937, are listed in the register as "contributing" cultural resources of the historic district.
The coming years are shaping up as a new era in preservation. Throughout the world, environmentalists, sustainability teams and economic development groups are joining forces with historical societies and other preservationists to determine the best ways to move forward. Younger people are joining the movement because they are interested in revitalizing downtowns; decreasing dependence on cars; and creating safe, interesting and walkable cities.
So, preservationists, if you want your work to survive, invite the newer generations to work with you and learn from you. But it's a two-way street — you need to listen, too.
Miriam Morris lives in Nevada City.