Daily Archives: June 26, 2012

Historic preservation is overrated, says a guy who really needs a fact checker

Eli Lehrer wishes the National Trust for Historic Preservation would get out of everybody’s way.

While nobody disputes that certain areas do deserve preservation or the Trust has done good work in protecting them them [sic], many places on the 2012 list have little to do with actual history and much to do with a busy-body attitude that seeks to diminish private property rights and waste tax dollars on dubious “preservation” efforts.

Judging by his op-ed, I think Lehrer’s main criterion for whether a site merits protection is that it be deemed worthy and interesting by none other than Eli Lehrer:

Many courthouses in rural Texas (another item on the list of “national treasures”) are in poor shape but it’s not clear why they’re of any national significance — most have hosted nothing beyond workaday civil and criminal trials and few are architecturally distinguished. There’s no reason why Texas taxpayers should do what the trust wants and shovel millions more into “protecting” them if their own counties don’t see a value in doing so. Likewise, there’s no reason why a building that once housed a gym where boxer Joe Frazier trained is of any importance at all: while Frazier himself does have importance to sports history, it’s not typical or expected to preserve sports figures’ practice sites so tourists can visit them. They just aren’t very interesting. The same goes for utterly ordinary corrugated steel warehouses in the Port of Los Angles and an unexceptional small town in Ohio. Nothing truly historic happened in either place.

Personally, I might give his opinions more weight if he wasn’t such a sloppy and uninformed commentator.  Citing the controversy over proposed housing at Princeton Battlefield, Lehrer claims that “local busybodies still want to prevent Princeton University from building some housing in any area near the battlefield because they believe, among other things, that soldiers en route to the battle marched across it.”  In fact, it’s not Princeton University that wants to build the housing, but the Institute for Advanced Study, which is completely independent of the university.

More importantly, the Princeton Battlefield Society has identified the portion of the field in question as core battlefield land.  Indeed, the very PBS document to which Lehrer links in his “local busybodies” quote identifies the parcel as such.  Is it too much to ask that an op-ed writer read a little about the subject of his piece, especially that he read the documents to which he refers directly?

Lehrer also writes that the Princeton battlefield is “already a state park.”  The implication that historic sites are out of harm’s way once they receive designation as a park betrays ignorance of a seemingly obvious point.  Such sites do not contain all the historic ground relating to a particular event.  They only contain what preservationists and agencies have been able to acquire.  The existence of a battlefield park only means that part of a given battlefield has obtained protected status, not that all the ground on which the battle took place is within the boundaries of a park.  Even land within park boundaries is not immune from the traffic congestion, ruined viewsheds, and other problems that come with encroachment.  In some cases, parcels of historic parks aren’t even contiguous, but instead are separated by other parcels of land over which park agencies have no control.

Preservation doesn’t have to be all or nothing.  We can have informed, reasonable discussions about this stuff—but we can’t do it with people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Princeton Battlefield. By Daderot (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation