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In the Name of Culture and History, If It's Broke, Fix It

Preservation: World Monuments Fund name 100 historical sites needing repair, but only 34 will get grants so far.


Etz Hayim is falling down.

And Etz Hayim, a synagogue on the Greek island of Crete that hasn't been restored since damages suffered during World War II, is far from alone. It is No. 33 on a new listing of the world's 100 most endangered historic sites.

The list was drawn up after nominations and review by worldwide experts enlisted by a 30-year-old New York-based nonprofit group known as the World Monuments Fund, and is to be updated annually under a program known as World Monuments Watch.

There are, of course, a lot of best, worst, most and least lists around these days. But the World Monuments Fund 100 is different from many of those. Though one can quibble with these experts' choices, their motive--preservation of fading cultures--is just about impossible to argue with. And beyond that, the program carries a built-in follow-through. On June 23, three months after disclosing its first 100 list, the World Monuments Fund joined with a handful of corporate and philanthropic donors to announce that 34 of the endangered sites have been selected to receive grants for a combined $1,375,000 in preservation projects. Among the 34 is Etz Hayim, which will get $40,000.

The organization's panel of eight experts in architecture, archeology, tourism and conservation, who received 253 site nominations from 70 nations, reported that they selected "not necessarily the most important places . . . but those with the best opportunities . . . of obtaining significant results through prompt action."

The U.S. sites on the list of 100: Golden Gate Park Conservatory in San Francisco; the adobe missions of New Mexico; Chaco Culture National Historic Park, New Mexico; Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia; Ellis Island National Monument (which will get a $25,000 grant), New York; Holy Ascension Russian Orthodox Church, Unalaska, Alaska; and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans.

World Monuments Fund Executive Director Bonnie Burnham says the organization and sponsors are still deciding how next year's expert panel will evaluate newly nominated sites against locations named this year.

This year's 34 grant-receiving sites, like the 100 "endangered" locations from which they were selected, are a mixture of the familiar and the obscure. Eight sites are in the Americas, 16 in Europe, five in Asia, three in the Middle East, two in Africa. (The pollution-threatened Taj Mahal, possibly the world's most famous nonhuman victim of poor air quality, is No. 37 among the sites, but not a grant recipient.)

Their maladies are various. The San Ignacio Mini mission complex in San Ignacio, Argentina (No. 2), named to receive $20,000, is troubled by vulnerability to rain, encroaching vegetation and increased sewage drainage from the area's booming population. Prozna Street (No. 75) in the old Jewish district of Warsaw, named to receive one grant of $60,000 and another of $25,000, was looted and left to disintegrate during Poland's Communist era and suffers structural unsoundness. In New Orleans, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (No. 96 on the list), which dates back to 1833, is plagued by vandalism, poor maintenance and humidity It is to receive $20,000.

This list is something for every traveler to think about before pocketing a pebble, scrambling over an old wall. There's no doubt that in many of these cases, tourists and the entrepreneurs who lure them are helping to trample into dust the very attractions that set a culture apart and inspire travel in the first place. In Petra, Jordan (No. 53), where pre-Christian empire-builders carved a city from pink sandstone cliffs, the World Monuments Fund cites a severe lack of conservation equipment, but it's also true that lackadaisical security allows visitors to clamber unrestrained on decaying rock carvings.

Given all that, it's interesting that American Express, global facilitator of tourism, is the program's dominant donor, having handed over $1 million to 20 sites as part of a five-year, $5-million commitment that is the largest single donation in the company's history. ("Tourism is not a danger" to historical sites and the natural environment, American Express Chairman and CEO Harvey Golub has said. "Insensitive tourism is a danger.")

Another $281,000 (covering 12 sites) has come from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation (a charitable offshoot of the nationwide retail operation); several others have contributed smaller amounts. In most cases, grant amounts will cover only initial costs--site surveys or inventories, for instance--and sustained efforts will be needed to complete restoration.

So far, Burnham reports no substantial complaints from any government officials about the list. In at least one case--the Church of Jesus Nazareno (No. 58), just outside Mexico's town of San Miguel de Allende--Burnham says local government officials stepped forward to say they would match any contribution from the sponsors of the "endangered" list. When the grants were announced in late June, the church turned up among American Express' target sites, slated to receive $20,000.

For information on World Monuments Watch, write the World Monuments Fund, 949 Park Ave., New York, NY 10028.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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