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HER WORLD

Untangling historic sites' lifelines

September 07, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

I get depressed when I visit a run-down place that has rich historic or cultural significance. It's even worse when such a site, from the Buddhist cliff sculptures in Afghanistan's Bamian Valley to the classic midcentury modern Mapes Hotel in Reno, is destroyed, never again to light up the past, as dead to the world as an extinct animal species.

The reasons for losses are myriad, preservationists say: natural disaster, conflict, a decrease in funds to protect places we might miss someday. The Mapes, for instance, was imploded with much fanfare in 2000, despite efforts by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It became a dirt lot.

Fortunately, there are happier stories of endangered places saved, such as Wentworth by the Sea. This grand 19th century hotel, one of the largest wooden structures on the coast of New Hampshire and a popular place for Victorian-era beach vacations, was rescued from demolition and started renting out rooms again in the spring.

For this and other successes we can thank a variety of public and private organizations devoted to historic and cultural preservation. All do good work, but it may be hard to keep them straight. What, for instance, is the difference between the National Register of Historic Places and the National Trust for Historic Preservation? Who put the plaque on the house next door, and what does it signify?

Even states and towns have their own preservation groups.

At the top of the food chain is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, which, besides designating about 400 areas of ecological significance as World Biosphere Reserves, oversees the efforts of the World Heritage Committee to preserve important cultural and natural landmarks.

As with most preservation programs, the central task of the committee, mandated by a 1972 intergovernmental convention, is recognizing invaluable places and providing them with technical advice and financial assistance when available. Its current list of World Heritage Sites totals 754 properties, nominated for inclusion by the country in which they are located.

A place such as Yellowstone National Park can be a World Biosphere Reserve and Heritage Site if it is of environmental, natural and cultural importance. Yellowstone also made the committee's 35-entry list of World Heritage in Danger, partly because of concerns about contamination from nearby mining projects. The park was removed from this less desirable roster in July.

Designation by such entities as the World Heritage Committee is a sought-after honor that can enhance fund-raising and tourism. Inclusion on most endangered lists, however, is sometimes thought to have the reverse effect, and governments of some countries therefore resist, says Angela Schuster of the World Monuments Fund, or WMF. Preservation efforts of this private organization, which has headquarters in New York, parallel, in some ways, those of UNESCO.

Besides investing in on-the-ground preservation work at such places as the temples of Angkor, Cambodia, the WMF keeps its own biennial list of the 100 most endangered sites.

"You don't want to be on this list," Schuster says. "It's not an honor." The current list includes a handful of places in the U.S., including the architecturally fragile mission church of San Juan Capistrano.

In the U.S., the chief historical site designation entities are the government-mandated and -funded National Register of Historic Places and National Historic Landmarks program, both administered by the National Park Service. Carol Shull, who manages them, says the register -- about 7,700 listings strong -- includes sites, structures and objects of national, state and local importance, assessed for inclusion by preservation officers and committees.

"Our 2,364 National Historic Landmarks are considered of exceptional significance in illustrating the nation's history," Shull says. "They are designated by the Secretary of the Interior." For instance, Mount Vernon, Va., is a landmark, but that beautiful old Victorian next door, whose importance is primarily local, would be listed only on the national register.

Neither of these programs should be confused with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private Washington, D.C., nonprofit founded in 1949. It works to save landmarks in a variety of ways, beginning by issuing an annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. This year's most endangered sites include Eero Saarinen's 1962 TWA Terminal at JFK International Airport in New York, the Little Manila ethnic district in Stockton, Calif., and Zuni Salt Lake and Sanctuary Zone in western New Mexico, where a strip mine threatens a landscape sacred to six Native American tribes.

The trust has been instrumental in preserving and maintaining 23 sites, from the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Ill., to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, though most are owned and operated by other organizations.

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