Mammon & Monuments

PrintPrintEmailEmail So are the ways of every one that is greedy of gain. —Proverbs 1:19

Buildings in America have always been imperilled by those who covet the land upon which they stand. In 1808, when the First Church of Boston, during the pastorate of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lather, sold its “Old Brick” Meetinghouse ot 1713 in Washington Street to move to Chauncy Place, the following lamentation appeared in the Independent Chronicle: If a proposition had been made in London, Paris, or Amsterdam to the society owning the First Church of either of those respectable Cities, to sell (on a principle ol speculation) their ancient edifice, it would have been spurned with indignation—the trifling profit anticipated by the sale would never have led the proprietors to have ra/cd a house of worship so well repaired as the Old Brick to gratify the rapacity of a few men who trouble society both in Church and State. After the demolition of the Old Brick, there is scarcely a vestige of antiquity in the town. We hope “Old South” will maintain its original ground. Even the British troops, though they attacked other places of worship never dared meddle with the Old Brick—for Chauncy was there.

Nevertheless the Old Brick came down, and sixtyeight years later the Old South of 1729, a few blocks down Washington Street, came within an ace of doing so. That congregation, unable to resist $400,000 ottered them, also sold their meetinghouse for demolition. This time there was a clamor too great to withstand. The Boston Tea Party had been brewed in the OhI South Meeting House; the anniversary orations commemorating the Boston Massacre were delivered there. Poets and orators mounted the stump to such purpose that the Old South Association in Boston was formell to preserve the building as a historic monument. This was the first instance in Boston—and, indeed, the first of such magnitude in the United States—where respect for the historical anJ architectural heritage of the city triumphed over the considerations of profit, expediency, laziness, and vulgar convenience.

Historic preservation has progressed extensively in the years since 1876, when the Old South was saved. Now we have gone so far in that direction that new dangers arise. Those who are “greedy of gain” today not only covet the land upon which historic buildings stand. They also seek to exploit and pervert history, or invent pseudo-history, to suit their own purposes.

When history becomes “good business,” the genuine article may be imperilled by the imitation. A special report by Stanley M. Elliott, “Historic Buildings Exposed to Connscatory Tax Danger,” in the February 18, 1962, issue of the Santa Barbara News-Press , discusses a specific California instance.

In May 1960 the Santa Barbara City Council enacted :ui ordinance to preserve historic structures in the “old town” area, and to require the architectural conformation of new buildings erected in what was designated as El Pueblo Viejo.

Now, less than two years later, two unanticipated effects have become apparent:

1. Business concerns are willing to pay high prices for sites within this premium zone, where they have the assurance of quality environment in the future . [The italics arc mine.] A lot in the Pueblo Viejo section is reported to have sold for Szgo.ooo recently.

2. Because of this rise in values, the historic landmarks themselves arc threatened with being taxed out of their ownership. It is a privilege and a distinction to possess an adobe constructed more than a century ago, but there is a limit to what even the proudest possessor can tolerate on his assessment bill.

It was the Santa Barbara Historical Society that obtained the ordinance, and is behind efforts to protect the area. The IiI Pueblo Viejo ordinance provides that within a stated area in the center of Santa Barbara no present existing building of adobe structure or of special historic or aesthetic interest or value situated within (lie area … shall he torn down, demolished or otherwise destroyed.

It further provides that any buildings thereafter constructed or altered must, conform in their exterior appearance to the “California Adobe type,” the “Montcrey type,” or “to the type of architecture generally known as ‘Spanish’ or ‘Spanish Colonial.’ ” Thus, if Kl Pueblo Vicjo has become—in the horrid phrase of the real estate world—a “premium zone,” with lots selling at a quarter of a million dollars, it can only be because it is thought that “Spanish Colonial” surroundings will seriously promote the prosperity of any business that settles there by providing “the assurance of a quality environment for the future.” Just what relevance adobe construction may have to the sale of hardware, whiskey, or insurance, to hanking, or to the Riling of teeth, is not clear, but the scramble for sites in El Pueblo Viejo indicates that the Santa Barbara business community thinks there is some. Thus, with spiralling values, the genuine elements of the region arc reported to be endangered.